Five and a half hours before showtime Glenn Beck still isn't quite sure how he'll provide tonight's entertainment, "The Future of History" — two hours of monologue (and answers to preselected questions) before a nearly sellout crowd of 1,000 or so people at the Nokia Theatre in New York City's Times Square. "But that's me — I'm the next-event guy," says Beck, flanked by two bodyguards as he walks the four blocks between the Fox News Channel studio, where he has pretaped the day's show, and the theater. He won't have to create tonight's performance from scratch, since he's left a long trail of words — millions of passionate, angry, weepy, moralizing, corny, offensive words — in his wake. "The body of work is pretty much the same," explains Beck, 46. "What I'm trying to do is get this message out about self-empowerment, entrepreneurial spirit and true Americanism — the way we were when we changed the world, when Edison was alone, failing his 2,000th time on the lightbulb."
At the theater he runs through images that will appear on one of three projectors behind him. There's David Sarnoff (the NBC founder), Philo Farnsworth (the early television pioneer) and someone Beck can't quite place but, he assures the handful of staffers dancing around him, will remember by the time the curtain goes up. "Does anyone know how many minutes of high-def TV equal one gigabyte?" Onstage Beck paces like a comic Hamlet, eyes bulging every time he figures out how to weave the props (stalks of corn, a chalkboard, a cockatoo he rented for $750 a night) he has ordered into the monologue.
He could rattle off the overarching themes in a deep sleep. He starts with the construction of the Manhattan skyline, using replicas of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as visual aids. Then he moves on to the birth of radio and TV. Theme: thinking big, creating the American dream. He will work in several plugs for tonight's featured offering, a Web subscription service called Insider Extreme ($75 a year for behind-the-scenes footage, a fourth hour of his radio show, ten-minute history lessons and so on). "I can multitask like crazy," says Beck. "I'm riddled with ADD — a blessing and a curse."
His hyperactivity is a blessing and a curse for his 34 full-time staffers, too, who chase after Beck and his volcanic mental eruptions, helping him turn those words into new productions and sources of profit. Glenn Beck Inc., formally known as Mercury Radio Arts (after Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air), pulled in $32 million in revenue during the 12 months ended Mar. 1. You may love or hate him for his outlandish words, but that is how he gets an audience — and sometimes repels advertisers. Some classic Beckisms: "This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" (2009). "Al Gore's not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. It is the same tactic, however. The goal is different. The goal is globalization" (2007). "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself or if I would need to hire somebody to do it" (2005).
With a deadpan, Beck insists that he is not political: "I could give a flying crap about the political process." Making money, on the other hand, is to be taken very seriously, and controversy is its own coinage. "We're an entertainment company," Beck says. He has managed to monetize virtually everything that comes out of his mouth. He gets $13 million a year from print (books plus the ten-issue-a-year magazine Fusion). Radio brings in $10 million. Digital (including a newsletter, the ad-supported Glennbeck.com and merchandise) pulls in $4 million. Speaking and events are good for $3 million and television for $2 million. Over several days in mid-March Beck allowed a reporter to follow him through his multimedia incarnations, with one exception, his 5 p.m. daily show on Fox News, which attracts just under 3 million viewers. (FORBES has a relationship with that channel via Forbes on Fox.)
By now everyone knows Beck's curriculum vitae — at least, the hideous details (which he doesn't hide) of his drug and alcohol addictions and the pettiness of firing an assistant for supplying a pen he didn't like for signing autographs. In the popular mythology his career was born twice: first after Sept. 11 (his national radio show, The Glenn Beck Program, launched officially in January 2002); then again when Barack Obama was inaugurated (his Fox News show first aired two days before, on Jan. 19, 2009). The summary omits a few details of his climb to fame and, more important, to fortune.
