Asked why his new show on Fox News Channel is so popular, Glenn Beck is uncharacteristically muted: "I am just a guy …"
Beck is a guy, but "just" is not the word that most people would use to describe him. Just ask any fan or foe.
The radio talk-show host, former host of a CNN Headline News program and now Fox host, owes his success largely to an everyman appeal, spoken without a filter.
In other words, he forgets to use his "inside" voice.
"His success is pretty simple," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "He puts on a consistently good show that is a great mix of culture and entertainment, with painstaking research to back it up.
"Plus, Beck’s show is personality-driven. People genuinely like him."
And some people genuinely dislike him.
His critics include Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert, who loves to ridicule Beck for shedding tears. Colbert is not alone: Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal Daily Kos Web site, quipped on Twitter last week: "I also love to see Glenn Beck cry. Luckily, he delivers nearly daily."
Democrat strategist Steve McMahon, a frequent cable-news guest, says Beck is popular because of his sharp edges. "It’s not about politics or ideology, it’s about personality," he said, the same reason people tune into Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann.
"It’s not about the news," McMahon explained. "It’s about their take on the news."
Beck has plenty to say about his take on the news. A conversation with him on current events pricks the senses — not because of his point of view, but because of the array of knowledge he releases in a stream of unfinished sentences.
He has a lot of respect for how Fox operates: "It is very entrepreneurial. They hold you responsible for what you do, make sure you are accurate and, after that, well, whatever."
He dismisses the urban legend that his show caters to Republicans: "I am more mad at them than I am the Democrats. The proof is in the show and how many times I have had it out with various members of the GOP over some of their bonehead decisions."
A registered independent, he was way ahead of the curve predicting that a populist revolt — such as the anti-Washington "tea parties" rolling across the country — was afoot. When gas prices soared last summer and the country unknowingly stood on the precipice of the banks, Detroit and the rest of the economy foundering, Beck said the country was "carrying-pitchforks" mad.
It struck a nerve. Immediately, CNN’s offices filled with hundreds of pitchforks from listeners across the country.
"CNN security was not happy with us," said one longtime Beck staffer.
(Oh, a reminder to his critics: The pitchfork moment represented how much people were frustrated with bloated government, and it came when President George W. Bush — a Republican — was in office.)
Beck is an emotional personality — and it’s not a Margaret O’Brien cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat act — because certain issues just get to him.
If the subject veers toward an act of patriotism, a silent heroic act or a concern that the country is veering too far from the Constitution, Beck has no problem letting loose.
Right now, he enjoys an unheard-of audience of more than 2 million viewers in his 5 p.m. EST time slot, when most people are heading home from work, making dinner or shuttling kids to soccer practice.
"His format makes for compelling viewing," Syracuse’s Thompson said. "Not everyone tuning in is head-nodding in agreement … some people are probably throwing things at their television."
Beck takes none of this for granted and does his best to keep two feet on the ground.
"I am just a guy … ," he repeats, his focus already shifting to another subject.