Salon.com's Alexander Zaitchik has been doing yeoman's work of late, digging deep into the oftentimes disturbing past of the new face and voice of the angry right, Fox News' Glenn Beck.
Last week, Zaitchik reintroduced us to W. Cleon Skousen, the discredited far-right activist and New World Order conspiracy theorist who argued that the Constitution was a divinely inspired document and that Dwight Eisenhower was a cog in the communist infiltration machine. Skousen's writings, as Zaitchik demonstrates, form the basis of Beck's worldview, and Beck hawks Skousen literature as part of his 9-12 Project. One can be sure that if Skousen were on the other side of the political spectrum and linked to President Obama in even the most trivial way, he'd feature prominently in Beck's conspiracy charts.
This week, Zaitchik is releasing a three-part investigation into Beck's early years as a radio personality and his troubled personal life. In part two, Zaitchik retells how Beck comported himself while trying to put his stamp on the radio business. These vignettes from his brief tenure in Louisville, Kentucky, are telling:
With Dries across the console, Beck directed a rotating ensemble cast and wrote or co-wrote daily gags and skits. Among the show's regular characters was Beck's zoo alter ego, Clydie Clyde. But Clyde was just one of Beck's unseen radio ventriloquist dolls. "He was amazing to watch when he was doing his cast of voices," remembers Kathi Lincoln, Beck's former newsreader. "Sometimes he'd prerecord different voices and talk back to the tape, or turn his head side to side while speaking them live on the air. He used to do a funny 'black guy' character, really over-the-top."
"Black guy" impersonations were just one sign of the young Beck's racial hang-ups. Among the few recordings of "Captain Beck and the A-Team" archived online is a show from February 1986 in which Beck discusses that night's prime-time television schedule. When the subject turns to Peter Strauss, an actor known for starring in television's first miniseries, Beck wryly observes, "They say without [Strauss' early work] the miniseries 'Roots' would never have happened." Clydie Clyde then chimes in with an exaggerated and ironic, "Oh, darn." The throwaway dig at "Roots," which chronicled the life of a slave family, wins knowing chuckles from Beck's co-hosts.
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."
Zaitchik goes on to explain how Beck took this same act from Louisville to Phoenix:
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.