Mercury Confidential: Building a network

By Meg Storm

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at Mercury Radio Arts? Just how do all of Glenn’s crazy ideas get done? Does anyone ever get a chance to sleep? Well, over the next few months we are going to take you inside MRA, giving you the inside scoop on everything from publishing to special events, 1791 to Markdown to GBTV. We will be interviewing members of our New York, Columbus, and Dallas staff, bringing you all the info, so you can know what it’s really like to work for Glenn. Part 1 (Kevin Balfe – Publishing), Part 2 (Liz Julis – GBTV/Special Events)

Joel Cheatwood, President/Chief Content Officer at The Blaze, has lived in just about every major city in the United States, and he has worked for just about every major network. For a man who has spent his remarkable career running news divisions and creating programming for the biggest names in the business, it may come as a surprise that he once hated TV… with a passion.

Cheatwood started his career while he was still in college as a sport’s reporter for a small daily newspaper in Fresno, California. After about a year with the paper, his editor approached him with some bittersweet news.

“One day, I think I had been there about a year, the editor called and said, ‘We are going to lay off a whole bunch of people, and I am keeping you, which is the good news. The bad news is I am taking you off sports, and now you have to go report on city government.’ I had no interest, no idea, no knowledge,” Cheatwood recalled.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have much time to get his head around the idea. The editor gave him an assignment for 7 o’clock that night that had him reporting on a city council meeting. “I showed up and was totally lost,” he said. “I had no idea what they were talking about – zoning ordinances and all this stuff – and I was expected to write a story that night. Fortunately, a veteran reporter saw that I was sweating bullets and pulled me aside and basically said, this is what it boils down to, and she helped me write my story that night.”

The job ultimately led Cheatwood into the television industry, which ended up being a much tougher transition than he anticipated. “I followed my friends into television, and I hated it with a passion,” he said laughing. “I was used to writing these long stories and not worrying too much about editing, and suddenly I had to write these 30 second stories, so that was frustrating.”

On top of that, the technology was extremely difficult to work with. “When I started, way back in the dark ages, we were using film – film and some video – so when you scripted stories you had to script with A-roll, B-roll, gang roll – it was this horrible complex scripting thing that I just couldn’t get my head around and just hated it.”

But everything changed soon after that. “For some reason, after several weeks, I don’t know, but the light bulb went off and I got it, and from that point forward I just fell in love with television. I loved the technical aspect of it and embraced it.”

From there, Cheatwood crisscrossed the country working his way up the ladder. “I went to work at a CBS affiliate in Fresno, California, while I was still in college; and then moved to San Francisco – a CBS affiliate in San Francisco. I became the youngest executive producer in a major market television station. Then I went back to Fresno to be a news director; and then to Richmond, Virginia as a news director; and then Cleveland, Ohio as an assistant news director; and then Miami as a news director at WSVN; and then to Los Angeles to work for Twentieth Century Fox, where I was the vice president of non-fiction programming; and then back to Miami, same station, and took over news programming and promotion; and then we bought a station in Boston, and I oversaw news and promotion at both of those stations; and then to Chicago to the NBC station; then to Philadelphia to the CBS station where I was station manager.”

Is your head spinning? Because he is not done yet…

“From there I became the executive vice president of news for CBS owned and operated stations. I left there and went to CNN, where I became the executive director of program development; and then to Fox News where I was the senior vice president of program development; and then here.”

“I think we have lived in every major city in the country,” he joked.

It was about seven years ago, while Cheatwood was working at CNN, that a little known radio host named Glenn Beck first came across his radar.

“I will never forget it. I got a phone call from George Hiltzik, who is Glenn’s agent,” he said. “For some reason I think I picked up my own phone that day, which was odd, and George said, ‘My name is George Hiltzik, and I am the only agent at NS Bienstock that you haven’t met,’ which I thought was pretty clever. And he said, ‘I have this radio client. Would you do me a favor and just listen to a part of his show because I think he has something, and I would like your opinion.’”

