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During the opening of his TV show Monday, the start of his last week on Fox News, Glenn Beck ended a speech that touched on everything from youth violence to European socialism to the meaning of democracy by sticking his face in the camera and yelling as loud as we've ever heard him: "America! Hello! When are you going to wake up?"
His tone was unusually harsh, even for a semi-demagogue whose endless anger over evil "elites," "leftists" and other Democratic bogeymen manifests itself in everything from sarcasm to preacher-like hellfire-and-brimstone warnings to tears.
It was almost as if he were afraid no one was listening.
Which might soon be the case – at least when it comes to his TV career.
Beck leaves Fox News Thursday following a 2 ½-year run in which he may have exerted the greatest impact of any figure, on the left or right, in solidifying the cable news talk game as one big partisan shouting match. His next gig – his own pay Internet TV channel – could increase the segmentation of the talk business by providing a viable model for his peculiar brand of entertainment. But it's unclear whether a large audience will pay up to $10 a month to be on the receiving end of a megaphone that basically reinforces their worldview.
If Beck succeeds, perhaps it won't be about his politics as much as his abilities as a medicine-man-style showman. While he endures on radio, Rush Limbaugh's shtick never quite translated to TV like Beck's gimmickry with the blackboard that gave chalky voice to conspiracy theories and his knack for summoning waterworks on command. Even if his antics seem laughable to many of us, Beck is as responsible as anyone for the rise of the Tea Party, whose true influence may be best gaged in the 2012 elections.
Beck’s initial huge ratings eventually dwindled, though he leaves TV still trouncing his late afternoon cable news competition. The loss of advertisers amid constant controversy and Beck's unpredictability apparently became too much even for Fox News, which nonetheless benefitted from the exposure the host generated – he even succeeded in making his colleague Bill O'Reilly look like a moderate by comparison.
Even if there is still bickering over the attendance estimates, Beck's Restoring Honor rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial last summer drew at least enough people to fill a football stadium. It also inspired an unprecedented parody rally – and exposed some of his often-fact challenged, alarmist rhetoric to a larger audience, perhaps to his detriment.
This summer, instead of gearing up for a rally, Beck will be prepping for the start of his subscriber-based GBTV (network motto: The Truth Lives Here), with his new show set to hit the Web on Sept. 12, just as the endless presidential campaign season kicks into a new gear.
We're assuming that America certainly won't have woken up by then, at least in Beck's estimation. But whether America will be listening to his shouting is anybody's guess.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.