In a city of business-model critics, mini-mogul Glenn Beck incites acts of old-fashioned media criticism
"This is gonna be fun," said Business Insider founder and editor-in-chief Henry Blodget on Wednesday afternoon, jogging across a stage on the 10th floor of the Time Warner Center during a media conference his website was hosting.
In another minute, Blodget would be sitting to the right of Glenn Beck, the conservative and controversy-prone former Fox News talk-show host who's become something of a multi-platform media mogul since he left the top-rated cable news channel and launched his own subscription-based online television network, GBTV, this past summer.
It was a little after 1 p.m., and Beck emerged in a sharp black suit along with Betsy Morgan, the former Huffington Post C.E.O. who now runs Beck's website, The Blaze, a one-and-a-half-year-old news and opinion offering that channels its proprietor's signature brand of right-wing populism. (In other words, it's the opposite of The Huffington Post, but: "Who doesn't want to work for Glenn Beck?" Morgan asked the audience at one point, sounding quite sincere.)
Beck was by far the most high-profile speaker on the agenda of the two-day event, and for some fans and foes alike, his presence brought a jolt of excitement to a lineup that largely consisted of various co-founders and chief revenue officers and digital strategy directors whose names are little known outside the spheres of influence they inhabit.
After a glowing introduction from Blodget, who's done well for himself in a second act as web news warrior despite the Wall Street scandal that ended his first, Beck sank into a white leather couch next to Morgan, tucking his right leg under his left, and submitted himself to Blodget's questioning.
Blodget isn't one to play softball ("Just the right amount of rudeness in his questioning," Forbes media writer Jeff Bercovici observed on Twitter earlier), and he didn't waste much time getting right down to it.
"Sitting here," said Blodget, "you seem eminently reasonable. But I wanna just get this out there on the table. A lot of people think that the reason you have 230,000 people immediately subscribing [to GBTV], is that you are sort of a cult leader, messiah of sort of fringe wackos who will do whatever you tell them to do. Is that true?"
These live-Tweeted, insta-blogged industry events are sprouting up constantly in New York these days, and most of the time the promise of the event, that it's a bunch of smart people thinking out loud for a select audience, quickly gives way to the reality of a highly disciplined competition in jargon-heavy corporate messaging. With the combustible duo of Blodget and Beck on the stage, there was the promise of an edifying chaos.
Beck spends a fair amount of time pontificating to his legions about all manner of doomsday political and economic scenarios. He spends far less time having to publicly answer for his rhetoric in an auditorium stuffed with the very sorts of urban media elites of which he portrays himself an enemy.
"Everybody in this room, please continue to think of me that way," he told Blodget and the crowd. "Because anybody who's competing against me, we will absolutely wipe the floor with you. So please continue to think of me that way."
He may not be wrong. The company he has been running out of the Manhattan headquarters of Mercury Radio Arts now has 120 employees here, and was worth more than $30 million prior to the September debut of GBTV, the initial revenues of which one analyst put in the $27 million range based on the number of subscribers who had reportedly signed up at launch. (230,000 viewers is a tiny sliver of the nearly 2 million Beck was averaging during the sunset of his Fox News career, but regardless, each of them is paying $9.95 a month to watch him on their computers.) Aside from GBTV and The Blaze, there's also Beck's daily radio broadcast, his seven New York Times bestsellers, his nascent e-commerce site, and even a magazine. ("Want to return this country to greatness? Your empowerment begins here." Or so goes the slogan.) There are some new developments on the horizon, too, he said, including "a project that I hope will completely turn the book world upside down."
And yet the future of media, which Beck and the other conference speakers had been convened to assess, seems as uncertain to him as it does to anyone else whose livelihood depends on the business of content and people's willingness to consume it.
"I have no idea where this thing's gonna land," he said. "We're like a little mini Epcot. An experimental prototype city of tomorrow. We're trying to figure out what will work. ... Our job is to deliver information, entertainment and content. How that platform shapes out, I have no idea. But that's what the exciting part is."
Beck's half-hour appearance, of course, would not have been complete without some discussion of his often dark and apocalyptic rants. On the right-hand side of the stage was the famous chalkboard, which Beck often uses during his TV broadcasts when his tutelage turns to these more obscure topics.
"What people think on the oustide who don't know Glenn Beck," Blodget said about 10 minutes into the interview, getting back to his original point, "is that the reason everybody's hanging on every word on the chalkboard, is not that it's simple and trustworthy, but because you say these crazy-ass things."
"Oh wait wait wait wait wait," Beck mumbled. "Lemme just go. You mean like, the Middle East will be set on fire? Like, the Muslim Brotherhood is gonna take charge of Egypt tomorrow? You mean those crazy things? We're just a little ahead."
Blodget was laughing by now.
"The list of things you need because the world is going to hell in a handbasket, like seeds," Blodget said, pressing on. "That's on your top-10 list, right, of stuff people need?"
"You know what? I'm a praying man," Beck said. "And I pray every night that I'm wrong. So far I have a pretty damn good record."
Things got a little more heated after the interview was over and Beck was making his way out into a hallway. He'd stopped to chat with some conference-goers, who were huddled around him in a small cluster that also included several reporters, his two publicists and his personal security detail.
Here, even among this crowd of New York critics that has by and large abandoned criticism of media for a form of public speculative business auditing, the topic of Beck's actual content was among the issues to arise.
Morgan introduced Beck fondly to Rafat Ali, the founder of the media-business website paidContent, and Ali promptly took Beck to task for what he later described on Twitter as Beck's anti-Muslim "bigotry." The exchange was a little hard to hear—not shouted, but obviously charged. (Ali fills us in on it here.)
"I invite you to come stand with me in Tahrir Square," said Ali by way of closing the argument with a challenge.
"Goodbye," he said, as he was whisked away by his handlers.