Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Beck

Glenn Beck is the kind of deep thinker appreciated by the sort who call it "guts" when DJs play Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." when we're bombing the crap out of crazy Arab potentates.

Hold the phone. Glenn Beck was the "morning zoo" host in Louisville who was "proud to be an American" on April 15, 1986 -- and "emotionally exhausted" from listeners phoning in to say yay or nay about his playing "Khadafy Sucks" the morning after American warplanes blowed the Libyan dictator's compound up good.

It must have been the caller who wanted to send Libyans down a razor blade slide into a pool of alcohol.

THEN AGAIN, it might have just been the alcohol. And the pot. And the cocaine.
Whether Beck was tired or stoned that day, he was almost certainly depressed. Despite his creative freedom, local star status and high salary, Beck's mental state was on a slide. By his own telling, he was drinking heavily, snorting coke and entertaining thoughts of suicide. "There was a bridge abutment in Louisville, Kentucky, that had my name on it," Beck later wrote. "Every day I prayed for the strength to be able to drive my car at 70 mph into that bridge abutment. I'm only alive today because (a) I'm too cowardly to kill myself ... and (b) I'm too stupid."
AS SALON.COM tells us in a three-part series on Beck's life as one of radio's "morning zoo" bad boys, Fox News Channel's newest sensation and the de-facto leader of the Great American Freak Out has had a little experience in the "freak" department. From "Glenn Beck becomes damaged goods," Part 2 of Alexander Zaitchik's Beckian trilogy:
Beck's real broadcasting innovation during his stay in Kentucky came in the realm of vicious personal assaults on fellow radio hosts. A frequent target of Beck's in Louisville was Liz Curtis, obese host of an afternoon advice show on WHAS, a local AM news-talk station. It was no secret in Louisville that Curtis, whom Beck had never met and with whom he did not compete for ratings, was overweight. And Beck never let anyone forget it. For two years, he used "the big blonde" as fodder for drive-time fat jokes, often employing Godzilla sound effects to simulate Curtis walking across the city or crushing a rocking chair. Days before Curtis' marriage, Beck penned a skit featuring a stolen menu card for the wedding reception. "The caterer says that instead of throwing rice after the ceremony, they are going to throw hot, buttered popcorn," explains Beck's fictional spy.

Despite the constant goading, Curtis never responded. But being ignored only seemed to fuel Beck's hunger for a response. As his attacks escalated and grew more unhinged, a WHAS colleague of Curtis' named Terry Meiners decided to intervene. He appeared one morning unannounced at Beck's small office, which was filled with plaques, letters and news clippings -- "a shrine to all that is Glenn Beck," remembers Meiners. He told Beck to lay off Curtis, suggesting he instead attack a morning DJ like himself, who could return fire. "Beck told me, 'Sorry, all's fair in love and war,'" remembers Meiners. "He continued with the fat jokes, which were exceedingly cruel, pointless, and aimed at one of the nicest people in radio. Glenn Beck was over-the-top childish from Day One, a punk who tried to make a name for himself by being disruptive and vengeful."
NICE GUY. But not as "nice" as he'd get in Phoenix, where he took the "morning zoo" shtick after getting canned in the Bluegrass State:
Beck and Hattrick began their show far behind Kelly's market-leading show on KZZP. As they continued to get clobbered, Beck grew obsessed with getting his name on the leading station. His first attempt to get Kelly to mention him on the air came shortly after his arrival. "I walked out to get the paper one Saturday morning," remembers Kelly. "When I turned around, I saw that my entire house was covered in Y95 bumper stickers. The windows, the garage doors, the locks -- everything. But I refused to mention Beck's name on the air, which drove him nuts."

Beck kept trying. When KZZP's music director held his marriage at a Phoenix church, Beck loaded up Y95's two Jeeps with boxes of bumper stickers and drove to the ceremony. As the service was coming to a close, Beck and his team ran crouching from car to car, slapping bumper stickers on anything with a fender. The service ended while Beck was running amok, and the KZZP morning team appeared just in time to see Beck jump into his getaway car. "Beck saw me standing in the way of the exit and gunned right for me. I threw a landscaping rock on his windshield and blocked him," says Kelly. When his old friend demanded he roll down the window, Beck reluctantly obliged. Kelly then unloaded a mouthful of spit in his face.

"Glenn Beck was the king of dirty tricks," says Guy Zapoleon, KZZP's program director. "It may seem mild in retrospect, but at the time that wedding prank was nasty and over the line. Beck was always desperate for ratings and attention."

The animosity between Beck and Kelly continued to deepen. When Beck and Hattrick produced a local version of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" for Halloween -- a recurring motif in Beck's life and career -- Kelly told a local reporter that the bit was a stupid rip-off of a syndicated gag. The slight outraged Beck, who got his revenge with what may rank as one of the cruelest bits in the history of morning radio. "A couple days after Kelly's wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, 'We hear you had a miscarriage,' " remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 DJ and Clear Channel programmer. "When Terry said, 'Yes,' Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce [Kelly] apparently can't do anything right -- about he can't even have a baby."

"It was low class," says Miller, now president of Open Stream Broadcasting. "There are certain places you just don't go."

"Beck turned Y95 into a guerrilla station," says Kelly. "It was an example of the zoo thing getting out of control. It became just about pissing people off, part of the culture shift that gave us 'Jackass.'" Among those who were appalled by Beck's prank call was Beck's own wife, Claire, who had been friends with Kelly's wife since the two worked together at WPGC.

Their friendship soured, Beck continued with the stunts, some of which won the competition's begrudging admiration. The most elaborate and successful of these neatly throws a double-spotlight on both the juvenile nature of morning radio competition and the culture of pop cheese in which Beck marinated for 20 years.

