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For talent, the cautionary tale of Glenn Beck

He's less visible and powerful since leaving Fox News perch

Two years ago today, Glenn Beck sat atop the media world, straddling TV and politics.

By conservative (meaning restrained, not right-wing) estimates, nearly 100,000 people attended his “Restoring Honor” rally on Aug. 28, 2010. Fans wondered aloud about his aspirations to elected office. His Fox News Channel program, part of a media empire including bestselling books and a syndicated radio show, buoyed the network’s entire lineup.

A half-presidential term later Beck is doing just fine. He recently inked a new five-year radio deal with Premiere reportedly worth $100 million — roughly doubling his previous contract.

Still, in leaving Fox to pursue his own subscription-based model, Beck appears to have sacrificed a degree of influence for his independence.

Simply put, you don’t hear nearly as much about Glenn Beck as you once did.

The Beck story isn’t about politics, but platforms — and the challenges even well-known talent can face when striking out on their own.

Beck’s rapid rise reflected a voice perfectly suited to the moment. Beck had the good fortune to sign on at Fox News the very week Barack Obama was inaugurated. From that perch, he articulated suspicion and anger fueled by Obama’s election, lashing out with a mix of carnival showmanship, apocalyptic overtones and messianic fervor.

For many the brew quickly became a tonic, and while Beck often took wild rhetorical swings, he occasionally connected. If nothing else, he was virtually impossible to ignore.

Beck’s more intemperate remarks yielded blowback against his advertisers, and the loss of his radio affiliate in New York, which hasn’t been replaced. When strained relations with Fox prompted him to launch his own Web-based venture, he warned detractors, “You will pray for the time when I was only on the air for one hour every day.”

Yet if you’re judged by whether opponents hang on your every word as much as fans do, the threat sounds a trifle hollow.

By its count, Media Matters for America, the progressive watchdog site, posted 3,500 pieces of content railing against Beck from June 30, 2010, through June 30, 2011. For the next 12 months after he exited Fox, that dropped to 291.

Despite continued high ratings, Beck also slipped from third to ninth on Talkers magazine’s “Heavy Hundred” list, ranked behind conservative fixtures Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin; financial guru Dave Ramsey; and liberals Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann.

Beck still attracts millions of listeners, and he recently drew thousands to Cowboy Stadium for a “Restoring Love” rally. As with Howard Stern, though, leaving a major media forum for a niche base — however lucrative — has muted Beck’s voice and relevance.

“We will find each other,” Beck told viewers in his Fox News signoff. Still, it’s hardly a surprise that less than one in six of the 2 million people who watched him daily are willing to pay $10 a month — the equivalent of an HBO subscription — to maintain their video relationship.

For talent planning to launch ventures via YouTube or other direct-to-consumer sites eliminating middle men, there’s a lesson here. True, Beck will never worry about making ends meet, but these days his fiery rhetoric less frequently escapes the comfortable box he’s erected.

For someone who professes to worry so deeply about the country’s future, that would seem to represent a significant tradeoff.

Asked for comment, Beck’s company issued a statement from TheBlaze president-chief strategy officer Betsy Morgan. “While reporters are always going to try and measure the immeasurable, we are pretty pleased with what actual numbers show,” she said, citing Beck’s 10 million radio listeners, 2 million Facebook fans and “more paying subscribers to our streaming video network than some well-known cable channels have viewers. Relevance is not a concern.”

Perhaps not. At Beck’s peak on Fox News, then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann regularly referred to him as Lonesome Rhodes, evoking images of the homespun huckster in “A Face in the Crowd.”

With his current ventures, Beck is clearly more than just another face — or voice. Compared to the role he occupied in the national debate two years ago, however, he’s evidence of how hard it is to stay audible above the media din.

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