It was fate that Cheatwood even answered his phone, let alone listened to some of Glenn’s radio program. “I also oversaw talent development at CNN, so I was just inundated with this stuff, but for whatever reason, I logged onto the website, and I started listening. I was captivated and listened for like 15 minutes. George called me back, I think it was the next day, and said, ‘Did you listen? What did you think?’ And I said, ‘I think there is something there.’”

It was Glenn’s candidness that made him so attractive to Cheatwood. “I mean the guy is genuine and compelling, and he has whatever that ‘it’ sort of thing is.”

“There is a just a complete genuine nature that you can’t teach because it’s just him,” he continued. “He means what he says and says what he means. And you can really tell. There is a trust and a bond that is built with his audience. You know, outside of Oprah, and I don’t even think she has it, there is not a talent or personality that has that bond with their audience. I mean it is just incredible.”

Because he knew nothing about Glenn other than what he heard on the radio program, Cheatwood asked Hiltzik for a little more information. Hiltzik suggested Cheatwood send one of his people down to Philadelphia (where Glenn was broadcasting from at the time) to sit in on some of Glenn’s radio broadcast.

“So I did kind of a mean thing,” Cheatwood explained. “I decided to send a producer, who shall remain nameless, I mean I love her, but she hates everything to begin with. She is tough to please, and her default setting is cynicism – nobody is as good as they say they are, everybody sucks until they prove differently. So I thought, I’ll send her, she’s going to go down there and say, ‘This guy is a whacko,’ and it will be done.’”

A couple days later, Cheatwood sent his person to Philadelphia. About an hour into Glenn’s broadcast, he got a response from the producer that he never expected to hear.

“I said, ‘Well what do you think?’ And she said, ‘He is amazing.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding. What happened to you?’ And she said, ‘No seriously, this guy is the real deal. He’s got it, and you can tell he means what he says.’”

Cheatwood knew that if Glenn could impress this particular producer, there was definitely something there to work with. “I think I called George [Hiltzik] this time, and I said, ‘She likes him. My person likes him. So why don’t we set up a meeting?’”

It took a couple of weeks to schedule, but the meeting day finally arrived. Cheatwood remembers Glenn arrived with Chris Balfe, Chief Operating Officer of Mercury, Hiltzik, and another representative from NS Bienstock. In an industry where first impressions are key, Glenn certainly took an interesting approach.

“The first thing Glenn said is, ‘I really appreciate you having us here, but you need to understand that CNN would be the absolute last place I would do television. In fact, I don’t want to do television, but this would be the last place. But, as a courtesy, I decided to come,’” Cheatwood recalled laughing. “I spent the next hour trying to convince him that we were trying to create a place that would be very welcoming for him, and I could see that he was slowly warming up to it.”

By the end of the conversation, Cheatwood had a proposition. “I said, ‘Here is the deal I would offer you. Let’s shoot a pilot. I will pay for the entire thing. All I need is your time and your talent. And the worst thing that could happen is you’ll walk out of here with a DVD that you can use to go to HBO with or go to Showtime with or whatever. The best case scenario is we do something really special, and we do business together.’”

The meeting ended with Glenn agreeing to consider the offer, and Cheatwood got his answer soon after. “I think it was a couple of days later that [Glenn] called and said, ‘Ok, if you are willing to do that, I am willing to give you the time.’”

Little did Cheatwood know, getting Glenn on board would actually be the easy part. “We spent the next couple of months coordinating schedules and shooting this pilot,” he explained. “And then it took me a year to sell it to CNN.”

In January 2006, CNN’s Headline News (now HLN) announced that Glenn would be joining its evening line-up with a daily topical talk show aptly titled, “Glenn Beck.” The show got off to a rocky start, and not long after the show debuted, Cheatwood remembers having a conversation with Glenn that changed everything.

“I probably gained more respect for him from this experience than anything else,” Cheatwood said. “Glenn had been on the air for 30 days at CNN. He walked into my office, and he said, ‘Ok, we have been on the air a month. What do you think?’ It was of one of those things where my door was open and he just walked in, so I told him to close the door.”

“And Glenn said, ‘Well this isn’t good.’ So he sits down, and I said, ‘Glenn, the show is a train wreck.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I kind of think so too.’ And I said, ‘I know you thought you could walk in and just do TV, but it’s a train wreck.”

