It was 1990, the midpoint of Beck's career in FM morning radio. The morning zoo craze had peaked and the economy had stalled. Eight years after leaving Washington state with a suitcase full of skinny ties and dreams of working in Rockefeller Center, Beck was now a morning-drive journeyman with a family to feed and a reputation to save. Despite breaking quickly out of the gate at age 18, Beck did not enter the new decade within sight of the industry's front ranks. New York's Z100, the leading station in his world, was not calling him. Neither were program directors in L.A. or Chicago. There were no syndication offers to compete with national zookeepers like John Lander and Scott Shannon.
After his personal and professional meltdown in Houston, Beck found a new job in Baltimore at the city's leading Top 40 station, WBSB, AKA B104. This time, however, he wanted a partner.
On the recommendation of a friend, he settled on a 27-year-old morning jock named Pat Gray. Although Gray and Beck had worked in Houston at the same time, they had never met. But the new team clicked. As Beck likes to tell it, it was DJ love at first sight, with the two bonding within minutes of meeting at the airport. Beck and Gray were unlikely bosom buddies. Gray was a Mormon who home-schooled his kids; Beck was a bong-ripping nihilist who could barely remember his kids' names. But they shared a sense of humor and a love of morning-radio mischief. They also shared similar if inchoate politics. After their partnership ended in 1994, both men would go on to pursue careers in conservative talk radio. They now work together on Beck's nationally broadcast radio show, The Glenn Beck Program.
In 1990, the duo had a once-great Top 40 station to revive. For much of the 1980s, Baltimore's B104 had been among the best-regarded Top 40 stations in the country. But by end of the decade, a succession of program directors and overactive managers began running the station into the ground. Part of the wipeout included a self-destructive image makeover: from hard-driving and flame-throwing to a mellow adult-contemporary station that ran TV spots featuring former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer.
When Beck and Gray were hired, some saw them as saviors.
"Glenn and Pat were brought in to restore the morning zoo feel to the station," says Sean Hall, who read news at B104 during the '80s and early '90s. "I vividly remember the program director coming in early the first day, something he never did, and saying, 'This place really needed this.'"
On Beck and Gray's first show together, they held a contest that rewarded the first listener to buy 104 Slurpies at a 7-11. "They had obvious chemistry from go," says Billie Brown, a DJ at the station.
Along with a new partner, Beck wanted a new mascot. He spent two weeks calling veterinarians and pet stores live on the air, getting advice on gerbils. After choosing one, he announced that he was going to train the world's first bank-tube astronaut. Every day Beck would announce an update, some new detail about the gerbil's first mission. One day, he made a little cape; the next, he named the animal "Gerry the Gerbil." Each development was accompanied by a press release. When all the pieces were in place, Beck and Gray visited a local bank and sent the animal to a teller with a known fear of rodents.
"The build-up was amazing, masterful," says a former director at the station. "PETA was flipping out, picketing the station every day. Beck's on the local news. He took a stupid stunt and turned it into weeks of compelling high-publicity radio. He always knew how to get attention, how to get people talking about him."
The undisputed high point of Beck's tenure in Baltimore was an elaborate prank built around a nonexistent theme park. The idea was to run a promotional campaign for the fictional grand opening of the world's first air-conditioned underground amusement park, called Magicland. According to Beck and Gray, it was being completed just outside Baltimore. During the build-up, the two created an intricate and convincing radio world of theme-park jingles and promotions, which were rolled out in a slow buildup to the nonexistent park's grand opening. They then went to Kings Island in Cincinnati to record their voices over the sounds of a real theme park. On the day Magicland was supposed to throw open its air-conditioned doors, Beck and Gray took calls from enraged listeners who tried to find the park and failed. Among the disappointed and enraged was a woman who had canceled a no-refund cruise to attend the event.
"They never told a soul what they were doing," says Sean Hall, the B104 newsreader. "I didn't know until the morning it aired. People just drove around in circles on the beltway for hours trying to find the place. And that was exactly what it was supposed to elicit."
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.
Despite their on-air synergy, Beck and Gray were not a ratings smash. They had created Magicland out of thin air, but they couldn't summon enough ratings magic to revive B104. After a year of struggling personally and professionally, Beck found himself working alone when Gray's contract was cancelled. When Beck was fired also, the two men spent six months in Baltimore living off of their severance, unemployed and plotting their next move.
