Why Glenn Beck’s Media Empire Is Burning Down
Cruz thanked Beck after winning Iowa, but for all the right-wing media firebrand’s ‘mad genius,’ his company has become an abyss of backbiting and paranoia.
Glenn Beck is beset by apocalyptic visions, sinister conspiracy theories, mind-blowing prophecies, mysterious illnesses, miraculous cures, and, yes, copious waterworks.
But of all of the hobgoblins fluttering through his mind, consistency isn’t one of them.
Beck regularly contradicts himself in word and deed—a trait that his less charitable associates call hypocrisy.
For instance, mere months after announcing, with typically messianic zeal, that he was heartily sick of politics and leaving the Republican Party, he spent the past two weekends barnstorming Iowa with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the winner of Monday night’s GOP caucuses, and trading insults with also-ran Donald Trump, who calls Beck “a whack job.”
In his victory speech, Cruz thanked Beck specifically: “I am so grateful to national leaders, people like Dr. James Dobson, and Tony Perkins, and Phil Robertson, and Governor Rick Perry, and Glenn Beck—leaders who have stood and led, bringing together conservatives here in Iowa and across the country.”
Beck celebrated the victory on his Facebook page—“It is a great night for the constitution America and Ted Cruz. We re one step closer to restoring our principles”—and promised not to gloat about Trump falling short. “One of those principles is to never revel in another man’s defeat.”
Indulging a weakness for grandiosity, the radio, television, and Internet firebrand has been broadcasting the simulcast of his popular Glenn Beck Radio Program this week from a full-scale mockup of the presidential sanctum, because, as he explained, “since we’re going for the most powerful job in the world, the place to cover that election might be from the Oval Office.”
Colleagues and underlings interviewed by The Daily Beast—on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution—describe Beck’s irresistible personal magnetism and undeniable brilliance that one called “mad genius,” mixed with a colossal streak of narcissism, neediness and, above all, capriciousness that have left them feeling whipsawed and, in many cases, betrayed.
Beck, who turns 52 next week, was not available for an interview.
Attracted by the idealism of The Blaze, Beck’s six-year-old multimedia venture—whose heartwarming motto is “We tell the stories of love and courage where the good guys win”—they instead tell stories of a sad and baffling descent from a friendly, positive workplace culture (“like a family,” says one) into an abyss of backbiting and paranoia as a company of nearly 300 people contracted to around half that size.
Former Blaze employees point to the abrupt departures a year ago of longtime Beck confidants Chris Balfe and Joel Cheatwood, who are widely credited with making his success possible.
Then there was the sudden appearance in the fall of 2014—from Israel, via Miami—of a slightly-built, bald-pated Beck “superfan” who spouted the slick jargon of Silicon Valley, chain-smoked a vaporous e-cigarette (holding it in his right hand that is missing two-and-half fingers, the result of a childhood accident with a meat grinder), and somehow networked himself into Beck’s inner circle.
Beck apparently became infatuated with Jonathan Schreiber, who has been regularly spotted in Beck’s expansive, glass-walled office, sometimes entangled in a hug with the boss, and whose Orthodox Judaism apparently meshes well with Beck’s ardent religiosity as a Mormon convert.
Last April, Schreiber was named president of Beck’s privately held umbrella company, Mercury Radio Arts—of which The Blaze is a subsidiary, along with a diverse collection of enterprises including a publishing imprint at Simon & Schuster, a clothing line, a movie studio, and a guide to trustworthy real estate agents.
Schreiber, a native of Florida who graduated with a marketing degree from Yeshiva University, is a 41-year-old tech entrepreneur whose arrival coincided with the exit of nearly everyone who had steered Beck’s career and built him into a national brand and wildly successful radio personality. (None of the dozen sources contacted for this article directly blamed Schreiber for the departures, but they found the timing rather curious.)
Beck’s syndicated morning show is the nation’s third-highest-rated, after Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s—and, like The Blaze, sells advertising for a variety of products designed to ease your way through the End Times (gold bullion, fireproof safes, identity theft protection, guns, freeze-dried food, and a “couch cruncher” to serve up washboard abs while you watch disturbing TV news reporting the downfall and destruction of everything good and decent).
Employees ultimately gave Schreiber the nickname “Voldemort,” after the Harry Potter villain—a moniker that apparently hasn’t reached Schreiber’s ears until now.