Glenn, whose great strength is his ability to convey his passion and connect with the audience, was struggling to relate to the content of the show. “Glenn said, ‘You know, I am just not connecting with the content. I feel like I am just kind of saying the words.’ I said, ‘Okay, starting tomorrow, don’t do any story you don’t feel passionate about.’ And he said, ‘Can I do that?’ And I said, ‘You absolutely can do that. You have to do that. So from now, you only talk about things that you feel you have a passion for – that you feel you can convey that sort of visceral connection to the story to the viewer.’ And he said, ‘You’re right. That is exactly what I am going to do.’”

“And that was the turning point,” Cheatwood said. “From that point forward the show just got exponentially better, and to this day – as a witness every day I can tell you – he will not do a story that he is not somehow connected to.”

Cheatwood ultimately left CNN, while Glenn’s program was still on the air, and joined Fox News as the senior vice president of program development. Cheatwood, who knew the terms of Glenn’s contract, was eager to work with him again.

“I left CNN and had been at Fox for a year. I contacted Chris [Balfe] as soon as I was able to, and just said, ‘Hey, I would love to talk to you about coming over here.’ And those conversations went on for a very long time,” Cheatwood said. “There were at least three or four dinners with Roger Ailes, and really up until a week or two prior, I didn’t think we would be able to make a deal. Glenn was such a different animal for Fox. Fox was used to developing their own talent, but Glenn was already a star, so it was a marrying of cultures to finally get that done.”

Cheatwood remained at Fox News until April 2011, when he left the network to join Mercury Radio Arts, Glenn’s company, full time. He came on as President/Programming of GBTV, and oversaw the launch of the network and creation of its programming. With the merge of GBTV and The Blaze, Cheatwood is now one of four presidents of The Blaze. “I am the chief content officer,” he explained. “So I oversee all content for TV, web,– whatever The Blaze is involved in, I oversee content for.”

This means Cheatwood, maybe more than anyone else, is on the receiving end of the bulk of Glenn’s ideas – which means of a lot of his day is spent figuring out what’s possible and what’s not.

“I mean if Glenn generates 10,000 ideas a day, you somehow have to be able to tell him that 9,990 of them are not going to get done. Or 5,000 of them are just so outrageous, we could never do them,” Cheatwood said. “The major challenge is often just managing his expectations and his creativity.”

It is this same creativity, however, that made working for Glenn so enticing. “I have had the pleasure of working with some incredible creative geniuses. I worked with Barry Diller; I worked with Rupert Murdoch; I worked with Roger Ailes. Glenn is the most creative person I’ve worked for. He sees the world so differently, not just in terms of the ideas that he generates, but he will take ideas that you have and turn them into something you could never imagine. Being in that creative environment is exhilarating.”

“And the second part of that,” he continued, “is you never know what we are going to do, which is great. I am a person that – and as my career hopping would indicate – has a pretty short attention span. I am not the type of person who can work on the same widget every day, and I think this company just moves so rapidly, in so many different directions, it’s just a great roller coaster ride.”

For Cheatwood, who says he was not the least bit surprised when Glenn pitched the creation of GBTV, the merging of GBTV and The Blaze is a natural progression with exciting opportunities.

“I think first and foremost it is the combination of two great resources,” he said. “And we decided to take full advantage of the sum versus just the value of the parts. As we did the equation, it just made all the sense in the world. Suddenly you are combining not only all the physical resources that we have, but all the consumers. And you have this incredible multi-media platform that we would be foolish not to take advantage of.”

He is also looking forward to better utilizing the content The Blaze already creates. “The Blaze will continue to operate as a news and information source, and we think that is just an enormous upside. We don’t think we have scratched the surface in terms of the kind of journalism that The Blaze can provide,” Cheatwood explained. “I think that the TV side will be a direct beneficiary. I would love to see the journalists at The Blaze really play a leadership role in developing the content for all of our shows, so that Glenn is routinely drawing from stories The Blaze is breaking, and Real News certainly, and then new shows that we develop. It’s kind of a goldmine of information and ideas that we can develop for television.”