The Glenn and Pat Show found second life farther down the radio food chain at the New Haven Top 40 station KC101. Coming from Top 20 Markets like Houston and Baltimore, the southern Connecticut station -- barely flirting with the Top 100 -- was a sign of serious professional decline. Making matters worse, New Haven was the closest Beck had ever come in geographical terms to his boyhood dream of working in Rockefeller Center. But the Manhattan skyline had never been so far from his grasp as it was in New Haven. Now approaching 30, Beck was no longer a boy wonder destined for greatness. He was staring failure in the face.
"There's nothing like being 18 years old in the fifth largest market in America, and then spending the next dozen years dropping 97 spots," Beck later wrote. Even had he wanted to, Beck could not have ignored the daily reminders of failure represented by New Haven's morning commuter rail service to Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. A New York complex was even woven into KC101's public identity: A station promo mock-bragged about its outsized 50,000-watt signal, "Five states and the world's greatest cities -- from a dumpy little building in North Haven."
Beck and Gray arrived at KC101's dumpy little studio building in early 1992. They were morning-show bounty hunters, brought to town to capture the scalps of the dominant morning team in the market -- the "bad boy" duo of Brian Smith and Bruce Barber of WPLR, which had established a lock on the prized 18-to-34 demo. Beck and Gray were famished for the success that had eluded them in Baltimore. A profile for the New Haven Register quoted their new boss, Faith Zila, marveling that the two spent up to eight hours prepping for every show. "I haven't seen anyone spend that kind of time," Zila said. "These guys would kill for a ratings win and I'm the same way."
Shortly after Beck's arrival in Connecticut in the winter of 1992, KC101 was purchased by Clear Channel. Although it was not immediately obvious, this would prove a momentous development in Beck's career. At the time, Clear Channel was still a small player in radio, with just 16 radio stations nationally. This began to change the year after Beck's arrival, when Congress relaxed ownership rules regulating the radio industry. By the year 2000, thanks to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clear Channel had become a behemoth of 1,200 stations.
In early 1992, Beck was practically in on the ground floor of Clear Channel's national growth. Clear Channel's appearance ensured a level of security that was new in Beck's career. Clear Channel CEO Mark Mays told the New Haven Register that February that he had entered the market as a long-term "broadcasting operator, as opposed to just an investor" and stressed that he had "never sold a station." As one of the company's most experienced morning DJs, Beck got to know Mark Mays, who was on his way to becoming the most powerful man in radio.
Along with the purchase of KC101, Clear Channel picked up New Haven's leading news and talk station, WELI. Having this sister station would prove crucial to Beck's early start in talk radio. Before the end of the decade, a melding of the two stations' content would also create what the country would come to know as The Glenn Beck Program.
But if some of the elements that would later lead to the rebirth of Beck's career were coming into alignment, that professional resurrection was still in the future. And his personal life was a mess. During his first two years in Connecticut, Beck slid further toward the abyss.
He was drinking and mixing recreational and prescription drugs. Once again, he earned a rep among his coworkers for being erratic and moody. "When Beck was not taking certain drugs he was supposed to be taking he could act very bizarre," remembers Kelly Nash, who managed Beck in New Haven.
"He didn't want anyone questioning his authority. I remember he fired our consultant and brought in his old friend Jim Sumpter. The two of them created and launched an in-house research project that made absolutely no sense. When I confronted him on the absurdity of his approach, he said, 'This is above your head.' Then he locked the door to his office. I thought, 'This guy is out of control. He's insane.'"
By 1994, Beck was suicidal. He imagined putting a gun inside his mouth and squeezing the trigger to the music of his fellow Washingtonian, Kurt Cobain, recently killed by his own hand. Everywhere Beck turned, things were falling apart. His marriage was failing. Pat Gray, his best friend and creative partner, was sick of Beck's drama, and about to move his family to Salt Lake City. (He would later describe the station under Beck as "a pretty cancerous place to be.") Beck saw his daughters only through a pot haze and in-between blackouts. Twisting the multiple knives in Beck's gut was the regular humiliation of Top 40 promotional stunts. In a typical KC101 event, Beck dressed up as a banana and dove into a pool full of Styrofoam.
Whatever humiliations he suffered, Orson Welles never dressed up as a banana.
Alone and peering over the ledge, Beck pulled back. In November of 1994 he attended his first AA meeting. That month he became a dry drunk and stopped smoking weed. He chopped off his ponytail. As 1995 opened, a sober Beck began imagining a future outside of Top 40 radio.
After getting sober, Beck went on a spiritual quest. He sought out answers in churches and bookstores. Joe Amarante, a local New Haven reporter, remembers Beck wandering into his Catholic church during Mass looking "puzzled." A similar confusion is reflected in Beck's reading list from the period. As Beck has recounted it in his books and stage performances, his first attempt at self-education involved six writers that formed a strange sort of Great Books program. Beck's curriculum included books by Alan Dershowitz, Pope John Paul II, Adolf Hitler, Billy Graham, Carl Sagan, and Friedrich Nietzsche. As he surrounded himself with this brain trust, his friend and former partner Pat Gray argued in favor of the comprehensive worldview offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Beck rejected Gray's overtures, teasingly calling him "freak boy."