Schreiber’s LinkedIn profile does seem to invest him with wizardly powers: “I connect things: ideas, people, concepts, ecosystems, anything and everything. I read a lot (a lot), I think a lot (not as much), I like people, I understand people. I don’t just understand people a little bit, I see people for who they are not who they claim to be.
“Sometimes I see people for more than they think they are, sometimes less. Because of this I connect with people—quickly. I see the white between the text of what I read, or what someone says, or what someone wants.”
Yet a current Blaze employee said recently: “It’s so toxic and fractured that everybody has eyes in the back of their head. You don’t know who’s about to stab you in the back. So the best thing to do is show up, get your work done, and get out.”
Beck’s penchant for flip-floppery has been especially conspicuous at The Blaze, a paid subscription and ad-supported digital television and news aggregation enterprise that he launched in late August 2010, while still hosting a highly rated afternoon show on the Fox News Channel.
Beck at the time was riding high, having just made the cover of Forbes, which at one point estimated his corporate revenue at $90 million.
Right before The Blaze’s soft launch, Beck had organized a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, that drew a crowd of as many as a half-million fans.
By September 2012, when The Blaze signed a deal with The Dish Network for its programing to be carried on cable and satellite television, The New York Times reported that it boasted 300,000 paid digital subscribers—an unverifiable figure that insiders say has plummeted to around half that as The Blaze became available in 13 million cable households.
Yet the demise of The Blaze—a once-promising and allegedly profitable venture—has increasingly been predicted by media observers.
It was even foretold by Beck himself, at a moment last year when the privately held company claimed to be making money.
“We’ve got to course-change, and if we don’t, we’re either going to go out of business or we’re going to be a crappy, soul-sucking business,” a frantic Beck, looking pudgy and exhausted in distressed jeans and a pumpkin-colored cardigan, warned Blaze employees during an in-house session last February at the company’s New York studios—a video of which was obtained by The Daily Beast.
“You’ve seen this company start to slide into that crappy zone. No! I’ll shut the damn thing down before we become everything we despise.”
The majority owner harangued his minions: “We are three million dollars in the hole! That means we are three million dollars from profit. That means I have to take three million dollars out of my wallet, and I have done this now for several years. I don’t have money left. I’m out... I need three million dollars [in savings] by the end of the year. If we wait, it’s gonna be massive, bloody cuts.”
Massive, bloody cuts soon followed, as the debt ballooned to at least $5 million and as much as $10 million, according to current and former Blaze employees.
On May 11, 2015—a day Beck staffers have dubbed “Black Monday”—dozens were laid off in New York and the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas. There, Beck had purchased a 72,000-square-foot studio complex and corporate headquarters in the Las Colinas neighborhood, and built his fake Oval Office.
The fired employees (one of whom, a big, bluff Irishman who supervised the lighting for the New York studios, broke down sobbing at the news) received their notice not from Beck, who had personally recruited many of them, but in antiseptic phone calls from the corporate HR department.
Beck, meanwhile, showed up at Las Colinas driving his brand new Maybach, proudly showing off the nearly-$200,000 sleek black sedan that he’d just purchased to add to his fleet of luxury vehicles, including an armored, bulletproof Mercedes limo and a similarly outfitted Chevy Suburban.
Beck, whose net worth Forbes puts at more than a $100 million, was crying poormouth, but he had also purchased—through Mercury Radio Arts, named for the production company of Beck’s hero, Orson Welles—the opulently appointed DC-9 that had been owned by his late friend, right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
The vintage jetliner cost around a million dollars, due to its great age, but is ruinously expensive to maintain, operate, and fuel, according to Blaze insiders, and required the hiring of two pilots at tens of thousands of dollars per month—a corporate expense to be added to the estimated million dollars a year for Beck’s personal security force.
Beck promptly ordered his private jetliner repainted with the logo of his 1791 clothing line—a crown floating over a skull-and-crossbones ornamenting the tail.
“I was really disgusted by it,” one of the ex-employees told The Daily Beast.
Two other Dallas-based employees—one of whom managed to find a job at another media company before the ax could fall—recalls a dispiriting meeting with Beck and his producers during this dark period in late April.
The producers, who were on The Blaze’s payroll for Beck’s hour-long television program that airs daily at 5 p.m., asked to see Beck in his office without Schreiber being present, and Beck reluctantly granted them an audience, according to these witnesses.
“OK, what is it?” Beck asked impatiently.
