When executives at CNN's Headline News met with Glenn Beck about hosting a show, the conservative radio talker was blunt: “First thing I said was, 'This is going to be the shortest meeting in TV history. I'm not interested.” Even after they had persuaded him and the show had debuted, Beck challenged his radio listeners to bet on when it would be cancelled.
“I'm not a TV guy,” says Beck, 42. “Radio is what I do. It is me.”
Since its debut in May, Glenn Beck has proved that its host is at home in TV. Blending opinion, topical interviews and humor bits that draw on Beck's radio roots, the show has posted the fastest ratings gain in cable news, even winning in the key 25-54 demo one night last month with a special on Islamic radicalism.
A radio devotee since his eighth birthday, when his mother gave him an LP compilation of classic broadcasts, Beck first hit the air by winning a local contest at age 13 and soon began working at stations around his native Seattle.
He went on to a successful career as a Top 40 DJ in major markets like Phoenix and Houston. But by the mid '90s, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, he grew disillusioned with radio.
He spent a semester studying theology at Yale but soon rekindled his love for radio when he subbed as a talk host on WABC in New York. “I suddenly realized: I've been in the wrong format,” he recalls. In January 2000, he moved to WFLA(AM) Tampa, Fla., to launch The Glenn Beck Program, a mix of conservative opinion and radio high jinks. Within 18 months, the program jumped from 18th place to No. 1 in the market.
The show went national in 2001 through Premiere Radio Networks. It now airs on more than 200 stations and is the No. 3 talk program among adults 25-54, behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Premiere President/COO Kraig Kitchin says Beck resonates with listeners by talking to them “one person at a time” about his own failings (sober since 1995, Beck has remarried and become a Mormon). “Glenn very openly talks about how this is his second try in life,” Kitchin says.
When Headline News was looking to fill out its new long-form primetime lineup, CNN Worldwide Executive VP Ken Jautz was convinced that Beck “had a unique brand of talk” and that “he could translate that into television.”
Rather than put a camera in the Radio City Music Hall studio where he now does his radio broadcasts, Beck infuses his TV show with radio elements, from the phony sponsors (“Hezbollaerobics...because no one fears a tubby terrorist!”) that kick off each hour to the vintage radio paraphernalia that adorn the set.
Reminiscent of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (former Daily producer Evan Cutler is a Beck staffer), the humor bits off-set Beck's impassioned monologues.
“It's so much easier to be all credible and serious or [all] Jon Stewart,” Beck says. “I believe there is a new place for television and radio that is the fusion of those two. We're trying to do it.”
Striving for media ubiquity
Not everyone is amused. Liberal media watchdogs routinely call his remarks incendiary, as when he recently told Representative-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim congressman, that he felt compelled to ask him to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”
Currently on his third annual national Christmas tour, Beck thrives on meeting his audiences in person. But like his inspiration Orson Welles (whose Mercury Theatre is the namesake of Beck's production company), he aspires to reach people through several media, including a Website that clocks 1.4 million unique visitors a month and a subscription-based humor magazine called Fusion.
“I don't know how you can survive in today's media world just being on radio, just being on television,” Beck says. “You've got to be ubiquitous.