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!
All in all… a fine job of putting Bell in perspective. You give him credit where credit is
due … as a entertainer BUT you rightfully point out that he was “a real life researcher’s
nightmare”. That is such an important point. Being an actual researcher is a lot more
difficult than being a “meme propagator”. The research community might not recover
from Bell’s influence for a generation. By lumping all the “paranormal” phenomena
together, he virtually guaranteed that NONE of them would ever be taken seriously.
From a trickster point of view, you could say that was a good thing. All established notions
get turned upside down and new ways of thinking and new possibilities emerge from the
rubble. It’s hard to say if the new landscape of credulity will be any better than the “old
ways” and constricted vision that Bell helped to obliterate. Ultimately I think that Bell’s
“expanded” world view will become tethered to “reality” and we will have taken a step
forward as a species. That’s the best positive spin I can put on the Bell influence… it’s
sort of like Trump’s trickster role in the political world. These things take a while …….
Neither Trump nor Bell could take any credit for possible progress, they were merely
Loved it Chris!
Assuming facts not in evidence.
I never listened to Art Bell but I knew of the SLO from the local Houston and the WWW ruckus.
Great article. There is a subspecies of human called the “Born Again Believer”. This is not just a religious designation. The label applies to a personality type that is eager to believe just about anything if it fills a vacancy in this psyche. With no or little discernment, such a person will “give their life” to David Wilcock, Corey Goode, Tom DeLonge and various Exopolitics celebrities. Art Bell was quite dangerous to such people, but what can the rest of the world do? Such people will latch onto someone and buy all the late TV $19.95 cheap gadgets to solve all their psychological problems. Of course, Art Bell was a magnet for such people, just like religious celebrities in our culture. For the rest of us, Art Bell was pure entertainment and a temporary escape from humdrum reality. I would curl up on the couch with popcorn and a glass of red wine to listen to the latest tall tale. I confess there are people and stories I initially believed but now I am a jaded cynical old coot who is skeptical of ALL paranormal stories. Just because a story might fit a slot in my psychological profile does not mean it is automatically true. In that sense, I have become immune to plethora of such people on YOUTUBE and elsewhere. But I still watch for the entertainment and occasional chuckle. You didn’t mention how Art Bell soured his audience base by constantly walking off the show in the latter years. He tainted his brand forever by such antics, which I call the Prima Donna Syndrome. Nonetheless, I will always think back fondly of the man who made my rather dreary job-home-job-home life in the 90’s much more fun.
Hey there Chris, nice article but as Paracast’s Most Polific Poster, as you know :), and as you also know, I listen to my 954GB archive of old Art Bell shows all the time – he was a truly brilliant interviewer, and his mastery of talk radio is unsurpassed as far as I’m concerned and I sure know – his shows were the consummate realization of “the theater of the mind.” Some of my favorite memories are of listening to his show as I worked through the night, and then discussing them with my friends, family and BF-SO afterward.
And his annual “Ghost to Ghost” shows on Halloween, where everyone could call in to describe their real-life encounters with the inexplicable, are a treasure trove fascinating accounts from the public at large which capture the genuinely dizzying breadth of strangeness that ordinary people experience in their lives. In short, he attracted every weirdo with a mouth.
He believed in an afterlife, and with his passing I find myself hoping that he was right. No chance though.
What a perfect summary of Bell, great entertainer, but Vegas turned him into the PT Barnum or maybe Jerry Springer of all things Paranormal.
He could have at least asked his more ludicrous guests if they had any corroborating witnesses or some sort of validation of their claims. Instead it was always “I see, that’s really interesting! Fascinating!” I truly believe that him always feigning belief and showing complete respect to the fringe mentally unwell types (especially those exhibiting symptoms of delusional messianic complexes) caused hundreds of thousands, of not millions of people to believe as truth many absurd things with no basis in anything other than one guest’s personal fantasies. I seriously believe that without Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM show, we wouldn’t have had the rebirth of believers in Sitchin or crazy interweb belief trends where you have adult Americans discussing in all seriousness topics such as: werewolves, a hollow earth, Atlantis, cities buried in Antarctica, angels, Greer, etc…
Great article! I remember Art fondly, in a sense because I became interested in the paranormal AFTER Art’s popularity took off in the early-mid 1990’s. So, I had a lot of catching up to do and wound up listening to him on MitD and DM, as he was already gone from CC by then. I only wish I knew to listen back when it all began. Art wasa the guy to listen to on all things paranormal. I live on the East coast so I was probably already in bed when his show aired. Two of the more dubious guests that weren’t mentioned are Michael Horn and John Hogue.
I do, however, agree with your point that he might have better questioned the claims of his guests – I find that I wish that contemporary hosts like Noory, Church, etc. would do the same. I suppose there could have been a disclaimer aired at the beginning of each broadcast, something like, “The views expressed by our guests are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the host or station”. But, Orson Wells tried that at the beginning of his “War of the Worlds”broadcast, but few seemed to have paid attention.
thanks for your aricle!
I miss Art and like you in the 90s would sit around with buddies and get a kick.
He was wonderful and the important thing is he was fairly open minded and shared with all.
But with regard to HG- he bears no responsibility for that. The weak minded will always fall prey. I personally view 80%-90% of “paranormal” content as garbage- it’s those few videos, testimonies and my own events that matter.
And that’s where common sense. research and brain power kick in.
Hi Christopher, I’d love to read an article about potential “agent provocateurs” on his program, that sounds fascinating.
As far as Art Bell “challenging” the pseudo-science on his show, just listen to his interview with skeptic Michael Shermer from 10/17/04. Bell challenged Shermer more than he ever challenged any of the other ridiculous guests he had on over the years. It’s pretty cringeworthy to listen to how condescendingly he talks to Shermer who quite easily bats down Bell’s arguments.
Either way, I thought Bell was an immensely entertaining broadcaster. I remember being young and listening to his shows around 1999, being scared to death of the ghost stories. He had a unique ability to scare the hell out of you.
Great assessment of Art, Chris. Both your and David Perkins summaries were spot on. Come to think of it….the only subject I recall him flat out refusing to address or engage in would be the 911 conspiracy. I distinctly remember him chastising a regular caller, I believe her name was Kathy, on the topic and saying if he truly believed in the conspiracy he would relocate back to SE Asia. I’ll always remember Art Bell fondly, but mainly for entertainment purposes only.
Man, I’ve been at this a LONG TIME. 35 years and thousands of books, docs, lectures, personal correspondence, etc has driven me toward what I’ve slowly began to think is not the “truth”, but definitely a narrowing down of the root cause for many of the unexplained phenomena.
I would like to thank both you and David Perkins among just a handful for your forward thinking, willingness to call em like you see em, and overall approach to handling what I refer to as “the phenomenon” with humor, hard work, healthy skepticism, and a respect for the line which divides the knowns and unknowns.
Thanks so much for your dedication to the truth.
One day, (hopefully but doubtedly) before we leave this reality, we may finally get something to really sink our teeth into. The water is rising and one day, rest assured, the levee will break.
Keep up the great work! I’d love to correspond with anyone willing to share information!
Great read.Let’s not forget his show was 5 hours a day , every day.He HAD to have many idiots on…
Very good article, Chris. Thanks for the details and perspective and context and critique. Every once in a while I’d catch a program and occasionally really appreciate the guest and the format, then at other times realize the very problematic if not flatly dangerously insidious nature of the message and apparently supportive attitude of the host. Thanks for this article.