Toward the end of Beck's time in Phoenix, KZZP sponsored a free Richard Marx concert at the Tempe El Diablo stadium in downtown Phoenix. Marx was at the time riding high on a triple-platinum album, and the show was a monster publicity coup for Beck's rival. But Beck was in no mood to let KZZP bask in the concert's glow without a fight. He and Hattrick arrived at the stadium early on the night of the show and gave the sound technician $500 to play a prerecorded Y95 promo moments before KZZP's Bruce Kelly was scheduled to announce the show. As an audience of nearly 10,000 waited for the show to begin, the KZZP mics were cut and Beck's voice suddenly boomed out of the stadium's sound system: "The Y95 Zoo team is proud to present … Richard Marx!" As soon as he heard his name, an oblivious Marx walked onto the stage and began to play. As the KZZP crew stood stunned offstage, scattered Y95 agents popped up and began throwing "Y95 Zoo" T-shirts in every direction to a cheering crowd.

"It was brilliant," remembers Kelly, who gave Beck his first lessons in the art of publicity. "Totally brilliant. He nailed us."
BECK THEN LEFT for Houston, where complete failure awaited. And then he drifted to Baltimore, where the drink and drugs tightened their hold . . . and more rating failure was in the cards.

One former colleague painted him, in those Baltimore days,
as a drugged-out Marquis de Sade:
Beck was known at B104 as a pro's pro in the studio but was becoming increasingly unraveled when not working. "Beck used to get hammered after every show at this little bar-café down the street," remembers a music programmer who worked with Beck. "At first we thought he was going to get lunch." The extent to which Beck was struggling to keep it together is highlighted by Beck's arrest one afternoon just outside Baltimore. He was speeding in his DeLorean with one of the car's gull-wing doors wide open when the cops pulled him over. According to a former colleague, Beck was "completely out of it" when a B104 manager went down to the station to bail him out. In his 2003 book, "Real America," Beck refers to himself as a borderline schizophrenic. Whether that statement is matter-of-fact or intended for effect, he has spoken more than once about taking drugs for ADHD, and when he was at B104, Beck's coworkers believed him to be taking prescription medication for some kind of mental or psychological ills. "He used to complain that his medication made him feel like he was 'under wet blankets,'" remembers the former music programmer.

Today, when Beck wants to illustrate the jerk he used to be, he tells the story of the time he fired an employee for bringing him the wrong pen during a promotional event. According to former colleagues in Baltimore, Beck didn't just fire people in fits of rage -- he fired them slowly and publicly. "He used to take people to a bar and sit them down and just humiliate them in public. He was a sadist, the kind of guy who rips wings off of flies," remembers a colleague.
EVENTUALLY, Beck sobered up after his marriage fell apart. Eventually, he shopped around for a worldview, became a Mormon and married anew. And he discovered talk radio in New Haven, Conn.:
By 1998, Beck realized he'd never be able to do what he wanted to do on FM radio, limited to talking fluff in between Britney Spears songs. Out of this failed experiment with Penn was born Beck's idea of "fusing" morning radio wackiness and political debate.

His talk radio identity still larval, Beck was already displaying the skills that would make him a talk-radio lightning rod. "He always knew how to work people and situations for attention," says Penn. "He could pick the most pointless story in the news that day and find a way to approach it to get phones lit up. That was his strong point -- pissing people off. He was very shrewd on both the business and entertainment sides of radio. He's built his empire on very calculated button pushing."

Not that this empire was imaginable back then. Mostly people noticed the button-pushing and wanted nothing to do with it.

"Anyone in Connecticut who says they knew Beck was destined to run an entertainment empire is full of s***," says one of Beck's former coworkers in New Haven. "The guy had dozens of enemies. People thought he was an annoying, washed-up has-been. When I see people today bragging that they knew him back then, I'm like, 'But you f****** hated him!'"
TODAY, WE FIND that Beck has pushed buttons all the way to the head of an "army" of the gullible disaffected. He has national radio and cable-news shows, and his devotees sing his praises at Washington rallies and use his words as brickbats against the dastardly "progressives."

Only in America. Or maybe Munich.

Of course, no one wants to discount the idea of redemption. No one wants to dismiss the power of God, and the power of the human spirit, to turn around a life.

No one wants to seriously believe that people cannot change -- sometimes quite fundamentally. I'd like to believe that of Glenn Beck.

It's hard, though, when the man refuses to give others the same benefit of the doubt that he demands of us. He vilifies Van Jones for a colorful political past, yet we are expected to give a former sadistic, washed-up and drugged-out disc jockey not only a pass, but also the keys to a populist uprising.

We're supposed to take his TV and radio shows seriously, and we're not supposed to think those who do are imbeciles with a tenuous grip on reality.

That's a tall order. Especially when Beck takes to the national airwaves to point out communist symbology at Rockefeller Center and the United Nations . . . all allegedly courtesy of the Rockefellers.

It's just as crazy as Beck stating that the entire concept of social justice is somehow inextricably intertwined with communist ideology. Talk like that shouldn't be taken seriously, unless the subject at hand centers on whether America's hottest talker is as abstemious as his church demands.

Glenn Beck the rich and popular talk-show host may no longer be the same monster as "Captain" Beck, the morning-zoo DJ. But that monster still lurks somewhere within (as, to be fair, it does for all of us).

And the more Mr. Hyde can manage to emerge from Beck's new, respectable Dr. Jekyll persona -- the one with the audience of millions -- the safer it becomes for all our nation's darkest demons to seek the spotlight once again.

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