No, he wasn’t in an underground bunker, and he wasn’t abducted!
Without much fanfare, the godfather of paranormal late night talk radio has returned to the airwaves. This time, beaming from an extraterrestrial satellite orbiting the globe and back into homes, Art Bell has signed a contract with Sirius/XM to bring spookiness back to dark nights huddled around the radio. Still operating from his desert enclave in Pahrump, the grizzled master of ceremonies proves that he’s still got the panache to handle topics scientific and… well, we’ll just say fringe.
His first interview back behind the mic was with Coast-to-Coast veteran and world-renowned physicist Michio Kaku, now famous as a popular science advocate for his work on Explorations in Science, Big Think and countless other outlets. An appropriate choice considering Art’s new show is named Dark Matter, and the CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics opens our ears and minds to the cosmic, the subatomic, and the quantum in the same way that Art Bell had introduced us to the astral, the demonic, and the ghostly over his career.
With equal aplomb Art delved into this scientific universe with his guest, and later revived our taste for the weird with something almost forgotten to late-night listeners; the unscreened open lines. Though many of his prodigal callers were simple well-wishing fans or new acolytes who only knew of his legacy through old recordings and word-of-mouth, we wait with baited breathe for the inevitable onslaught of the unpredictable soon to follow. Anything can happen with truly Open Lines. Even Art himself seemed worried that the infamous J.C. would return to berate him at any moment.
I remember my introduction to Art Bell’s halcyon era of Coast-to-Coast as a kid; my father and I were roaming the streets at night in search of a water vacuum with which to control some of the damage from a broken water heater. While I was wondering at the yellow flashing of sleepless traffic signs, my father in that wry and inspiring way he had when introducing me to new spectacles clicked on the worn radio knobs of our 80’s Buick Skylark. Soon my head was swimming with novel concepts; a woman who claimed that Reptilians stole her newborn baby at the hospital, a man who could talk to wolves, and tales of a hollow Earth filled with extra-dimensional beings.
Over the years that followed, I became a filthy addict, ear glued nightly to the adventures of ghost hunters, UFO chasers, conspiracy nuts, astral projectors, time travelers, demon exorcisers, government agents in black, shadow people, sounds from hell, aliens in freezers and a guy with a really big hole. In the remainder of the 1990’s Art Bell ruled the airwaves (and I was already a radio junkie, growing up in Cincinnati with the Big One, the Red Machine, and Gary Burbank). The 20th-Century closed with this unique brand balancing between credulous belief and incisive questioning. The 21st century unfolded in those first few years with this eerie backdrop for me, even changing my sleep schedule in High School to accommodate wee-hour listening.
I credit Art Bell as one of the defining influences over my worldview, though many know that I am no true believer. But always fascinated by the macabre and strange, it was Art’s purposeful direction of otherwise disparate topics that otherwise languished in obscurity that opened my mind to other-wordly possibilities. Perhaps ironically, the outrageous claims of his guests and callers would eventually lead me to the happy camp of skepticism, as Art himself would often reserve his judgement for many a faithful, intuitive, abductee, kook, pseudoscientist or coy charlatan. All at once gracious, charming, gruff and direct, Art may not be the ideal hero for skeptics or critical thinkers (in fact, many see him as an abusive media persona, mistakenly confusing his radically open forum as tacit endorsement of all sorts of loonies and militants). But without his wild questioning, his deference to our cosmic ignorance, and very realist adherence to the all-mighty clock, I do not think I would have been led as clearly into the respectfulness that I have when discussing my skeptical or atheistic views.
When discussing religion with the religious, or spirits with the spiritual, or science with the pseudo-scientific, it is important to remember that your conversational partner is not stupid, or crazy, or a liar. Art would on rare occasion let slip his skepticism relating to aliens, bigfoot, or even God, but not for one instance did he allow that to disrespectfully interfere with a well-intentioned interviewee’s heartfelt (and entertaining) story.
