Summer School for Conservatives: Glenn Beck Opens Virtual University

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Right-wing television and radio personality Glenn Beck, pictured on the Fox and Friends show, on Wednesday opens Glenn Beck University online.Glenn Beck fans in search of a deeper understanding of the media master's libertarian message will soon be able to join him in a new venue. The commentator recently announced the launch of Beck University, a collection of online seminars. From July 7 through September 1, class will be in session every Wednesday night at 8 pm.

Beck U will open with nine single-session seminars -- Faith 101, 102 and 103; Hope 101, 102 and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103 -- for subscribers of Beck's Insider Extreme group, which costs between $6.26 and $9.95 per month.

The Crown Prince of Conservative Media

Beck University is only the latest step in the commentator's steadily-growing media empire. Originally a morning radio host, Beck stepped into the infotainment market in 2000 with The Glenn Beck Program, a talk radio show in Tampa, Florida. Debuting at number 18 in the market, Beck's combination of humor, news and opinion captivated listeners; within a year, his program was number one in the market, beating The Dr. Laura Show. In 2002, Premiere Radio Networks started syndicating Beck, launching him in 47 stations across the country; by the end of 2005, he was being carried by 200 stations. Today, his radio network reaches over 400 stations and his contract with Premiere nets him approximately $10 million a year.

In 2006, Beck made the move to television with a show on CNN's Headline News. He stayed with the network for just over two years before jumping ship to Fox, where he took over the coveted 5 pm slot on Fox News. According to Forbes, Beck's Fox contract pays him approximately $2 million per year. It also provides a promotional springboard for his other money making ventures, including speaking engagements, which bring in roughly $3 million annually.

In addition to his radio and television earnings, Beck also draws a steady revenue stream from his publishing efforts. He has a profit participation deal with Simon and Schuster, which has sold an estimated 3.5 million copies of his books and which puts out his monthly periodical, Fusion Magazine. Beck's yearly publishing revenues are estimated at $13 million, a number that seems likely to grow as he becomes an increasingly influential conservative tastemaker. As Daily Finance's Sarah Weinman points out, Beck's daily audience of 2 million television viewers and 9 million radio listeners tend to enthusiastically support any books that he endorses, a phenomenon that has transformed him into a useful ally for many writers.

The final brick in Beck's media empire is online, where his digital offerings net an estimated $4 million annually. Much of this revenue comes from Beck's "Insider" and "Insider Extreme" online clubs, in which members pay between $4.58 and $9.95 per month for access to special podcasts, exclusive documentaries and other material. As a special option for members of the Insider Extreme group, Beck University will presumably increase the cachet -- and attraction -- of Beck's special group.

Bringing Edutainment to a Conservative Audience

Beck occupies a unique place in American media, floating between news and entertainment, humor and commentary. On his radio program and television show, he often takes a serious -- even apocalyptic -- tone in his analysis of current events. With his discussion of conspiracy theories and his stone-face announcement that viewers should "think the unthinkable" in order to protect themselves, he positions himself as a serious face of American news and commentary.

On the other hand, Beck also tours as a comedian, playfully poking fun at liberal politicians and commentators. Pressed to describe himself, he seems to be trying to lay claim to both the legitimacy of the news desk and the levity of the clown car: in a New York Times article, he stated that "I'm a rodeo clown... It takes great skill." He went on to note that, "I say on the air all time, 'if you take what I say as gospel, you're an idiot.'"

This confusing combination of absolute seriousness and occasional satire has confused Beck's allies as well as his critics. In the Weekly Standard, writer Matthew Continetti attacked the broadcaster for his assertion that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were more evil than Stalin, Pol Pot and Pontius Pilate: "This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin... And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly."

Called on the carpet by America's most famous conservative magazine, Beck's producer Stu Burguiere responded with derision: "Any 'idiot' reading this would realize this segment from the book is a joke... Does anyone really believe that Glenn thinks Theodore Roosevelt and Josef Stalin are equals? One of the two did some progressive things that Glenn doesn't like. The other killed tens of millions of people."

Beck University: Serious or Not?

Beck's sometimes baffling balance between over-the-top incitements and serious-sounding analysis carries over into his online school. On the one hand, Beck U evokes the trappings of a real university: it has an official-looking coat of arms that features the outline of a quill, a buffalo and George Washington, set against a field of black and teal. For that matter, its motto, "Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo," or "revolution against tyrants, submission to God," seems to be a sincere distillation of Beck's philosophy.

And Beck seems to be serious about the school. On the Beck University website, he describes the program as "college-level courses" that will teach viewers about American history, economics and government. However, the university's faculty seems to be a decidedly mixed bag. Of the three professors, only one, James R. Stoner, is a recognized authority on the subject that he will be teaching. The chair of Louisiana State University's political science department, Stoner has published several well-regarded books and papers on America's Constitution and government. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, an online site for academics, Stoner explained his involvement with Beck U, stating that he is "someone who wants to teach" and was eager to address a larger audience.

The other two teachers on the Beck University faculty don't really fit into the traditional academic mold. One, David L. Buckner, is a lecturer at Columbia University, where he teaches organizational psychology. At Beck U, however, he will be lecturing about American economics.

Beck describes the third professor, David Barton, as "The Library of Congress in shoes," and promises audience members that "you will learn more in his classes than I think you've ever learned about American history." Yet Barton has had a rocky past as a historical scholar: an evangelical minister and political activist, he has been attacked by several historians -- and then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter -- for allegedly manufacturing quotes and evidence to support his assertion that America's founding fathers were evangelical Christians.

Ultimately, the question of Beck U's legitimacy as a school of higher learning is, well, academic. On one level, the classes seem designed to help the broadcaster's fans get a better feeling for the historical and intellectual underpinnings of his unique perspective. On another level, they represent a significant contribution to his already impressive media empire. While Beck's representatives could not be reached for comment on this story, it seems likely that Beck U is designed as a money-making venture: not only will it likely inspire fans to join the Extreme Insider group, but the university's merchandise -- which is already available on its website -- should be a lucrative sideline.

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