A major shift in the conservative media ecosystem may soon be coming.
According to sources close to the matter, the billionaire Wilks brothers, who own Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, are weighing a purchase of TheBlaze, Glenn Beck’s flagship media project. TheBlaze is an impressive piece of media real estate, once generating $90 million a year combined with Beck’s radio company, Mercury Radio Arts. However, TheBlaze has quite publicly been in decline, laying off 30 percent of its staff in August and parting ways with high profile talent from their network of radio and web shows in recent months. For Beck, it has been a season of tumult, but he is not alone as traditional media operations like terrestrial radio and cable television stare down a future that may or may not to include them.
When asked about the potential of such an acquisition, Shapiro told The Daily Beast, who first reported the scoop on Monday, that “TheBlaze welcomed us to the space as allies from the beginning, and we’re always looking for ways to strengthen our partnerships with our allies.” It’s a noncommittal but telling statement from the rising star of the conservative movement.
The Ben Shapiro Show and The Daily Wire are on a rocketship following a banner year for the young commentator and circuit speaker. Shapiro has done the seemingly impossible in galvanizing conservatives under 30 while remaining personally against “Trumpy” politics. His ideological balancing act and capacity for flamethrowing has earned him profiles in the New York Times and ABC and a podcast second only to Oprah’s for several weeks in 2017. The Daily Wire has benefitted from this raised profile and fluctuates within the top 10 of conservative websites, but almost always ahead of TheBlaze.
What makes TheBlaze and The Daily Wire distinct in their environment is a penchant for red meat content and click bait while editorially leaning against full-fledged support of Trump. It’s possible that a merger or combining of forces by two formidable websites could create a stronger opposition to publications like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, which are thriving in this unconservative moment for the conservative movement.
The Trump-skeptic positioning of Glenn Beck and Ben Shapiro isn’t an easy sell to their target audience today. Beck said as much in an interview at South by Southwest last year. He noted his show had “lost a little of everything,” but subscribers who left after his "Never Trump" stand have trickled back slowly. Beck went on to say, “We’re not where we want to be on any of our numbers — but I think it’s reflective of what all of the media’s going through right now. We’re in this weird place that, I don’t know how it ends, I don’t know how it shakes out.”
It’s worth asking, is Glenn Beck’s empire drowning because he sacrificed himself by not supporting Trump? Similarly, are the NFL’s ratings down because of a few unpatriotic football players and political displays on the field? No.
While the pre-game controversies are clearly unpopular with audiences, the numbers tell a different story. In 2016, the ratings were down 12 percent, and after the election of Trump they still dipped 5 percent in the start of 2017. More notably, the lightning rod player Colin Kaepernick wasn’t even playing last year. But the ratings decline is complicated: there are more viewers, but they're not watching the whole broadcast. Fans aren’t finishing the game — and why should they? People aren’t tied to their televisions for information and game results. This applies to television and radio shows of all stripes, with the exception of the evening cable news. Despite all the crowing from Trump’s base within Beck and ESPN’s audience, the culprit of decline is disruption, not politics.
This is where Ben Shapiro got out ahead. Putting aside the appeal of his age and style of delivery for younger audiences, Shapiro operates a podcast and a Facebook Live stream with some perks for paying subscribers. It’s a lean operation and reliant on trust and transparency with the host. Advertisers have taken note of the podcast boom in recent years, doubling spending on ads annually since 2015. Today the podcasting industry is a $220 million dollar business and recent analysis’ shows that listeners are “hyper-engaged” and actually finishing the shows they subscribe to. This isn’t the case for your average commuter who tunes into talk radio in the morning and then exits the audience once they arrive at work. A podcast listener hits pause and resumes play when they get to their desk — this is the more appealing future for an advertiser paying good money for time on a show.
For the time being, all we have about this media buy is a rumor, but one that makes a certain amount of sense for all the players involved. As for TheBlaze changing hands and Glenn Beck’s future, I wouldn’t worry about him. Beck went solo to launch TheBlaze and Mercury Radio Arts with the spirit of an innovator, and that attitude has been a marker of his career. I wrote in The American Conservative about this shift in the media landscape and said that “the future of media belongs to those who are prepared for change.”
This remains true. Glenn Beck knows change, embraces change, and will continue to change even as his effort to upend the media establishment is disrupted.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.
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