Glenn Beck’s New Brand: Prophet Of Love
IRVING, Texas — The spring of 2010 was a dark time for Glenn Beck. He was leaving Fox News amid escalating controversy around his show, a provocative broadcast that proved too hot even for the conservative network. His liberal critics were smugly celebrating his apparent fall, and his future was far from certain. But his pessimism, he said in an interview, went beyond the cracks at the foundation of his own media empire: He was beginning to doubt whether the right-wing political movement he had marshaled from his perch at Fox was actually strong enough to snatch the nation’s soul from the jaws of tyranny.
“All I was seeing was how vast the resources of the Left were and how well-orchestrated,” Beck told BuzzFeed. “And every time I would war-game it, I would be like: lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.” The gloomy outlook followed him even to Washington D.C. in August of 2010, where he drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands for a widely-publicized rally. On stage, he preached about the need for a “restoration of honor.” But inside, he was filled with uncertainty: “That’s where I was when I was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial mentally. That’s not what I was saying, but mentally, that’s where I was at.”
Two years later, Beck is richer, if less relevant. He has launched an ambitious and lucrative online television network, and Monday announced a new $100 million radio contract. He’s hosted high-profile rallies on two continents. And Beck believes, most important, that he’s arrived at a solution for both America’s teetering democracy, and his once-toxic brand.
“The conservative movement needs a Dick Clark,” Beck told BuzzFeed in a recent interview. “And I hope to fill some of that vacuum.”
The venue set to introduce the world to this kinder, gentler Beck is a three-day event in Dallas that the conservative media mogul has billed, “Restoring Love.” It will include a “global Tea Party summit,” a conference of conservative religious leaders, and a concert-rally at Cowboys Stadium featuring inspirational music from a growing roster of artists Beck is building. The goal, he said, is to seize control of pop culture from the left by producing patriotic, uplifting art — and use that new megaphone to promote a message of enlightenment and love. The event sold out its 40,000 available tickets in less than two days, a source at Beck’s company told BuzzFeed.
In Beck’s telling, the Dallas event is the natural product of a years-long evolution of the modern conservative movement — in which he places his own projects as conspicuously central — that has moved beyond mere grassroots politics, and on to loftier ambitions. But it also marks the latest move in an aggressive transformation of the Glenn Beck brand, from the right-wing ranter-in-chief he played on Fox, to the red-state Prophet of Love he’s casting himself as today — a wholesome hybrid of Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, and Mahatma Gandhi, the role models he now frequently name-checks.
To lay out this vision, Beck opened the doors of his new Dallas headquarters to BuzzFeed last week. The host moved his family from the New York area to Texas shortly after launching GBTV last year, and his company quickly colonized a large soundstage in Irving that was once used to film Hollywood blockbusters, including, one producer noted with pride, scenes from Robocop. Beck’s office is located on the second floor of the building, and resembles an ultra-patriotic Chili’s — festooned with fashionably kitschy trinkets, placards emblazoned with feel-good maxims, and framed photos of Beck-world celebrities, including the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley.
Dressed in the casual-Friday uniform his departure from Fox has afforded him — Converse sneakers, blue jeans, and an Oxford shirt with a T-shirt over it that read “Hebrew Bison” — Beck sat on a couch flanked by his longtime producer Joel Cheatwood on the left, and a speakerphone through which publicist Josh Raffel (whose firm also represents Katie Couric and Justin Bieber) monitored the discussion from New York.
The interview was ostensibly scheduled to talk about the program for the upcoming rally in Dallas. But Beck, a frenetic presence whose always-churning imagination causes him to live, he said, “about four years in the future,” couldn’t help talking big picture. His current obsession: Spreading conservative values by “reclaiming” mainstream popular culture.
“I watched Glee, which I think is brilliant,” he said. “Absolutely brilliant… Now can’t we do that while having the struggle and the things that are in real life, the good and the bad, but have it not celebrate high school kids hooking up? The answer is yes. That’s our goal.”
In addition to developing scripted dramas at this own network, and planning future film projects in the vein of True Grit (a recent favorite of his), Beck said he’s partnering with a number of musical artists — some of whom he’ll name, others he won’t.
“We are working with a rapper — I can’t say who yet — but my audience and his audience will say, ‘What?’” Beck said coyly. “We jokingly call this our Oedipus project because the left will be making out with me… and they’ll have no idea. Somebody will say, ‘Do you know that’s…?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh I don’t care, I just really like the music.’”