Concurrent with Beck's mid- and late-'90s spiritual journey was his self-education in talk radio. In early 1995, Time magazine published a cover story tackling one of the questions raised by the previous November's midterm elections, in which talk radio helped fuel New Gingrich's GOP insurgency. "Is Rush Limbaugh Good for America?" asked the magazine. "Electronic populism threatens to short-circuit representative democracy. Talk radio is only the beginning." (Earlier this month, 15 years after the Limbaugh story, Time ran a feature entitled, "Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?")
By then, Beck was already paying attention. "Beck was a close student of talk radio for years," says Sue Treccase, later his first manager in talk radio. "Before he thought he was ready [to do it himself], Beck paid close attention to successful practitioners of the craft." After finishing his morning show in New Haven, Beck would often tune into 77 WABC AM broadcasting from Manhattan, the nation's biggest news and talk station. Along with Rush Limbaugh, Beck listened to Bob Grant, to whom he continues to pay daily homage by greeting listeners as "sick twisted freaks."
Even before he cleaned up, Beck had waded into local Connecticut politics. Among his and Gray's favorite early on-air targets was Connecticut's Independent governor, Lowell Weicker, who had left the Republican Party after losing his Senate seat. Beck went after the liberal Weicker whenever he got the chance. "Governor Weicker had three teeth pulled the other day," Beck said in a typical bit. "I'd hate to see him in pain. Really excruciating pain."
One local politician who appreciated Beck's regular digs at the governor was the man who had defeated Weicker in a bitterly contested 1988 senate race: Democrat Joe Lieberman. Beck and the senator were friendly throughout the '90s, until they fell out over Lieberman's refusal to back the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998. But before they parted ways, Lieberman would play a role in Beck's search for a worldview and identity by helping Beck enroll part-time at Yale in the fall of 1996. The ADHD-diagnosed Beck didn't last long at Yale. He took one class, "Early Christology," and dropped out.
In the spring of 1997, a colleague of Beck's suggested he do some bits with a local music columnist named Vinnie Penn. A fast-talking future stand-up artist with a bit of a goombah shtick, Penn was Beck's first partner in radio who was more ethnic than Wonder Bread. Beck never clicked with Penn the way he had with Gray, but the two got on well enough to produce four hours of morning radio every day. The two would be on-air partners until Beck made the jump to talk radio in 1999. "When I showed up in '97 Beck was in a sort of wasteland, looking for a partner," says Penn.
Beck hadn't yet given up on making it big in Top 40 radio. Within a month of teaming up with Penn, he began musing about the chances of syndicating their show. "Beck saw the syndication trend coming a mile away, I gotta give it to him," says Penn. "But he came to realize that talk was the easier route for him and the better fit. When I got there he was already wondering how he was going to sustain a career in Top 40 radio when his heart wasn't in it. He was like, 'Where am I headed?' At one point I remember him talking about joining the ministry."
Beck wasn't the only one beginning to chafe under the limits of a morning show based around raffling boy-band concert tickets for teenagers. In 1998, Beck and Penn were getting memos from management urging them to talk more about reality TV and pop culture as a way to attract young listeners. Penn, whom a local paper had dubbed "The Connecticut King of All Media," wanted to do edgier stuff. As his partner began thinking about talk radio, Penn began exploring comedy, eventually landing some guest spots on the Howard Stern Show. Their morning show became a microcosm of these midcareer tensions, with both men straining against the format: Beck talking politics, Penn working blue.
The more Beck dragged politics into the morning show, the more station managers grew alarmed. They told Penn it was his job to stop Beck from getting too deep with callers. Chastened by orders, Beck and Penn plotted ways to try and make politics entertaining. The attempt failed. 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 shit," 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 fucking hated him!'"
The longer Beck stayed sober, the more his work depressed him. The high-flying zoo days were over, and he had no desire to compete with the new breed of shock jocks inspired by Howard Stern. If there were flashes of comedic brilliance on his show, they were not daily occurrences. With four hours to fill a day, it was mostly the radio equivalent of babysitting.
