In its 1990s prime, the late-night radio show “Coast To Coast AM” was an unscripted audio mix of “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files.” It was corny, uncomfortable, laughable, utterly paranoid, completely of its time, and occasionally terrifying. Because it was broadcast in the middle of the night, if you listened it was generally because you were alone: driving a deserted highway, fighting insomnia, cramming for a test, finishing some code, working a graveyard shift.
A parade of crazies appeared every night, people with no apparent sense of humor, explaining the most obscure and ridiculous theories and conspiracies. And then, because this was also the golden age of weird crap on the early World Wide Web, you could look up these dingbats and discover… oh good god, so “Major Ed Dames” is a real retired military officer who really did “remote viewing” for a secret government project called “Stargate,” that’s a real thing? This was always the terrifying part about the show: Some of it, maybe all of it, was true.
Behind it all was exactly the kind of person you would avoid in real life: Art Bell, a chain-smoking hermit and deejay with a creepy knowing laugh who worked from a mobile home compound in the high desert near Area 51, which still doesn’t officially exist, although the federal government eventually conceded there was something related to defense and/or intelligence at the (dry) Groom Lake section of the Nevada nuclear test site north of Las Vegas. And now, a dozen years since he left the weeknight show for good and made a series of increasingly perplexing retirements/comebacks on the little-heard weekend version of the program, Art Bell has announced (on Facebook) that he’s in talks to begin a new radio show, apparently free of the “Coast to Coast AM” corporate overlords at Premiere Radio Networks in Los Angeles. Are the weird times coming back?
It is always vague and mysterious with Art Bell. The man could make anything, including where his cats were hiding in his home studio on any given night, sound like the space monsters had arrived. “Emotional roller coaster” is an overused and hopefully outdated phrase, but it exactly describes the plunge from “Oh for chrissakes, listen to this idiot” to “Lock the doors and turn on all the lights!” that always awaited the Art Bell listener. The transition from voyeuristic hilarity to terror was that quick, and of course that was the reason to keep listening.
Art Bell is tragic proof that fame and fortune certainly don’t guarantee a pleasurable life. He first quit the radio show at the height of its popularity, in 1998, reportedly because some local psychopath had sexually assaulted Bell’s young son with the stated goal of infecting the child with HIV. In 2006, Bell’s third wife died in the couple’s RV parked outside a trashy casino-motel in Laughlin, Nevada, the kind of place where you can still find penny slots and half the clientele drag along portable oxygen canisters. He apparently sat around his Mojave desert compound for a while after the death of Ramona Bell, and then decided to move to the Philippines and marry a girl he met over the Internet. He finally came back to Pahrump, Nevada, but immigration problems kept his fourth wife out of the United States for many years. Bell had a full compliment of health problems when he was still in his 40s, including back injuries from falling off a telephone pole, and his lifetime of chain smoking can’t be making him feel much better.
And yet, for all of his very public foibles and misfortunes, Bell had the best voice on radio and a master’s touch with the callers, guests and soundboard. The show was about suspense, about that one unexpected-yet-expected moment that would scare the listener into another two hours of insomnia, hearing every sound of the house settling as an invasion of sinister entities. To listen during an actual, unfolding freakout was the peak “Coast to Coast with Art Bell” experience: during the 1997 Phoenix Lights incident, for example, as people in Nevada and Arizona called in with eyewitness descriptions of the gigantic black craft moving silently over highways and exurbs, or as a Texan calling from a small plane claims he’s flying into Area 51, or the convincingly frantic “former employee” from the fabled Dreamland base with its subterranean halls of escaped interdimensional beings.
The nightly show continues without Bell, and is apparently more popular than ever. In the 21st Century version you can hear tonight, the host is a genial radio veteran named George Noory. Because he’s relatively normal sounding on the air, he brings in guest crazies like Alex Jones to yell staged hysterics for a few minutes now and then. I gave up on the show nearly a decade ago—by that point, I only skimmed the podcast while walking the dog in the daytime; sunlight disinfects even the best “Coast to Coast AM” show of its required nocturnal creepiness. When I’ve tuned in on the occasional late-night drive in recent years, the biggest surprise is how much dumber the callers seem, speaking in stereotypically crypto-racist redneck grammar crashes, regardless of their national point of origin.
If the show still attracts a few stoned college kids, open-minded scientists or sleepy newspaper reporters on the night desk, they aren’t being chosen for the open lines. (“East of the Rockies, West of the Rockies,” there were special toll-free numbers for everyone, including pop-up numbers for specific classes of paranormal incident, or highway patrol officers who had witnessed a certain type of unidentified flying object.) On the Reddit post dedicated to news of Bell’s latest return, the comments are mostly along the lines of “Noory phones it in from the land of mediocrity.”
While the Art Bell show followed a compelling mythological arc that nearly corresponded to the fictional (?) “mytharc” of “The X-Files,” Noory’s show is a grab bag that reflects the growing idiocy of both America’s working class and the aural clown assault of talk radio in general. The 1990s program was amazingly apolitical—of course they were up to no good, or making treaties with the aliens, or whatever sinister plot. But they included Republicans and Democrats, Reagan and Clinton, the U.N. and the Nazis, the reptilian aliens and the gray aliens. We weren’t quite to the point where every American awake after midnight on a weekday was an absolute psychopath with a hundred guns under their bed. Art Bell routinely made climate change and global warming the topic of his nightly show, in a time before the fossil fuel industry had created the “climate hoax” meme that may be the final cosmic joke on humanity. Despite Noory’s calm demeanor and attempts to steer his guests and listeners away from the mouth-breathing constants of daytime AM, the show suffers both from Noory’s sleepy acquiescence to the least entertaining claims and the general lack of imagination and wingnuttery of the other participants.
Art Bell already sounded old-fashioned in the 1990s, with his delightfully square bumper music—”Dancing Queen” by ABBA was a perennial fade-in from the ABC news on the hour and advertorial spots featuring Bell praising a sponsor’s brand of tabletop radio. It’s tough to imagine how he’d sound any more current in the second decade of the 21st Century. Radio itself has changed to the point that the only likely listeners are people with no other options: no iPhone, no Pandora or Spotify, no choice but to work a loading dock or security booth until dawn, no one to love or sleep next to, in the sad American night.
The cultural attraction of a return to Art Bell’s inimitable live radio broadcast is the chance for a revival of the medium itself. Since he vanished from the nightly airwaves, a whole generation has grown up and become pointlessly addicted to Twitter and Snapchat and Vine and whatever approximation of live radio currently occupies people and their iOS devices. If they’ve come across AM radio at all, they know it as the home of hysterical low-income whites obsessed with a fantasy socialism that might make their lives less of a constant struggle, if it was a little bit more real. Art Bell was the standard-issue late-night soundtrack for young hackers of the 1990s, as this remembrance of Aaron Swartz makes clear. People hungry for “Weird Twitter” could do worse than to sit in their car at 2 a.m. listening to the now-67-year-old Art Bell scare the living crap out of them.
You might also enjoy: A Spooky Monster From Every State (with “Coast To Coast AM” inspiration)
Ken Layne is an occasional host of “Weird Twitter,” and also lives in a remote compound in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert.