By Christopher O’Brien
The news last week of legendary late night radio broadcaster Art Bell’s passing generated a deluge of social media posts that mourned his death, extolled his virtues as a groundbreaking broadcaster and acknowledged his role as a fringe subject pioneer. There’s no denying the impact of Bell’s presence on late night talk radio that helped fuel public acceptance of UFOs and so called ‘paranormal’ subjects in the 1990s. Almost single-handedly, Bell transformed fringe subject radio ‘entertainment’ with his resonant voice, even keeled demeanor and a constant colorful parade of guests who addressed everything, anything, paranormal, ufological, conspiratorial—and much more.
Born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, June 17, 1945, Bell became interested in radio at an early age and at 13 became a fully licensed ham radio operator. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and began his on-air broadcasting career when he founded a pirate radio station where he was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base. After serving as a medic in Vietnam, Bell acquired a lifelong fascination w/ the Far East and moved to Okinawa where he worked as a disc jockey for KSBK, an English-language radio station broadcasting into Japan. His dedication as an on-the–air personality was firmly established when he managed to stay on the air for an impressive 116 hours and 15 minutes marathon, setting a Guinness World Record while raising money for Vietnamese orphans.
Upon his return to the USA in the early 1980s, Bell continued his professional broadcasting career both in front of and behind the microphone. Fascinated by electronics and broadcasting from an early age, and with some technical schooling, Bell landed radio station engineering gigs and in 1986, after several years of work in the emerging cable television industry, he saw the future and landed a job as the late night DJ at the 50,000-watt KDWN out of Las Vegas, Nevada. His show quickly became a runaway hit with late night insomniacs, graveyard shifters, long-haul truckers and an emerging army of true believing conspiracy buffs tuning into his “Kingdom of Nye.” Syndication of his five-hour Coast to Coast AM show as it became known, began in 1993 and with the addition of hundreds of syndicated stations and by the late ‘90s he amassed the largest late night talk radio audience in the country—estimated to be around 15 million listeners.
Covering controversial fringe subject matter comes with journalistic responsibility and this is where the fabled Bell saga becomes problematic.
Skeptics of all things ‘paranormal’ at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CICOP) have cynically suggested that you can literally trace back “every woo-woo claim, urban myth, and conspiracy theory of the 21st century to its appearance on Coast to Coast AM.” On the surface, this sounds like a gross exaggeration but when you track many of these memes back to their origins and ascertain where they were first propagated, in many cases, you’ll find the naysayers are surprisingly correct. The list of tall-tale tellers, self-proclaimed ‘experts,’ conspiracy nuts, hoaxers, charlatans, snake oil salesmen, time-traveling alarmists, reptoid rape victims, intelligence agency disinformation specialists (and other ‘spooky types’) etc., is endless and many of these memes are alive and well and doing fine today. It is important to note that most, if not all of these above mentioned questionable guests, were given the same treatment, respect and gravitas by Bell as the many serious researchers, real astronauts, cutting edge scientists, respected investigators, scholarly academics and real life witnesses who also graced the program. This evenhanded approach combined w/ Bell’s manner did make for entertaining, sensational late night talk radio, but his style did little, if anything, to help separate the proverbial ‘wheat from the chaff.’ The rapidly growing, gullible Coast to Coast AM listening audience newly addicted to the X-Files television series and that poster in Mulders office: “I Want to Believe”were never properly educated on how to discern between fact and fiction and Art Bell’s credulous style of entertainment, while an advertiser’s and sociologist’s dream, became a real-life researcher’s nightmare. By 1997, Coast to Coast was considered the number one late night talk radio program in the country and was syndicated on 328 stations, according to the Washington Post.
The list of questionable guests and sometimes lurid controversies generated by the show are too numerous to cover in this article but a partial list should include: Jonathan Reed’s frozen alien, the constant parade of “End Times” ‘chicken littles’, Planet X/Niburu hysterics, Ed Dames’ (and others) remote viewing scenarios never confirmed, the ‘Mel’s Hole’ saga, numerous over-the-top abduction claims such as the infamous Urandir Oliveira abduction hoax (still supported by Linda Moulton Howe two years after the hoaxers ‘fessed up!) alleged time travelers i.e., ‘John Titor,’ and later Andrew Basiago, the list of questionable claims is voluminous.