Beck did what he had to do, but his growing interest in talk radio was no secret to his colleagues and listeners. He wasn't just talking about talk radio, he was trying to practice it on his morning show, despite Vinnie Penn's best efforts to reign him in. Among those to spot the problem was Scott Shannon, the legendary zoo DJ who in the late '90s consulted on morning programs for Clear Channel. Part of Shannon's beat was monitoring morning programming at Beck's station, KC101. Whenever he visited the studio, Shannon noticed Beck veering farther away from traditional Top 40 morning radio. By 1999, Beck's desire to talk politics was seriously impacting his performance as a morning DJ.
"He'd get into these long, opinionated conversations with callers," says Shannon. "I had to tell him to cut out the long raps, which were not at all appropriate to the format." Beck acknowledged the problem and on Shannon's advice cut a deal with Clear Channel. Beck would be allowed to host a weekday talk show on one of Clear Channel's AM stations. In exchange, Beck promised to get back to bubble-gum-flavored Top 40 morning radio. "We needed to find a way for him to scratch his talk radio itch and do FM mornings at the same time," says Shannon.
At first, the double-radio career strategy worked. But the more talk radio Beck did, the more he wanted to do. In 1998, he surprised colleagues by linking up with talk radio super-agent George Hiltzik, a Democrat and a heavy hitter with New York's N.S. Bienstock agency who also repped Matt Drudge. (And whose son, Matt, now handles P.R. for Beck.)
"We were all shocked when he landed this big agent," remembers Kelly Nash. "It was like, 'Why is this guy with you?'" With Hiltzik making the phone calls, Beck landed some guest slots on "The Weekend" at New York's WABC, home to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bob Grant.
Within a decade, Beck would be mentioned in the same breath as the WABC all-stars. But first he needed to take a few trips around the block. He wasn't going anywhere until he outgrew his talk radio training wheels.
Beck's first test in real-time topical talk radio came on Aug. 22, 1998, his second show on WABC. The broadcast aired two days after the U.S. launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. Beck has archived the show on his website, and it is the earliest extant recording in the public domain of Beck doing political "hot talk" radio.
It is not a pretty sound. From start to finish, Beck seems unpolished and green as he limps through an attempt to put current events into context. While the show is technically amateurish, Beck displays, even at this early stage in his crossover period, a surprisingly mature command of being both obstinate and uninformed. Over the course of the show's first hour, he manages to propagate dangerous myths about the Vietnam War and those who fought it, denigrate a major world religion, mock peace activists and call for displays of air-power against distant lands.
Beck begins with an ironic playing of Cat Steven's "Peace Train." With the song playing softly in the background, he moves into a trope made famous by Bob Grant: loudly flipping through that morning's edition of the New York Post, the Bible of New York conservative talk radio.
But without his booming Top 40 voice, Beck seems lost. His first sentence is inaudible, followed by a mumbling dismissal of what he calls "hate rallies" taking place across the country in protest of Bill Clinton's cruise missile attacks. Beck recovers from his opening stumble with a long pause. He then riffs on the contents of the Post:
The good news is, partial birth abortion is still legal ... Sexual harassment is behind us. As long as they want it. I'm glad to know it's okay for the most powerful man in the world to prey on a lowly intern ... Best news in the Post today: 53 percent of us have come together to support our military tactics ... Quotes Arab press claiming bombings were a diversion ... Protests all around the United States ... Seventy-five losers in San Francisco. Lo-sers.
A story about the missile attacks catches Beck's attention. He stops to read the dispatch about the terrorist organization targeted by the recent missile strikes. Obviously encountering it for the first time, Beck attempts and fails to pronounce "Osama bin Laden." Embarrassed, he launches into a kind of loopy scat:
A paper in Pakistan received a letter from the spokesperson from, uh ... Asma ... Asma Bin-Lay-deen? Is that his name? Bin Lay-deen? Bin Jelly Bean Green Bean? Mr. Clean? I love him. He's hot. He says he's ready for war with the U.S. Oh, yes. Thank you, Mr. Baked Bean. Loosen the turban! Mr. Clean, Dig-my-scene. Oh, yes! Look at the latrine ...
That settled, Beck introduces himself to his listeners. "I don't really consider myself a conservative," he says, echoing Bob Grant's self-description almost word for word. "I know I don't consider myself a liberal. I have a brain and I like to use it sometimes."
With that, Beck is ready to take some calls.
Someone says, "The only message these people in the Middle East get is brute force." Beck agrees, likening that summer's African embassy attacks to Pearl Harbor.
Another caller says he doubts Clinton would launch strikes just to deflect attention from the Lewinsky scandal, considering that action might cost lives. This confuses Beck, who asks, "Lives? We used cruise missiles." It doesn't occur to Beck that the caller is referring to the Sudanese working inside the medicine factory destroyed by U.S. missiles.
