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.