One of the producers piped up: “When I got here, this was a family company, but now it has become just like any other company that’s ruthless, that can get rid of people at the drop of a hat. I feel like there’s nothing to prevent me from going to work at any other company where I can punch a time clock, and go home.”
Beck looked hurt and surprised.
“I’m really sorry you say that,” he said, “because I’ve never felt closer to my staff than I do now”—an assertion that struck many in the room as coming from a Bizarro-World alternate reality.
Beck had preached “transparency” and boasted of an open-door policy, but in the months since late 2014, he had become increasingly distant and unapproachable.
Beck added, one of the witnesses recalls, that “The Blaze was sucking him dry, and he’s been funding it and throwing money into an empty pit, and he wasn’t going to do it anymore. He wasn’t going to keep propping it up. And he was going to phase out the New York office.”
This last vow from Beck carries a certain irony; with Beck’s approval and active participation, The Blaze signed a 10-year lease on a 35,000-square-foot space on Manhattan’s Bryant Park, previously occupied by Yahoo. At around $2 million a year in rent, it represented a 50 percent savings from the previous arrangement in which television studios and corporate offices were located in separate facilities. Now the company is desperately seeking a tenant to take over the Bryant Park space.
Last summer, say former Beck staffers, American Express suddenly declined charges on corporate credit cards for the booking of airline tickets and hotel rooms for guests on Blaze programs.
Several employees—like Beck confidant Kraig Kitchin, the co-founder of Premiere Radio Networks who was The Blaze’s interim CEO until he resigned last week—were forced to charge business expenses on their personal credit cards.
One former employee told The Daily Beast that he’s still waiting for a $200 reimbursement for an expense that he claimed six months ago.
“I know much of what has happened since December of 2014, but also much of it has been structural and behind the curtain,” Beck wrote in an email last week on the occasion of Kitchin’s resignation as chief executive of The Blaze.
“We were a company that was swimming in debt. With the hard work of Kraig, Jonathan [Schreiber], and now Misty [Kawecki, the chief financial officer] we will be debt free by summer. This is miraculous and takes all of the downward pressure off of us.”
Yet some of the signs for the business are hardly reassuring. In November 2014, for instance, TheBlaze.com was attracting 29 million unique visitors per month, according to figures from the Web traffic measure service Quantcast. But by November 2015, monthly traffic for the TheBlaze.com had dropped to 16.4 million unique visitors, and traffic for the associated website GlennBeck.com had plunged from 4.4 million to 1.4 million uniques.
Many of the pinked-slipped staffers, drawn by Beck’s charisma and ambitious plans for original television, feature films, and even a theme park—following the business model of Beck’s other hero, Walt Disney—had left secure jobs at CNN, Fox News, and elsewhere, and some had uprooted families in far-off cities, to join what seemed an exciting, inspiring adventure.
Seventeen months before Black Monday, during a town hall in a leased auditorium at The New York Times event space, Beck had dazzled his troops in a meeting that several witnesses say had the fervor of a tent revival.
Beck announced onstage that he’d give $5,000, then and there, to anyone who wasn’t on board. There were no takers, several attendees recalled, although one witness told The Daily Beast that an unidentified young intern might have tried to collect.
Beck had already thrown a lavish Christmas party for the staff of Mercury Radio Arts and The Blaze at his suburban Dallas estate, complete with catering and an open bar under a huge backyard tent. (As a Mormon teetotaler and recovering alcoholic, Beck stayed away from the booze.)
“We all had a good time,” recalls one attendee, “and Glenn talked to me and a couple of colleagues, and said, ‘You guys are the true visionaries of the company who are going to help build it.’ He made you believe that you were really onto something.”
This person, like many others, had left behind a wife and kids in another city to work at Las Colinas. “I was away from my family, but the sense of family and the sense of community we had within the company made me look forward to going to work with people I considered a second family,” he says. “It was a very good feeling, a great environment to be in.”
On leaving Beck’s Christmas party, everyone received a gift bag containing, among other things, one of their host’s favorite books, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life.
“I read it cover to cover,” says the former employee, “and I remember thinking, ‘Wow. We’re at the beginning of something fantastic, who knows where it was headed? And Glenn was a visionary. Glenn was a thinker. Glenn was Walt Disney!’”
Beck—for all his passionate intensity and Pied Piper charm—turned out to be hardly at all like Walt.
In November 2014, as Jonathan Schreiber was settling in at Las Colinas, a tearful Beck announced to his fans that he had recently been cured of a mysterious brain illness that “quite honestly has made me look crazy.”