A partial list of over-the-top regular guests during the Bell years (and many up to the present day) should include: Richard Hoagland, Steven Greer, Sean David Morton, Ed Dames, Linda Moulton Howe, Bob Dean, Wendelle Stevens, Alex Jones, Clifford Stone, John David Oates, John Lear, Joel Skousen and since Bell’s departure in 2003, Andrew Basiago, Laura Eisenhower, Andre Webre, Michael Salla, David Wilcock, Cory Goode, Douglas Deitrick, the list is long…
Granted, all these scenarios and guests made for fun entertaining suspend-your-disbelief, late night flights of fantasy—that is, until someone gets hurt. And in March 1997, at the height of the show’s popularity, that’s exactly what happened.
It started fairly innocently in early spring 1997. Chuck Shramek, a Houston-based amateur astronomer called into Bell to report that he had taken a photograph that showed a large object travelling behind the comet Hale-Bopp, an object he speculated to be up to four times the size of Earth.
Self-proclaimed remote viewer Courtney Brown, a tenured professor of political science at Emory University and director of the Farsight Institute in Atlanta, (who had previously claimed in his recent book that stranded Martians were living under Mount Baldy—northeast of Sante Fe, NM) made an announcement to Bell that three of his remote viewers confirmed that there indeed was a “companion” traveling behind the comet as it approached the sun. Then, regular guest Ed Dames (founder of Psi-Tech, commercial ‘remote viewer’ company) jumped in and claimed that not only was there a companion, but it was getting ready to spray deadly pathogens down onto our planet’s rainforests which would kill off the Earth’s equatorial lungs.
Then the story got even weirder. Starting on March 24th, over the next three days, the largest mass suicide in US history unfolded in southern California when 39 members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, led by notorious leader Marshall Applewhite, drank fatal amounts of the sedative phenobarbital dissolved in applejuice with a vodka chaser. In statements discovered after his death Applewhite said that the companion in the tail of Hale-Bopp was the group’s ride into outer space, and that it was time to shed their earthly bodies:
“We are about to return to whence we came. I can lead you into that kingdom level above human. That can’t happen unless you leave the human world that you’re in and come follow me. Time is short—last chance.”
Would the group have killed themselves if the announcement about the “Hale-Bopp’ companion had not been made on Coast to Coast? Applewhite would have probably found another convenient excuse, but there is no denying a direct link between the horrific suicides and the ludicrous scenario and (in my mind) irresponsible claims aired on Coast to Coast.
When challenged by skeptics about his approach to his program’s coverage of the paranormal, Bell contended that his audience was automatically skeptical of the show’s guests and his coverage of the controversial subject matter and that he provided enough skeptical information for context. That sounds all well and good, but I beg to differ. I cannot recall hearing of a single show where a debate was formatted to for an opposing skeptical view addressing anycontroversial subject. Bell maintained that Coast to Coast is “simply about the paranormal,” and he felt that it’s not his place to criticize what are mostly anecdotal subjective stories. Perhaps, but many of the subjects discussed involve scientific topics and phenomena that have been researched and investigated by credentialed scientists and researchers. Bell claimed that he didn’t want his listeners to accept the claims of his guests at face value, but that he was perfectly comfortable letting his guests have the chance to tell their story unchallengedas he doesn’t like to “tear apart his guests” with tough, probing questions. You can fondly remember Art Bell as a great late-night entertainer, but you better not consider him concerned with finding out “The Truth.”
I won’t even go into the subject of purposeful disinformation by shadowy agent provocateurs and possible government operatives involvement that probably has a role in what is being promoted on Coast to Coast, I’ll have to leave this contentious subject for another article.
All this being said, yeah, it’s sad that we lost the illustrious entertainer Art Bell. He set the standard for the willful belief suspension in his millions of eager listeners. He had a great voice, a wonderful demeanor and he sure knew how to milk the ‘drama. But, as a broadcaster and entertainer (of sorts) myself, I think with even a modest amount visibility comes responsibility. When you have millions of listeners or viewers, there is great responsibility that goes with the process of disseminating anything and everything out into the culture. Because of the increasingly blurry lines between fact and fiction, and truth and falsehood, broadcasters of all stripes should be extra vigilant to provide context and opposing views to their audience. Even the slightest slant or spin (especially around paranormal subject matter) can and does have tremendous influence in this rapidly shrinking, global village. With all the recent talk of “fake news,” I think back at the heyday of Art Bell and those early years of the X-Files and smile when I hear people today without a hint of disbelief, solemnly promulgate tales of ‘blue avians,’ ‘chrononaughts’ wars in near Earth orbit that “you and I aren’t allowed to see” and, of course, that always pending apocalypse just around the corner. PT Barnum had a great, great godson and his name was Art Bell and there’s a potential Coast to Coast listener born every minute!