Art Bell, Radio’s Most Popular Weirdo, Returns
Conspiracy-minded host starts satellite show 10 years after retirement
I used to frequent a (now-shuttered) website called Fine Art. There I encountered a long-dormant culture I could find nowhere else, aesthetically significant works presented in still effective but slightly altered-from-the-original forms. I learned — well, no, I experienced — new things, concepts, ideas and visions once lamentably distant from my consciousness.The “Art” in the title, though, didn’t refer to painting, sculpture, film or photography. The name instead came from Art Bell, a 68-year-old radio talker whose memorably terrifying 1990s and early-2000s Coast to Coast AM broadcasts about UFOs, remote viewing, science, monsters, ghosts, government conspiracies (and, really, anything else) streamed there. Archival recordings of old Bell shows flowed all over the web for years, until several streams dried up within the last three months. (Do not despair. Here’s a good one, from a frantic Area 51 employee, and here’s another, which contains what purports to be Bigfoot’s scream. There are plenty of full shows on YouTube and on archive.org.)
But the streams’ vanishing heralded good news: More than a decade after he retired as the full-time Coast host, and after several false starts, Bell was returning to radio. His new show, Art Bell’s Dark Matter, premieres Monday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sirius XM’s Indie Talk channel. (The toll-free call-in line? 1-855-REAL-UFO.) In late August, I visited Bell at his home studio in the high desert of Pahrump, Nev. (“A lot of people who come out here from the big cities tend to feel weird,” he told me. No kidding — he had a plastic alien head on his porch.) I profiled him in this week’s magazine.
Many, many people have missed Art Bell. Take it not from the now-defunct streaming sites, or his busy Facebook page, or the chirping at the Fantastic Forum. Just look at the numbers. Sirius XM has a broad user base — the satellite-radio provider has 25 million subscribers overall — but Bell’s used to the biggest of numbers. Coast to Coast was syndicated to over 500 North American stations by the end of his run. He spoke to 10 to 15 million listeners per week, fourth among all talk-show hosts of the era, despite broadcasting from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. Eastern. His Marlboro-Lights-weathered voice blanketed the continent after dark, reliably chilling his audience of insomniacs, truckers, night-shift workers, and whoever else might be alone with a radio late at night.
Bell’s ratings success was all the more surprising because of how he deviated from the dominant talk-radio format. Conservative chatter owned the medium (think Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura) but all that bored Bell — he had started out in Vegas as a right-wing host in the ’80s, but his show’s ratings didn’t take off until he started talking about the paranormal. He was different, fed up with the government not because of some tax increase or a bad vote but because of what they were hiding. Where others had rage, he had skepticism, and lots of it.
Accordingly, he became something of a cultural phenomenon. National media outlets, including TIME, blamed him in part for the Heaven’s Gate cult’s mass suicide in 1997. (The cult’s leader said its members would be able to board a mysterious craft supposedly trailing the Hale-Bopp comet if they killed themselves, and at least two of Bell’s guests had reported seeing such a UFO. He discredited their stories afterward, but not in time to avoid some scientists’ wrath.) And Bell’s not-infrequent retirements motivated by family turmoil — his son was molested by a teacher, and then two shortwave radio hosts accused him of the crime — ensured that he would draw only more attention. When he returned to the air full-time, in 2001, and said it was for good, he lasted only a year and a half longer before taking on a part-time load. More personal misfortune followed: Bell’s third wife, Ramona, died of an asthma attack while they were vacationing in the couple’s RV. Three months later, Bell moved to the Philippines to marry, Airyn, a college student 39 years his junior. They soon had a daughter, Asia, who is now six.
Bell’s Coast to Coast hosting duties gradually tapered off before he made his final appearance on Halloween 2010, a radio legend severed for good — by choice — from the iconic show he founded.
Now, he returns. Old Coast hand Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist, will be his first guest, and Ross Mitchell, the old Coast announcer, will do Bell’s intro and bumpers. I asked Bell what he’d do on this show that he didn’t do enough of on the old show. He says he’s really eager to talk about life after death.
Here’s some more from the day I spent with Art Bell:
• What does Bell think of the man who replaced him on Coast, George Noory? He’s a lazy broadcaster, Bell says, indifferent to what he puts on the air. “This fellow, half the time, he doesn’t sound like he’s listening to his guest. He’ll come back and ask a question that had just been answered five minutes previously. Or he’ll inject a complete non sequitur. The guest will be talking about Bigfoot, and he’ll ask, ‘Well, does that have something to do with angels?’” Worse, “there’s a lot more politics in it, a lot more medical crap in it, a lot of New Age-y crap that I won’t touch. I prefer science.” Bell hopes competition will raise all boats. “It better—otherwise George’ll be a submarine.” Fans seem to agree: The first Google autocomplete hit on Noory’s name is “George Noory sucks.”
• Bell’s former syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premiere Networks, rebroadcasts his old shows on Saturday nights. He hates this. “Are they doing it just to irritate me?” he asks. He has no legal rights to the shows, but he wants them off the air. Premiere’s spokesperson: “Somewhere in Time with Art Bell remains very popular… To remove the show from our weekend lineup would be a disservice to those affiliates and their listeners, many of whom have already expressed their desire to keep the show on the air.”
• Sirius XM built Bell a new studio in the guest house on his property. (Many have called it a “compound,” but Bell says he hates that. Fine. It’s a fenced-in collection of one-story buildings, satellite dishes and radio antennas on a plot of land in the desert. Not a compound.) He used to broadcast from a ham radio room in the main house, but his six-year-old daughter now sleeps in the next bedroom, and he doesn’t want to scare her. The new studio has much less equipment than his old room — computers have come a long way since he quit Coast — but he has kept his trusty .40-caliber Glock 22, in a desk drawer. (“I’m not a gun nut,” he says. “But go out on my porch, look around—what’s there? Zero, nothing. If I had a problem out here, well, the police would arrive just in time to draw the chalk outline on my floor.”)
• With Whitley Strieber, a horror novelist, Bell co-wrote The Coming Global Superstorm, the book Roland Emmerich made into The Day After Tomorrow, the Dennis Quaid disaster movie. (Bell laments that he got all of his royalties from the movie, which made $544 million at the box office, up front.) For all of scientists’ occasional qualms with Coast, Bell did help explain global warming to a big audience.
• Bell’s no kook. He’s after “the sane fringe,” he says. His most out-there theory, he claims, concerns the crash of TWA Flight 800—Bell says the government knows why that plane left the sky, and isn’t saying. “But that’s about as fringy as I get. The 9/11 truthers hate my guts.”
• Bell’s show will rerun immediately after it airs, but it won’t play during the daytime. Bell has asked Sirius XM to confine re-airings to the night, when the mood is right.
• Bell, a self-described news junkie, says there’s only one decent cable news outfit. (And it’s not CNN, the one he was tuned to during our visit.) “CNN is destroying their franchise. They’ve become either the trial network or the story network. They grab onto a goddamn story and go for a week, or two weeks, with the same story all frigging day long. They used to be a news organization. Give me Al-Jazeera any day of the week. You want real news, go to Al-Jazeera!”