“It has baffled some of the best doctors in the world, it has frightened me and my family as we didn’t know what was happening,” Beck told viewers on The Blaze, adding that he had been suffering from the malady in 2009 when he infamously claimed, during an appearance on Fox & Friends, that President Obama is a racist with “deep-seated hatred of white people.”
Beck claimed he’d been cured by various unorthodox treatments that included hormones, physical therapy, and being spun around and around while strapped to a giant gyroscope.
“We didn’t know at the time what was causing me to feel as though, out of nowhere, my hands or feet or arms and legs would feel like someone had just crushed them or set them on fire or pushed broken glass into my foot,” Beck confided. “I can’t tell you how many nights my wife would sit in the light looking to the bottom of my feet to make sure there really wasn’t any glass in them.”
The following month, Beck’s top New York-based executive, Chris Balfe, who was president of Mercury Radio Arts and CEO of The Blaze and had been at his side for 15 years, made one of his regular visits to Las Colinas.
Beck summoned Balfe to his office and essentially fired him. The two had apparently disagreed on Beck’s insistence that he would discard his core identity as a political commentator, and focus on lifestyle concerns.
According to multiple sources, when a stunned Balfe retreated to an office for visiting executives to absorb what had just happened, Beck’s personal assistant told him: “I’m going to need that seat when you’re done with it”—apparently for Schreiber.
Joel Cheatwood, The Blaze’s chief content officer who midwifed Beck’s television career at HLN and then Fox News, soon followed Balfe out the door, along with Carolyn Polke, The Blaze’s president, and Chris’s brother Kevin Balfe, who had been overseeing Mercury Radio Arts’s publishing arm; they are now all together at media, branding, and tech startup called Red Seat Ventures. Beck’s longtime agent, George Hiltzik, also departed.
Schreiber, meanwhile, seems to have consolidated his power over Beck’s less than magical kingdom.
He welcomed his longtime friend from the tech world, Stewart Padveen, to take over as The Blaze’s fourth CEO since Balfe’s defenestration.
A dozen Blaze veterans interviewed by The Daily Beast described Schreiber as someone who makes many employees uncomfortable. It’s not just that he uses the James Altucher phrase, “Let’s have idea sex,” as a term meaning a brainstorming session.
Or that, on Schreiber’s appointment to the top job at Mercury Radio Arts last April, he jokingly stood in front of a projected image of the Presidential Seal while “Hail to the Chief” blared over the sound system. (Most employees gathered for the spectacle were decidedly unamused.)
Also humorous—apparently—was a sign marking Schreiber’s reserved parking space, referring to him as “El Presidente.” These days Schreiber, who—unlike many at The Blaze—continues to think it funny, keeps the parking sign on a bookshelf in his office.
Schreiber, for his part, rejects the notion that he has somehow gained Rasputin-like influence over Beck, and persuaded him to explode his company and banish everyone who had been close to him. It’s a scenario he finds ludicrous.
“What if we reverse that?” Schreiber emailed The Daily Beast. “Glenn Beck, brilliant media mogul, realized he was unhappy in the direction his company was going so he brought in new blood. The goal being to put the company in the right direction. Through that process we separated with many people. Some will be missed, some less so.”
Schreiber added: “When I asked for the org chart [the organizational chart of how the company is set up in terms of authority and responsibilities], I received something that looked like the solar system. Not exactly HBS [Harvard Business School] type stuff.”
Schreiber defended his tenure at The Blaze and Mercury Radio Arts.
“I am very proud of my work here, I am very proud of the culture we have created AND PROUD OF [his capital letters] the people WE have been able to bring in to the fold,” he emailed. “2015 was a great year for MRA we had 2 bestselling books, Glenn’s radio show CONTINUED TO PERFORM STRONGLY AS THE #3 RADIO SHOW IN THE COUNTRY and did really well economically... THE Blaze IS POSITIONED WELL TO FURTHER MAXIMIZE ITS POTENTIAL IN 2016.”
As for complaints about his leadership style, Schreiber emailed: ”[T]hat’s life... ESPECIALLY DURING TIMES OF CHANGE AND TRANSITION. No one likes to admit that they are not here because of themselves, it must be Voldemort.”
Whether Glenn Beck needs the magic of wizards to save his media dream remains to be seen—but expect the denouement to his own fantastical tale to be every bit as dramatic as a Harry Potter movie.