It will be exciting to see what comes out of this new endeavor, as ideas continue to evolve and new opportunities emerge. Cheatwood’s career has taken him so many places over the years, and he has pretty much experienced it all. Perhaps it is the fact that Glenn never ceases to keep him on his toes that makes their partnership work so well.

When asked to share his favorite story about Glenn, Cheatwood recounted a moment that probably took 10 years off his life, but perfectly sums up what it is like to work with Glenn.

The story involves a live broadcast from Wilmington, Ohio of Glenn’s Fox News show. The broadcast was part of his America’s First Christmas events in 2010.

It was nearing 5 o’clock, and the theater was filled with excited fans. “We are in this theater, and it was packed,” Cheatwood recalled. “You know there was this gorgeous stage and there is great anticipation and electricity.”

Because this was an older theater, the backstage area was very convoluted, with a maze of dimly lit tunnels separating the stage from Glenn’s dressing area. “The floor manager was saying, ‘5 minutes to air,’ so we are trying to get word to Glenn,” he said. “It was just this weird sort of cut up path from where he was to the stage.”

“The stage manager says, ‘2 minutes to air,’ and no Glenn. ‘One minute to air,’ still no Glenn. So I am on stage, and I am just running through my head, Okay, we are going to go live on Fox News at 5 o’clock, what if he isn’t here? And I am thinking, Do I try to find Stu and stick him in front of the camera? Do I walk out there and say, ‘We hope Glenn will join us soon’?”

“I am already envisioning the repercussions. I am going to get this phone call from Roger Ailes, so I am prepping in my head for this catastrophe,” Cheatwood said. “And the stage manager says, ‘30 seconds to air.’ I am literally sweating bullets.”

“At about 30 seconds to air Spencer, Glenn’s security guard, comes barreling from this dark maze, and Glenn is running behind him and looks at me, and I just shake my head. He says, ‘What? I am here. What?’ And literally I would say seven seconds later we were on the air. And this whole time Glenn is like, ‘Hey, what? I made it.’”

“He does that a lot,” Cheatwood said with a laugh. “That’s Glenn.”

Cheatwood is happily married to “the most wonderful woman in the world” who has been his partner in this great adventure. He also has two grown sons and three furry kids who rule the house.

  • http://www.artinphoenix.com/gallery/grimm snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

    Crazy ideas are only termed as “crazy” until one of two things occures:

    They succeed, and thus are declared original and ingenious.
    They fail and are considered redundant and judged harshly in hindsight.

    The one part many forget with ‘crazy ideas’ is the people behind those ideas, from the top down and bottom up who actually make them happen. And it is the people who can dream these ‘crazy ideas’ in such a means, that others can grasp and make them reality, that shows where the true forces of change in the world come about.

    Remember that even the Republic of America, the United States, began as a dream.

  • landofaahs

    Some of us are building our own network.  Some of us want to stand ready to help build after the collapse but we know there will be a period of attack on anyone with anything following it.  If that happens, we are going to be “Economic Travelers” until such time as is ripe.

  • landofaahs

    “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man, if mountains and oceans can be traversed by man, anything made by man can be also.”  Parapharased of course– Gen. Patton

  • http://www.artinphoenix.com/gallery/grimm snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

    Very true, its like one of my favored mentions of WW2, the ardennes were said to be impossible, yet in 1940 and 1944, the Germans apperantly were never told and caught France and the Allies respectively with their britches down on their knees.

  • landofaahs

    What would happen if someone said ”they ought to do to odumbass everything they said should be done to Bush”?  We are living, I fear in the time where many people(lefties) are given strong delusions.  See if it fits according to your belief and get back to me.

  • landofaahs

    We do live in interesting times and I feel sorry for so many people who are unable to even defend themselves against the evil onslaught that is coming.  When the time comes, those who can stay and help will have to be stealth.  That’s my meat. Be ready to disappear, there are some good books that have good pointers on how to do it.  Mobility is Key at crunch time.

