May. 17, 2009
By John Timpane
Inquirer Staff Writer
His show on Fox News hits in about an hour, and he's ready in black suit, pink shirt, maroon tie - and black Converse Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers, no laces. The Chucks, like Beck himself, are upmarket with a dash of irreverence.
Depending on who's talking, Beck, 45, is a hero, maniac, lightning rod. He calls himself "a guy on the radio bus." That bumpy ride took him through Philadelphia and WPHT-AM (1210), where he honed his skills, built a national audience, and - gasp - made the transition to cable-TV stardom.
Now he sits near the top of the cable universe. Number three, to be exact. The Glenn Beck Program ("The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment") started only in January and is now the third-leading cable news show in prime time, behind Fox stablemates Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity - and third among all cable shows at 5 p.m. weekdays.
It all began in Mount Vernon, Wash. "My mom gave me one of the Golden Age of Radio albums," Beck says, relaxing alertly in his New York office. (He still has the album.) The little boy was enchanted, and he started appearing on local radio soon after.
It's been a long, hard ride on the radio bus. When Beck was 13, his mother lost her battle with depression and committed suicide. A brother would do the same; Beck and his father would become estranged. The radio bus wound through Provo, Utah; Baltimore; Houston; Phoenix; Washington. By the mid-1990s, he was close to the bottom. "I came from an alcoholic background and became an alcoholic," he says. "I burnt every bridge I had, including my first marriage." The radio bus stopped at Alcoholics Anonymous.
When he remarried, his wife told him: "We need a church." "So we did the American thing," Beck says. "We shopped for a church." In 1999, he and his family became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The radio bus then pulled up in Philadelphia. Beck was fresh from converting an 18th-place time slot down in Tampa, Fla., to a market-leader, fresh from syndicating The Glenn Beck Program nationally, when he came to WPHT in 2002. His first line on Philadelphia radio was not promising: "I've moved away from my two oldest children for a job. This may be the biggest mistake of my life." In a little under four years, his show went from 47 stations to more than 200 (it's now at 350) and XM satellite radio.
Vai Sikahema, sports director and anchor at NBC10, remembers Beck's Philadelphia days. "I used to see Glenn and the other talk-show hosts taking a break outside the studios, and I'd think, 'In another year, they'll all be back doing sports.' But it's interesting: Philadelphia is a town very entrenched in the Democratic Party, and yet Glenn and the others have pulled in a huge audience for conservative talk. It's amazing what he's been able to accomplish."
Grace Blazer, who was program director at WPHT when Beck came aboard, says, "From the beginning, he had the knack of, whether you agreed or disagreed with him, making you like him, want to get to know him - and he made you feel as if you, personally, were the only person he was talking to."
Beck found Philadelphia both a great town ("I just couldn't get over all the history here") and perfect fodder for radio talk. "It's the most heartbreaking city I ever lived in," he says. "So much to offer - but Philly has allowed itself to get bogged down in corruption and incompetence. As a radio host, I found Philly an easy place to connect with listeners because everybody knows what the problems are."
In 2006, when he began a TV gig on CNN, he relocated the show to New York, and he now lives in New Canaan, Conn. But he retains an avid following here: Philadelphia remains among his top 10 syndicated affiliates.
Many are the radio people who have crashed trying to make the transition to TV. Beck is "one of the few who have done it," says Blazer. Sikahema calls his ease on-camera "unbelievable. He has somehow managed to do on TV what he does on radio - usually, it doesn't translate. He's just a natural."
On set, you see close up that Beck's energy has found a home. Inescapable is how loud he talks on camera. His manner is conversational - yet his volume reverberates throughout the set. Somehow, it not only works - it cranks. He's famous for shouting, weeping, for that sense of an emotional volcano just beneath the surface, about to blow.
He begins his May 9 show, as always, with a high-energy shout-out to viewers: "If you believe this country is great, but there's too much talk about change, and not enough action, or maybe too much change in a direction you weren't expecting, declare yourself a 9/12-er, and come on, follow me." With that, Beck strides to his desk.
Once there, he reviews what "the mainstream media" are covering. He jokes, speaks in dozens of character voices, makes faces (priceless faces), gestures. Sitting but not sitting still, he reviews the ill-advised New York flyover of Air Force One; the party switch of Sen. Arlen Specter, called "Spectator" and imitated in a gruff, old-guy voice; President Obama's health-care plan (he simpers: "We're gonna change the world").
Obama, Beck says, "has helped orchestrate a power grab of industry, energy, health care, and taxes." Minutes later, he asks: "So where does this leave you? What do you get out of this, the taxpayer? Where's the transparency we've been promised? It ain't in Washington. Tonight the transparency is right here." With that, he springs up and strides toward a blackboard to crunch some numbers.
In a reflective moment in his office, Beck says, "It's really . . . entrepreneurial around here. I'm on my own. We live and die by the ratings."
As Beck grew into a media byword, his politics grew libertarian. "I was always a fiscal Republican," he says, "but socially, I don't give a flying crap. As the Founding Fathers said, as long as you're not hurting others, more freedom rather than less."
He says that he was a "reluctant" voter for George Bush in 2000 but that "he had me at 9/11." Yet Beck started to "sour hard" on Bush because of government interference in private life, surrender of personal liberties, and huge, heedless deficits. "I just couldn't vote for Arlen Specter in 2004," he says. "I don't know who I did vote for - but it wasn't him."
Some call Fox News "conservative," a label the channel sharply disputes. Detractors decry lack of opposing viewpoints, selectivity in news stories, overwhelming emphasis on opinionators. Asked why Beck's show prospers, Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, says simply: "Hate sells. If you talk hate, you can find two million people to watch you, especially if it's right-wing hate."
But Al Tompkins, group leader for broadcasting and online at the Poynter Institute, is less worried: "We have a long tradition of partisan media in America. And I think there's a place for all of those voices in the spectrum of conversation. That's good for democracy. But it's not journalism."
Beck agrees: "I like the word 'opinionator' - but I'll take 'entertainer.' Nothing wrong with that. In every alcoholic family, one of the kids is a distracter, and that's what I was. The entertainment part is me. That's how I've always dealt with everything in my life."
Even Glenn Beck has to whistle as he looks at where the radio bus has brought him: "Why the success? I have no clue."