The next caller supports the military action, adding that he "respects Jews, Catholics and Muslims -- everybody the same." To which Beck responds, "I can't go with you that far, Alan, but thanks for calling."
The next caller thinks America needs to "take the fight to the enemy." Beck agrees. "War has changed, it's the way we have to fight it." To drive home the point that "war has changed" and that America has entered a new and dangerous period in its history, Beck then segues to a commercial break with the chorus to "Danger Zone," the 1986 Kenny Loggins hit and "Top Gun" theme song. Further proving you can take the man out of the 1980s, but not the 1980s out of the man, Beck returns from the break with Toto's "Hold the Line."
Back on air, Beck dives back into the subject of dastardly peace protestors. He raises what would become one of his favorite subjects in the coming years: the lessons of Vietnam. "The problem with Vietnam is we didn't fight to win," explains Beck. "When you declare a war, there are no rules. Have you learned the lesson of Vietnam that we can't fight it half-assed? We need to fight it to the last body."
Beck then goes for the emotional jugular for the first time. The move comes in the form of a story about an unnamed "friend" of Beck's. This friend returned from Vietnam only to endure the abuse of protesting peaceniks. "He got off the plane from Vietnam and a woman spat in his face and called him 'baby killer,'" explains Beck. "Then he left his medal of honor in a trash can."
Whether Beck was aware that he was quoting almost verbatim from Sylvester Stallone's closing monologue in "First Blood," it is impossible to say. But whatever its source, the story is dubious. As documented by Jerry Lembcke in his book "The Spitting Image," stories of Vietnam vets being spit upon didn't gain currency until the 1980s. So many of those stories dissolved upon closer inspection that even after serious research efforts, not a single case of a Vietnam veteran being spat upon has ever been documented.
Beck's story about his veteran buddy sounds so pat that even his conservative listeners have to wonder. Within minutes, a caller asks, "About your friend who threw away his medal -- did that really happen?" Beck mutters, "Yes, but he regrets it now," then changes the subject.
A few minutes later, toward the end of the first hour, Beck shifts gears. After expounding on war and peace with the certainty of someone who has spent a life thinking about these things -- and not imitating Muppets between Bon Jovi songs -- he swivels into a disarming Socratic stance of admitted ignorance. It is a move that would play a large role in his future appeal: the average guy who tells you the way it is, then shrugs innocently and says, "But what do I know?" The transition is obviously unpracticed, and it jars, but for the first time in the show, Beck's words ring true.
"I don't have a stinking answer to save my life," he admits. "I don't know what's going on."
At the end of 1998, Kelly Nash called Beck into his office and informed him that his contract would not be renewed when it expired at the end of the following year. "He just couldn't function as a Top 40 DJ anymore," says Nash now. "I told him we'd try and help him get his talk career going, but he was no longer cutting it as a Top 40 morning guy."
But as he honed his talk radio chops alongside his final year of morning radio work, a new Beck had been coming into focus. In 1998, he started dating Tania, the woman who would become his second wife. After they went on a church tour together, looking for a faith, they settled on Mormonism. In 1999, Pat Gray baptized his old friend a Mormon in an emotional ceremony. That same year, Tania and Beck were married. Toward the end of 1999, Clear Channel's Atlanta-based director for talk radio programming, Gabe Hobbs, received a phone call from the company's V.P. for programming in the Northeast. "He told me they had this morning guy in New Haven who wanted to get into talk," recalls Hobbs. "They asked me to go up there and speak with him."
Hobbs, who was also a longtime friend of Beck's agent, George Hiltzik, agreed. During their first conversation, Beck impressed Hobbs with his intelligence and determination. "He told me he had simply outgrown the juvenile nature of Top 40 radio. He said he'd go wherever he had to for a talk show," he says.
Hobbs immediately thought of Tampa, where liberal talk-radio legend Bob Lassiter was likely approaching the end of his career at 970 WFLA, Tampa Bay's leading news-talk station. Hobbs passed Beck's tapes to managers at WFLA, who were impressed enough to fly Beck down for an interview. Beck was torn over the possibility of leaving his young daughters back in Connecticut with his ex-wife Claire, but the chance was too good to pass up. Beck flew down. When the 35-year-old returned from sunny Tampa to a snowy New Haven, he was holding a two-year contract to host an afternoon talk show on WFLA.
"To switch formats like Beck did, and take it immediately to a top 20 market like Tampa, is almost unheard of," notes Kelly Nash, Beck's last boss in FM radio.
Not for the last time in talk radio, Beck beat the odds. At 3 p.m. on January 3, 2000, "The Glenn Beck Program" debuted in Tampa Bay.