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Is Glenn Beck the Orson Welles of Our Time?

Understanding FOX News' biggest star.

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Mercury Radio Arts is Beck's production company. It is his pride, his joy, and his multiteat cash cow. The company, whose tag line is "The fusion of entertainment and enlightenment," produces or co-produces his radio and television shows, his live events and his many publishing and digital media projects, all of which promote and expand the Beck brand.

Its full-time staff of 20 is not based in the small-town "Real America" Beck claims to hold so dear, but in the cynical media capital of the world, Manhattan.

Beck founded Mercury Radio Arts in 2002, the year his talk radio show went national. The name is a respectful nod to the Mercury Radio Theater, the New York drama company founded by Orson Welles, most famous for producing a 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds .

Beck's nod to Welles is a revealing one. Like Beck, Welles made his national name scaring the pants off of gullible Americans with a scripted, emotional act. (Unlike Beck, Welles was a staunch leftist and did not incorporate politics into his radio work.) Beck shares Welles' love of dramatic radio and is very proud of the fact that he directed and acted in the first live commercial radio drama in 40 years for XM Radio. Everything Beck does should be seen in this light.

Beck's self-image as an entertainer is rivaled only by his self-image as a businessman. He admits as much in his 2003 book, The Real America, which alternates between shlocky by-the-numbers conservative homily and frank autobiography.

Beck writes that while he admires Welles for dreaming big and revolutionizing radio, he is disappointed that he died poor. Beck finds more to admire in two of Hollywood's most flaming Democrats, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. After sketching the business architecture of Damon and Affleck's Project Greenlight, Beck writes in near-awe:

That's four distinct forms of entertainment, four ways to reach their audience, four products that act as marketing and publicity for each other and four sources of revenue. … This is what Mercury Radio Arts aspires to be … We want to start with the Glenn Beck Program and find ways to … maximiz[e] its ratings and revenue.

If Beck could have built up Radio Mercury Arts on the back of Howard Stern-style shock-jock persona, he would have done it. In fact, that's basically what he tried to do during his "lost" decade spent railing fat cocaine caterpillars off the asses of small-town strippers. And for a while it looked like he was destined for Stern-like stardom. But despite a quick and promising start in radio -- Beck was making six-figures and riding limos in his early 20s -- he bottomed out in 1994 working a tiny market in suburban Connecticut.

He flirted with killing himself, but cleaned up instead and found a new ambition, just as Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich's Republicans stormed Congress and Clinton-era right-wing radio took off, led by Rush Limbaugh. Beck's official biography is spotty on the mid- to late-'90s, but he appears to have spent these years plotting his conservative talk radio makeover.

Beck finally got his big break in 1999. That was the year Clear Channel bought Tampa's WFLA, home to the popular liberal talk legend Bob Lassiter. Lassiter was squeezed out within a year of the sale and replaced by Beck, who jerked Tampa talk radio to the right. He is remembered by locals during this time for his skits depicting Satan writing love poems to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and for dangerously stoking anti-Democrat sentiment in Florida during the tense 2000 election recount.

 
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