Glenn Beck is big business.
Two years after leaving Fox News, Beck’s radio show is among the top ranked of anyone in political talk, the independent news network he launched has been picked up by Dish Network and several cable distributors, and he’s busy selling fans everything from best-selling books to jeans from his clothing line.
Glenn Beck’s final sign-off
Beck, 49, is using the creative freedom of not being shackled to someone else’s network to take what’s been dubbed his “media performance art” to new levels lately — like when he reenacted the notorious baseball bat scene from “The Untouchables” to make a point about the Obama administration — but some observers say that becoming more of an entertainment force has meant diminished political impact for the conservative host.
“That does change the political influence you have, when you broaden out to be an entertainment commodity,” said University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein, calling him a “right-wing Garrison Keillor.”
“You bring in money, but you don’t have the role of lightning rod, catalyst, political icon, that he sort of once had,” Feldstein added. “I certainly don’t think he’s in the zeitgeist now the way he was. I think in terms of the effect on political discourse, it’s diminished.”
Relishing the running room he has at his own independent network, TheBlaze, Beck has also recently: Sheathed his fingers in condoms to mock the tampon earrings worn by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry in the wake of the Texas abortion battle and used a faux French accent as he painted a “masterpiece” dubbed “Obama in Pee Pee” – a mason jar filled with yellow liquid and a dashboard Obama figure.
While Beck dramatically warns listeners that “we are living in Biblical times” and “we are at the end,” it’s clear he’s preparing for anything but. Those who work with him at his news network, TheBlaze, say Beck is well on his way to building a massive, multiplatform media company as the network aims to become a fully distributed cable, satellite and telecommunications company.
Beck departed Fox in June 2011 and just three months later launched his own conservative and libertarian network. Today, TheBlaze — originally named GBTV — features 43 hours of original programming each week and is available via internet streaming, on Dish nationally, and through more than 15 operators, including Cablevision’s Optimum TV service in the New York metropolitan area.
On the radio, his nationally syndicated show ranks third among political talkers, behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, with over 7.5 million listeners per week, according to Talkers magazine’s latest ratings. Beck regularly interviews big-name political guests from the right, and in recent weeks has featured Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. As an author, his fiction and nonfiction works often hit the New York Times Bestsellers list. (This year, Beck made $90 million, according to Forbes, and ranked number 34 the magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful celebrities.)
“Glenn has never been a guy, at least in my time with him, who has accepted the norm,” said Joel Cheatwood, the president and chief content officer of TheBlaze. “A good idea is really not good enough. It’s got to be a really great idea. A big idea should be bigger. And he’s always, in a good way, pushing all of us to take our ideas to the next level. And he usually comes in with one that’s 15 stories above where we’ve been.”
“It’s just the way his mind works, and it works that way constantly,” Cheatwood, previously a senior vice president at CNN and Fox News, told POLITICO. “To say he’s two or three or four years ahead of the game would be probably to minimize the true impact of his thought process.”
Beck’s friend Mary Matalin — editor at large for Threshold Editions, the conservative publishing imprint at Simon & Schuster that has published Beck — praised him as having “no preconceived ‘boxes’ limiting his creativity. He trusts his instincts, his gut. He is fearless.”
The show host also has his fans in Congress, including Paul, who said in a statement to POLITICO that “Beck connects, in a very visceral way, with those who believe in Constitutional government. Glenn’s influence goes beyond the political as he understands that the very root of our crisis is spiritual. Likely, no other broadcaster in America attracts as fervent a following.”
Beck’s innovative, entrepreneurial spirit is what drives his production company, Mercury Radio Arts, and TheBlaze to take risks that others in the media business would shy away from, those close to him say. “He lets all of us experiment and try things,” TheBlaze’s Buck Sexton said, likening the organization’s vibe to a “start-up” company.
Just take a look at just a few of his moves. Create a jeans line? Sure. Beck designed 1791 Denim jeans that debuted in October. Team up with a Hollywood star to produce a reality show? Why not? Beck and Vince Vaughn’s program, “Pursuit of the Truth,” pits documentary filmmakers against each other as they compete for financing and distribution for their film will debut this fall. Host a three-day extravaganza in Salt Lake City ending with the performance of an original show? Of course. Beck performed his “Man in the Moon” extravaganza complete with dancers, music, fireworks and a robot to a sold-out audience in July.
In his combined daily four hours on TV and the radio, Beck, who declined to be interviewed for this story, often focuses intensely on a single topic, delivering long monologues – sometimes sparking controversy.
For weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, Beck portrayed an injured Saudi national student as someone involved in the attack, although law enforcement sources had said he was only a witness and then-Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate hearing it had been a case of an innocent person being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.”