Citizen Glenn Beck: The Former Fox Pundit Channels Orson Welles

When Glenn Beck announced he would be leaving Fox News last week, he fixed his maniacal gaze on the camera, which was still for once, and delivered a cryptic promise.

“We will find each other,” he said. “I will continue to tell the story, and I’m going to be showing you other ways for us to connect.

“But I have other things to do. Not because it’s good or bad for business, but I think you out of all the people will truly get this: Our only business is the business of freedom and our country at this time.”

The speech was of a piece with Mr. Beck’s patent schmaltz. Viewers knew the announcement was imminent; the Fox News organization had been leaking vitriol for months, alerting press that his ratings were dipping, that he drove off advertisers by the hundreds.

But its earnestness, genuine or not, recalled a similar manifesto from Citizen Kane, slipped into the front page of the first edition of Charles Foster Kane’s Inquirer at the eleventh hour: “I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”

Kane is no doubt a character close to Mr. Beck’s heart. He grew up listening to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air. Mr. Beck’s modest production company, Mercury Radio Arts Inc., was named for Welles’ radio theater, and Mr. Beck once re-created Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast stunt. And the loyal and ragtag crew of Mercury is poised to perpetuate Mr. Beck’s signature hysteria in a devilish style that would make  Welles the prankster proud.

Like Welles’ radio entertainments, and not too far from Kane’s more propagandizing stunts, Glenn Beck’s brand of commentary is only feasible because it is not journalism (and because lawsuits for slander are difficult to win in the United States). Despite appearing on the Fox News channel–a putatively journalistic organization–Mr. Beck routinely couches his paranoid raves with disclaimers like “I’m not a journalist” or “Don’t take my word for it, do your own homework.”

But Mr. Beck is in the business of what these days passes for journalism. In August, Mercury Radio Arts expanded its Web outfit to include The Blaze–a news and opinion site aimed to attract a broader audience than Mr. Beck’s Tea Party diehards.

By building a staff with shock-jock DNA—where personality is vaunted over ideology or objectivity—Mercury has within its ranks neutralized the political effects of Beck’s work.

When its launch was announced, The Blaze was instantly dubbed the conservative answer to the Huffington Post. It was the simplest comparison to make. In November, former Huffington Post executive Betsy Morgan was brought on to manage The Blaze’s business operations. Ms. Morgan claims to be apolitical, and she told The Observer that for her the appeal of working for the Huffington Post and The Blaze is the same.

“When you join an organization like HuffPo or like Blaze and Mercury, there isn’t that set of historical rules,” she said. “I remember Arianna was like that, she’d never worked in a conventional company; it was imaginative and entrepreneurial.

“This is best of all worlds. It’s small and intimate, but the reach is very big, it’s a national brand,” she said. “I thought, ‘My God, how many places are there out there?'” One on each side of the political spectrum, evidently.

Since the HuffPo’s merger with AOL, Arianna Huffington has scrambled to shed the Post of its leftist reputation, telling the press that the site looks “beyond left and right,” because “the two-party system is broken.” But Ms. Morgan embraces The Blaze’s slant as that of a scrappy start-up. After all, there’s a target demographic that needs to be converted into a growing readership.

Rather than explicitly promote The Blaze–his name is nowhere on the home page, and the site is minimally promoted on–Mr. Beck cites it as a news source on his radio show. Bill O’Reilly recently did the same on The O’Reilly Factor. It’s akin to citing early Huffington Post items as news. Overseen by editor in chief Scott Baker, formerly of Breitbart TV, The Blaze’s miniscule editorial department of about five bloggers aggregate news articles and television clips, often material directly related to Mr. Beck or his televised vendettas. Sample headlines: “So Where Are Those BP Oil Spill Payments Going? Local Gov’ts Get Millions for iPads, Concerts, & Cars”; “Jesus Statue Set Ablaze in Minn.”; “To Fund or Not to Fund: Planned Parenthood Performed One Abortion Every 95 Seconds Last Year”; “Why Is This Florida Woman Addicted to Eating … Sofas?”

Having gone live six months ago, The Blaze draws about 2.9 million unique visitors each month, according to Quantcast, a number that outpaces Talking Points Memo, Wonkette and Daily Kos. The gap between The Blaze’s operations and its influence is indicative of a dynamic crucial to Mercury Arts Radio’s success. A close-knit staff of 55 collaborates on each of Mr. Beck’s projects, be they books or live shows or Web videos, but Mr. Beck is the outfit’s single public face. Yet Mercury avoids the the bad press following controversy (e.g., the death threats to the CUNY professor Frances Fox Piven) even as it shares the financial rewards of his inflammatory–and therefore viral–antics.

“Glenn includes you in a conversation, includes you in the dream and the framework,” said Kraig Kitchin, director of sales for The Blaze.

“It’s a really central part of the operation; we hang out, people talk through the issues together and don’t feel like he’s going to get mad at us if we disagree with him,” said Steve “Stu” Burguiere, Mr. Beck’s longtime co-host.

In a fluid and collaborative office, Mr. Kitchin explained, the organizing principle is “the best idea wins.”

“We’re going to rework it into an open newsroom,” Ms. Morgan said. “It almost makes me feel like I’m back in Soho again.”

Ms. Morgan has that downtown feeling, but whether she and Mr. Beck can turn The Blaze into an operation worth, say, $360 million is another question.

AS HIS BUSINESS got bigger, Charles Foster Kane abandoned his antitrust ideology, buying out his rival newspaper’s staff en masse like a group lot of antiques. Mr. Beck’s media company is growing, too, but for now his squadron remains more guerilla than colonialist.

The core of Mercury Arts Radio is mostly young, male and outsider. Mercury president Chris Balfe, 31, allied himself with Mr. Beck, then a Top 40 DJ, when he was just 18 by offering to build his Web site. Mr. Balfe dropped out of school and they founded Mercury together. Mr. Beck’s sidekick, Mr. Burguiere, 35, was working in radio promotions straight out of high school, “hanging balloons,” until he began interning for Mr. Beck. Within a year he was producing The Glenn Beck Show. As Mercury’s books division grew more robust, Mr. Balfe enlisted his brother Kevin, 37, who had previously founded a financial services publisher, to oversee it. Mr. Beck takes care of his Jebediah Lelands.

“What’s amazing about Chris and Glenn and the early people is that they didn’t come from mainstream media,” said Ms. Morgan. When you’ve been trained by the legacy companies, she explained, “you come out with a certain set of rules you’ve got to adhere to.”

By building a staff with shock-jock DNA–where personality is valued over ideology or objectivity–Mercury has within its ranks neutralized the political effects of Mr. Beck’s work. Ms. Morgan claims to be apolitical–though since she’s now worked at both ends of the spectrum, one might simply call her mercenary. She said there are staffers who identify as centrist or liberal, but in practice all spout the Beck party line.

Mercury’s young sound technician is a voice-over actor named Nick Daley, who is gay. He recently made a video for the LGBT advocacy campaign “It Gets Better” and posted it to his YouTube page. When a commenter implied Mr. Daley is a hypocrite for working for Mr. Beck (who has used wedding cake dolls to illustrate how gay marriage leads to polygamy), Mr. Daley came to his boss’s defense.

“I’ve worked with him for 10 years, and not only has he been gracious and respectful to me, he’s gone to bat for me when an incident arose,” he wrote in the comments.

Citizen Glenn Beck: The Former Fox Pundit Channels Orson Welles