The details of how exactly this new music venture will work are hazy, and Beck said he hasn’t quite figured out how to make money from it. But he’s convinced his future is in producing mainstream entertainment — and if broadened appeal is the goal, there are worse tactics than recalibrating your persona from conservative pit bull to loving labrador.
Of course, Beck continues to drive and echo the popular narratives of conservative talk radio: In recent weeks, he has accused Obama of “legimitizing Jihad,” declared a “race war” in America, and tossed around the word “communist” with just as much gusto and frequency as ever. But whereas two years ago Beck was on the forefront of the right-wing conversation — introducing new villains, crafting new story lines, and making headlines with envelope-pushing rhetoric — now he often runs through the talking points like items on a to-do list before moving on to enthusiastic descriptions of his latest project, and feel-good interviews.
For example, on June 8, he devoted an entire episode of his show on the stylish, blue-lit set of GBTV to an Oprah-esque conversation with plane crash survivors, complete with a sentimental soundtrack, lots of tears, and a pre-taped segment on the therapeutic value of journal-keeping. The night before, he spent most of his show musing on the topic of creativity, including a lengthy history of motion picture technology.
He hasn’t abandoned the fight altogether, and he continues to insist that his political truth-telling knows no party. “If MItt Romney thinks I’m mean to him now, wait until he’s president of the United States,” he said. “That, I can’t wait for. What is the left going to possibly say when I’m standing up [to] the shady things that might go on in another administration, on the right?”
But if there has been a tone change from his years at Fox — where he once stood ominously amid hanging marionettes to lay out the various dark conspiracies surrounding liberal billionaire George Soros — Beck insists it was purely organic. Politics, he has come to believe, is a losing proposition for conservatives, and he’s open about his distaste for the Beltway back-and-forth.
“I’m just not gonna fight them anymore,” he said of the political opponents with whom he used to exchange barbs on air at Fox. “I’m not gonna play that game.”
But it didn’t take much pushing to discover that critics at places like Media Matters — who have worked hard to paint a portrait of Beck as a hateful, fear-mongering bigot — can still get under his skin. Presented with this caricature, Beck pushed back hard, with both Raffel and Cheatwood taking turns debunking the characterization.
“I mean, let me ask you this,” Beck said. “How can a man be so hateful and so bitter, and ugly and black as they have painted me, and yet I have one of the happiest staffs?”
He attributed such character assassination to the corrupt media and crusading liberals — pointing particularly at the unfair criticism he received from the left prior to his 2010 rally in Washington, a demonstration that turned out to be much more benign than his critics had hoped. The more he talked about the efforts to smear his good intentions, the more worked up he got, his voice escalating in volume as it took on the tone of the radio rants that made him famous.
“When you hear about this stuff, you’re like, you just get angry,” he barked.
But then he paused, took a deep breath, and lowered his voice.
“I have worked very hard not to become those things that I despise,” he said in a near whisper. “Not engage in the same tactics, to do a better job than I was three years ago, two years ago… If I knew then what I know now, there’s a lot of stuff that all of us would have done differently.”
This was the new Glenn Beck: Ambassador of peace, preacher of love. Longtime listeners have seen glimpses of this Beck over the course of a career that took him from morning zoo DJ to conservative guru, but never has it been so central to his persona.
Beck rejected the notion that the new tone represents some sort of relaunch, and said he spends little time worrying about his personal brand. (“I was the only one in the room who said, ‘Really? Do we have to call it GBTV?’” he said.) But he remains acutely aware of how the rest of the world perceives him — and has made little effort to mask his desire to stick it to those who have counted him out.
Last month, on his radio show, he said that at one point, when his critics were celebrating his departure from Fox News, he seriously considered building a glass house on top of the MetLife building just to show the world he was still in the game. “Those are the exact same views of the city that Tony Stark has in ‘Iron Man,’” Beck said, adding, “I just wanted to show all the people who were saying, ‘Oh, he’s finished now!’”
Ultimately, he decided relocating to Dallas and expanding his media empire on cheaper real estate would be a more practical response. But even the new, softer Beck remains defiant when it comes to his detractors.
“For anybody on the left that thinks I’m done, oh please continue thinking that,” he intoned, his lips curling into a mischievous smile. “Oh please.”