Those old shows, in content and style, typify so well the Carl Sagan quote “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out!” Though undeniably, many an unscreened caller is a cautionary example of what happens too far down the road of uncritical true belief, more important is the patience and willingness to listen to others, and attempt to understand their beliefs without immediately sacrificing your own. More upstanding still are those who sincerely consider the thoughts, opinions, beliefs and values of their fellow man, instead of making them a sounding board for their own sense of “rational” superiority.
Everyone has a good ghost story, or pet conspiracy theory, or tale of angels, creepy phone calls, or black helicopters. But winning more of them over with honey is not just advised, but necessary. As astronomer and skeptical mover-and-shaker Phil Plait recently lectured (himself quoting Wil Wheaton) ‘don’t be a dick’, because such behavior invariably only drives people away and entrenches them further into their belief system. Don’t cram your own analysis down your friend’s maw, because they believe in their ghost story for their good reasons. It’s really better, in fact easier for everyone, to gently offer more grounded alternatives, evidence, and teach the value of falsification for the claims of others and of one’s self. And besides, in the end, all a true skeptic can say is that they just don’t know. It’s best to be skeptical and critical of your own biases, because of the hundred-million possible explanations, one must certainly include the outrageous ones as well.
This is a difficult balance struck by Art Bell. His guests always felt comfortable telling their unbelievable stories in full, and were thus much more receptive and forthcoming when their friendly but determined host did play devil’s advocate, or cut into the meat of their matter with diagonal perspective, or well-placed doubtful query.
Perhaps one felt that Art didn’t go far enough, perhaps sparing his guests too easily from critical inquisition. You may disagree with where he draws that precarious line, but he makes his personal attempt to draw it. Art Bell would explore all manner of fringe philosophy, but would have no truck with the blatantly deceptive fraud, like Uri Geller or John David Oates.
Conversely, general consensus among many demographics is that the current Coast to Coast AM host, George Noory, is too easy-going, bordering on endorsement of every theory presented. A Google search of his name reveals the first auto-fill suggestion is ‘George Noory sucks’, and his sleepy delivery and more predictable roster of guests and topics has earned him the pejorative nickname ‘George Snoory’ from the die-hards. While I do think that many go too far in some of the more rabid attacks (Noory always struck me as a clueless grandfather, happily whistling while others would do deeper analysis), there can be no doubt that his era has been defined by unquestioning submission to spotlight-stealers like Linda Moulton Howe and Richard C. Hoagland. It seems obvious that at times, he has mentally tuned out from the longer tirades of guests, responding with a distracted and delayed ‘well… there’s no doubt about that’ instead of reining them in. Heavily reliant on the slick production and packaging, Coast to Coast has slowly but surely changed into a similarly glossy product to so many other homogenous mainstream media shows. A certain staleness comes with screening out the more erratic callers. Though the fare is still the ‘out-of-this-world’, it seems fair to mention that such entertainment is also a profitable commodity with a large majority audience; something that, it bears mentioning, Art Bell proved over many years of toil.
Art himself does have harsh words for the corporate giant Premiere Radio Network for what the show has become, and the way they treated he and his family over the years; refusing to support Art (one of their hottest assets) during his lawsuit, and refusing to remove his older shows from the site’s archive at his request (they are still some of the most demanded programs). As for Mr. Noory, Art holds no grudge or ill-will, but did characterize the host as ‘lazy’, and hopes that the competition will perhaps improve all parties in that truly free-market manner.
“As you all can see I am up late (in training for Dark Matter) as somebody mentioned on my page there is no reason both shows can not coexist. George does one type of show and I do another, both should benefit from competition, that’s how the rest of the World works.” ~Art Bell’s Facebook
Art’s new show, Dark Matter, airs at 10pm Eastern/7pm Pacific, and so doesn’t directly compete with Coast. With much of the same bumper music, guests, and hopefully zany recurring callers, it feels as though no time has passed at all since Art’s old hosting days nearly a decade ago. His voice is a little smokier, the news of drones and NSA wiretapping a little more paranoid, but things are still quickening all the same.
I nabbed a 30-Day free trial of Sirius to take a ride on his inaugural night from the high desert, and I wasn’t disappointed. I look forward to many more liminal topics at the edge of vision. Welcome back, Art!