Glenn Beck: The Pied Piper of Populism

Conservative US radio and television commentator Glenn Beck speaks at a rally dubbed 'Restoring Honor,' to show support of the US military,.

This week Glenn Beck announced he will leave his daily Fox News show, later this year. But he’s not going anywhere. Not really.

While most Americans know Beck as the wild and wildly controversial Fox News Channel talk show host, his gig on Fox is only a small slice of a media operation that stretches from radio, to the web, to concert halls and convention centers. Throw in his million dollar book deals, and the voice of the conservative opposition earned an estimated $20 million year in 2010.

  • Beck does at least two tours a year of 25 performances. Tickets cost roughly $50 and draw annual audience of about 35,000. He makes an additional $750,000 -- his cut from fans that pay to watch the shows on a big screen at 440 movie houses. 

    Approximate Take in 2010:
    $2.4 million.
  • gets over 5 million unique visitors per month. An estimated 35,000 fans pay $6.95 a month for exclusive content. There's also the Beck Talks online video series, which generates undisclosed revenue from advertisers.

    Approximate take in 2010:
    $2.9 million
  • Beck hosts the 3rd most listened-to radio show in America, reaching 8 million weekly listeners on 350 stations and XM satellite radio. His deal: a reported five-year, $50 million pact with Premiere Radio Networks.

    Approximate Take in 2010: $10 million
  • Believe it or not, there is a children’s market for Glenn Beck.  His fourth book, The Christmas Sweater, has sold nearly a million copies and was the first of a multi-book deal with Simon and Schuster

    Approximate Take in 2010:
      $3 million.
  • An earlier title, An Inconvenient Book (a riff on the Al Gore environmental title An Inconvenient Truth) debuted at #1 on The New York Times non-fiction list and stayed there for 18 straight weeks.

    Approximate Take in 2010:
    $1.5 million
  • And, to come full circle: In January 2009, Beck made the jump from HLN (Headlines News) to FNC (The Fox News Channel). His railing against the Obama Administration won him viewers, almost 2.78 million in the first quarter of 2011. His antics over the last two years (like pouring faux gasoline on a taxpayer and repeated crying on camera) kept his name in the news.  And even despite (or perhaps because of) his most offensive rants, Beck’s show remained the third most popular in cable news.

    Approximate Take in 2010:
    $2 million

Don’t get me wrong: Glenn Beck is an American success story. Armed with only a high school diploma, he has overcome alcohol and drug addiction to achieve the American dream, writ large. But he’s not one of the little people. And he’s not just like you and me.

So why do so many regular people look to Beck for their daily dose of common man’s common sense?

The answer to that question is the key to understanding his Fox News audience and that slice of the American public that is so loyal to his populist message and mission.  I want to understand where they seek to take us and why. And I want to understand why some folks seem to be willing to follow a divisive message, at a time when we need to come together to face the challenges of this new century. 

In announcing his departure this week, Beck compared himself to Paul Revere. He most often compares himself to another of our Founders: Thomas Paine. 

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, in 1776, in favor of separation from the rule of King George III of England. As every school child learns, Thomas Paine's Common Sense is a screed against hereditary monarchy and ultimately a call for revolution.  Paine was an advocacy journalist who wanted change. He believed in government as a necessary evil. But he believed in government. To suggest otherwise is a misreading of history. Or is simply misleading. 

Glenn Beck is not a journalist. He is a comedian. Which is fine. But in this world, in which the line between journalism and entertainment are increasingly blurred, it’s interesting, to say the least, that Glenn Beck so invokes Paine’s name, even going so far as to publish his own book: Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, a screed against the Obama Administration, in which Beck calls for “a second American Revolution.”

It will be more that interesting to see what Glenn Beck does next. It will be instructive - Glenn Beck will become a case study in what the new media world might look like once stars become less dependent on traditional cable platforms. Beck is more than a star. He is the Pied Piper of Populism. 

To be sure, Beck has never held himself out as a politician, journalist or historian or anything other than an entertainer. Indeed, in his own Common Sense, Beck writes, “I am no Thomas Paine.” Those are the truest words in the entire book.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.