Raised in Mount Vernon, Wash., just north of Seattle, Beck received a present from his mother on his eighth birthday that changed his life: a record collection of Depression- and World War II-era radio productions. When he wasn't putting on magic shows, Beck imitated radio voices into a handheld recorder. At 13 he won a contest that got him a guest gig on Mount Vernon's a.m. station, KBRC. Two years later his life began to unravel after his mother, an alcoholic, died in a boating accident that Beck has since judged a suicide. He started drinking and smoking a lot of pot. "I had convinced myself that I was going to repeat my mother's life, that it was all genetic," he recalls. "It gave me permission to get even worse." By age 18 he was crisscrossing the country, serving as a Top 40 deejay in markets that took him to Provo, Utah; Washington, D.C.; Louisville, Ky.; Phoenix; Houston; Baltimore; and New Haven, Conn., where he cratered.
Married, with two kids, Beck barely held things together; ratings at New Haven's KC101 were sinking, and his salary and responsibilities were being slashed. "Every single minute of every single day was a struggle for me," he says. His worst moment: blacking out at night, then breakfasting the next morning with his kids when "they said, 'Dad, Dad, that was the best one ever, tell us that (nighttime) story again.' I realized that not only could I not remember the story, I didn't even remember tucking them in." Beck took himself to Alcoholics Anonymous. But he credits Tania, his second wife, whom he met three or four years later, for pulling him out of the deep ditch. At her insistence they shopped around for a church and became Mormons.
In the late 1990s (Beck is fuzzy on dates), while filling in as a talk radio host at WABC in New York City, Beck got a lucky call from media agent George Hiltzik, who had been tipped off by the program director. Beck told him he had an offer to do talk radio in Tampa. Hiltzik was impressed with Beck's passion — and his urge to make a lot of money. They cut a deal with WFLA in Tampa, and in early 2000 Beck headed south. Within a week or so he read a story about parents who had built a tree house for a child with leukemia and were fighting the homeowners' association that claimed the structure violated height restrictions. Could he do the broadcast from the tree house? He was off and running.
Mercury Radio Arts, formed in 2002, holds all the pieces of Beck's media dominions, managing the live performances and producing (or co-producing) the radio and TV broadcasts and everything on the Web. At the center is Christopher Balfe, the 31-year-old president of Mercury. He first flung himself at Beck 14 years ago in New Haven after the radio host announced on the air he needed someone to build a Web site. Balfe juggled high school, then college (University of Connecticut), while working for Beck. When the "Pasty Patriot" headed for Tampa, Balfe went to work for Accenture, consulting for the likes of RCA and the U.S. Air Force. In 2003 Beck lured him back to expand the company beyond the radio show, offering a 70 percent pay cut and no benefits. How could he resist? "There's only one Glenn," says Balfe.
But not nearly enough staffers, apparently. Every day Balfe meets with the division heads and gathers the larger group on Monday afternoons to review their plans and to make sure they're all on message — and cross-promoting the hell out of one another's projects. Chris' brother Kevin, 35, runs the publishing unit and coauthors Beck's books; their mom, Patricia, sorts and responds to fan mail (and hate mail, prominently displayed on the Web site) and passes along news tips to producers. Hiltzik's son Matthew is Beck's personal publicist. Carolyn Polke, Mercury's digital czar, also came from Accenture; Richard Bonn, who runs the tour division, moved over from Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates The Glenn Beck Program. Steven (Stu) Burguiere, the radio executive producer and sidekick, has been with Beck for more than a decade. Like many employees, Burguiere started out as an intern with little relevant experience. Beck likes them that way since they tend to come at things with a fresh perspective.
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Chris Balfe has two goals: building on existing businesses and creating new ones. "We have 400 radio stations; we could have 500. We sold 3 million books last year; we could try to sell 4 million or 5 million. We have 5 million (monthly unique visitors) on Glennbeck.com; we could have 10 million." Balfe is constantly prowling for new stuff. "The Insider Extreme is an example that didn't exist two weeks ago and is now core to a lot of the things that we're trying to do," says Balfe. Overseeing it all is Beck himself. "I think I drive everybody nuts," Beck says. "I care about the paper [the book is printed] on, I work with the director of the TV show on lighting and camera angles and the boxing of the show. I am instrumental in the writing of the theme song of the radio show ... and the music behind the documentaries on the Internet."