  • http://nipp.me/205 Wendy Dillinger

    the Germans apperantly were never told and caught France and the Allies respectively with their britches down on their knees. http://FoxGetPositionWork.blogspot.com

  • http://www.artinphoenix.com/gallery/grimm snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

    Strong delusions that they should believe a lie? Yes. I also hold that God has spared the nation for a limited time to correct the matter, and get back onto the right path with HIM, and the restoration of our land needs to continue, no matter how long it takes.

    By the way, it looks like someone has taken to copying my posts (a.k.a. Wendy Dillinger)

  • http://www.artinphoenix.com/gallery/grimm snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

    Some of us, like me, will not be able to run or just disappear. I will stand wherever God wants me to, no matter the outcome for in this world or the next I will know my task is done by His will being fulfilled.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read 2 or 3 of these stories now and they keep getting better.  I simply love all these people. This concept is a great idea in the sense that you actually get to kind of know these people. Brings a human side to every story. Love it!

  • landofaahs

    Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. But everyone knows your work on this site.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t worry Glenn, there are so many thousands of people the will back you and support all you do because we see you sincerity and passion that you just keep being yourself and we will hold back the envious mob that will threaten you. They don’t want to believe you nor admit that you may be right but time will prove your claims to be true.
    Good luçk!

  • http://www.planettron.com NickDeringer

    “Let me write the songs of a nation. I don’t care who writes the laws.” – Andrew Fletcher

    We need to take the conservative message to the culture in music, movies, and art. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s the most effective way. This is where philosophy is communicated. The Left knows it and they dominate the medium.

    Glenn is on the right track.

  • Anonymous

    snow,  “Wendy” is known under many names.  And she almost always

    uses the comment of someone  else as her own.  I simply just flag the

    spammer(s) since they ignore my ”go aways.”

  • Anonymous

    I think that one of the first things I decided after watching Glenn was that he is one of the greatest teachers of all times!  As a retired teacher I can feel his connection with his audience, and he can read that audience and know if he is reaching them.  This is a tough skill to develop in a classroom but Glenn is able to do it across time and space via radio, tv, and print.  If we could clone his enthusiasm and excitement and put his essence into public school classrooms we could create a wonderful revolution in education.  His intensity comes from truly believing what he is “teaching” his viewers.  A hundred years from now when the history of our age is written, I honestly believe Glenn will be seen as the Ben Franklin of this time of American growth and change.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/5TCP3Z3JBJIPLVA6C7E6CGN5QU Deborah

    My ńeighboŕ’s mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė laṖt0Ṗ for &#97 ƒew hours&#46 Gŏ to this we&#98 siṫe and ŕead morė.. Ca&#x73hLaz&#121.&#99o&#x6D

  • http://PalinsDirtyLittleSecret.blogspot.com/ FedsMadeSarahPalinProofHere

     Everyone is witnessing the effect of state run media, domestic spying, and tyranny provided by the police state compliments of the coup and cover up.

  • http://PalinsDirtyLittleSecret.blogspot.com/ FedsMadeSarahPalinProofHere

    The biggest fraud is being perpetuated on the American people now who still think they elected a leader when all we have is a puppet taking orders after the coup and cover up.

  • http://twitter.com/GBTVUniverse GBTV Universe

    Joel I think your the best man for the job – thats probably an understatement. I’m glad your the manager of content cause I though I really love Stu I could see the network flying off the hinges with him managing things hes good for a lot of other things. I’m sure you know that. I hope you choose to stay with The Blaze & Glenn cause I feel like your as much as the business as Glenn, Joseph, & Chris are. I appreciate all you’ve done & I can tell the great work you’ve done for the company. May God bless you.  

  • William Laughlin

    Isn’t Joel’s story about Glenn (at Wilmington) just indicative of Glenn, in general?

    He’s the right guy at just the right time in history to help set things right!

    God Bless you both. There’s a whole lotta love out here for y’all.

  • Anonymous

    Love you Glenn.  Your Restoring Love was very inspiring!!!
      Keep up the good work!

  • http://twitter.com/MattDickerson Matt Dickerson

    Wow, Mr. Cheatwood sounds like an amazing team member for Glenn Beck.  We need the best quality content like never before to keep all of America in tune with the truth.  Praying for you guys!!!