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CNN Headline News adds talk radio's Beck to lineup

The right-leaning host has a large listenership, but the TV network says politics won't drive his new show.

January 23, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — After reaching its highest ratings ever last year with a new lineup of topical, personality-driven prime-time programs, CNN Headline News has declared the experiment a success and is adding another provocative talk show host to the mix: Glenn Beck, a syndicated radio personality with a decidedly rightward bent.

Beginning in April, Beck -- whose popular radio show, "The Glenn Beck Program," is broadcast on more than 200 stations around the country -- will host an hourlong program for the CNN sister channel on "water-cooler" topics. The Philadelphia-based broadcaster recently moved his radio show to New York to be able to do the daily cable program.

Although Beck is best known as a conservative talk show host, network executives said the show would not be devoted to politics, but rather would cover a range of issues, including world events and pop culture.

"We did not set out to do a political show or a show from any political point of view or ideology," said Ken Jautz, executive vice president of CNN Worldwide, who runs the channel. "We set out to find an entertaining, engaging talk show host, and his brand of humor and lighthearted approach was one we liked.

"We like to think of this as Glenn conducting a conversation, not a confrontation," Jautz added. "We want a cordial atmosphere. It's not hot; it's not aggressive."

Still, Beck's selection has alarmed some liberal media watchdog groups, who view his new show as a sign that the CNN network is embracing the kind of opinionated conservative talk shows that helped make Fox News the top-ranked cable news channel. They've also accused Beck of using inflammatory rhetoric and have distributed excerpts of some of his most controversial statements, including his musings about killing liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and his comments that "scumbags" in New Orleans were getting all the attention after Hurricane Katrina.

"For CNN to tap an unapologetic preacher of hate signals a desperate and misguided ploy for ratings without regard for the thousands of Americans Beck has offended with his malicious commentary," David Brock, president of Media Matters, said in a statement.

Beck said comments he had made satirically had been taken out of context, describing his style as the kind of "harsh comedy" employed on the Fox television show "The Simpsons." He called himself a conservative but not a partisan, noting that he once voted for Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

"I'm a guy who has opinions, who is a conservative, but I am not a guy who believes you should listen to me and guide your life by what I say," the 41-year-old talk show host said. "I do say controversial things, but I don't believe I'm a hate-filled guy."

He said that although he planned to discuss politics on the program, it was not going to be the main thrust of the show.

"It will feel very different from anything else than I think you're seeing on cable news," he said. "By 8 or 9 at night, I know what the news is and I certainly don't want to watch two people yell at each other about the news. My philosophy about the show is to take the day's events, digest them and present them in a much more entertaining and light way."

Headline News executives said that they had examined some of Beck's more provocative statements before hiring him and felt comfortable with his approach.

"He has a style [on his radio show] that is given to lengthy monologue and anecdotes, and oftentimes that type of style, if you pluck one line or another out of it, is subject to misrepresentation," Jautz said.

Jautz also dismissed the idea that in putting together a package of personality-driven shows, the network is imitating Fox News' formula.

"We want to be different from what else is out there," he said.

There's no question that in tapping Beck, the network is getting a personality with a built-in audience. As the host of one of the top 10 talk shows in the country, with a cumulative weekly listenership of 2.75 million, Beck is an "up-and-coming dynamo" who commands a loyal following, said Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio industry trade magazine Talkers.

"He's not just a talking-point conservative -- he's a full-fledged radio entertainer," Harrison added. "He's got creative bits and he's very familiar to all kinds of popular culture. There's more to his repertoire than just what bill is in Congress."

Network executives said Beck was selected because he was a proven commodity and attracted the kind of young viewers that Headline News was seeking. "I see this show as the next step in the evolution of the network," Jautz said.

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