How do the different pieces work?
Start with publishing, the most lucrative unit. Kevin Balfe keeps a spreadsheet of every new idea Beck blurts out. At last count there were 17 — fiction, nonfiction and self-help — that survived a vetting; that doesn't include 10 or so potentially marketable thoughts Beck dropped during a semiannual skull session with his publisher, Simon & Schuster, earlier this year. Most of his six published books — each hit the New York Times bestseller list, with five debuting at No. 1 — have grown out of some other performance or activity. The first, "The Real America: Messages from the Heart and the Heartland" (2003), came to him on the bus between several rallies he staged to show solidarity with the U.S. military on the eve of the Iraq invasion. "Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government" (2009), a diatribe against unions, health care, progressivism and so on, emerged from his radio and TV shows. His tribute to Thomas Paine, "Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government" (2009), seemed to Beck, who wrote it over several 2 a.m. fits of energy, to have little commercial possibility; he planned to release it anonymously on the Web. Simon & Schuster disagreed and got the book on shelves in roughly 12 weeks, where it climbed to the top of the charts.
Ideas feed off one another. "The Christmas Sweater" (2008) is a quasi-autobiographical account of Beck's troubled childhood told through a 12-year-old named Eddie. Beck has turned the effort into books for adults and kids, along with a traveling stage show simulcast in 450-plus movie theaters. After a live performance in Salt Lake City in December 2008 he told his staff to take a seat. With a sweat-drenched towel still wrapped around his neck, Beck described a story that will one day appear on bookshelves, something he'd cooked up while onstage. "It downloaded in my head during this scene," he recalls, "and I could have given my right arm for a pencil." Beck acknowledges he wasn't taking his medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at the time (he rarely does on tour, he says). "I bet you it's safe to say I lose 20 percent of what goes on in my head because I'm currently doing something else, and I can't stop to write it down." Adds Chris Balfe, "Thank God."
Radio is Beck's third lung — and the second-largest generator of cash for Mercury. That's thanks to a five-year, $50 million participation deal with Premiere, which picked him up in 2002. With a weekly average of 9 million listeners, Beck's is the third-highest-ranked radio talk show in America, behind Rush Limbaugh (15.3 million) and Sean Hannity (14.3 million). On a recent day Beck plugged the evening's Insider Extreme event and advertised LifeLock, the identity-theft company, in a particularly personal way: "I wish I could protect my children — (my daughter's) got a boyfriend in New York City — I can't lock my children up, but I can lock my computer up. ... "
Then he spurs his favorite hobbyhorse. "Our future is being decided right now," he says. "It's being decided by special interests. We've entered a European period of America. ... " A good warm-up for some carpet bombing of pet targets: Obama, Nancy Pelosi and health care. A rapacious reader, Beck defends his decision to give prominence to "evil" books like "The Coming Insurrection" (2009, MIT Press), written anonymously by a group of French radicals, who postulate the coming implosion of capitalism. "Why?" Beck asks. "Because I'm not one who bans books. That's what Nazis do." No cultural sensitivity training for him anymore, something he and his colleagues once had to swallow at KC101 in New Haven after dropping some Asian ethnic slurs.
"I think I say the things that people are afraid to say — and sometimes the things people are too smart to say," Beck laughs. Even to his occasional regret. "I would take back the things that I say right from the hip, without thinking," he says, without getting specific.
"I don't necessarily believe that (what Beck says) is reflective of his own personal politics — I don't even know if he has personal politics," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine devoted to talk radio. "I see him as a performer."
In the halls of Mercury's midtown Manhattan office hang pictures of Beck's heroes: Orson Welles, Jack Benny, Paul Harvey, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope. But it is a photo of Walt Disney that hangs alone outside Beck's corner office. "I aspire to Walt Disney's never-ending quest to try to improve the quality of what he's doing," Beck says, hands flailing, eyes intense, "his never-ending vision of yes, it can be done." Not to mention his building one of the most lucrative and durable entertainment empires of all time.
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