By Jerry Chandler
The news started trickling out Saturday morning that Art Bell had passed away at the age of 72. By later in the morning, the sad news had been confirmed. A lot of people out there likely don’t know who Art Bell was; although they still may have heard him on the radio or seen him on TV more than a few times. However, for those of us who knew the man’s work well the news hit like a ton of bricks even though he’s largely been off the airwaves for some time now. That impact is not even dependent on you being a believer in any of the subject matter Art used to discuss on his show.
Art Bell became the undisputed king of late night radio after having shown a lifelong love of radio. He became a licensed amateur radio operator at the age of 13, holding an Amateur Extra Class License, and was listed by his radio call sign in the Radio Amateur Callbook as far back as 1959. His love of radio would lead him to become an avid Ham Radio operator throughout his life, operate a pirate radio station at Amarillo Air Force Base during his time in the Air Force, become syndicated and heard around the world with Coast to Coast AM, create additional shows like Dreamland, Dark Matter, and Midnight in the Desert, and then become a member of the Nevada Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2008. He would also build his broadcasting booth used for his professional career in his home before launching a small radio station (KNYE) in his hometown of Pahrump in Nye County, Nevada. Eventually, he would also become known as the Godfather of Paranormal Radio. It was a title he definitely earned, and it was a load of fun listening to him as he earned it.
I first experienced Art Bell’s particular brand of entertainment in 1995 or 1996. I was living down in Florida at the time, and I was working a job where 14-hour days were not uncommon. I had started listening to a local morning news and talk program carried on the bigger AM station in the area when heading into work, and that was the channel my radio was on when I climbed back into my truck to go home in the late hours of the early morning. Usually, I switched over to a cassette once I started heading home because the overnight programming was dangerously sleep inducing. But, on one night, that wasn’t the case. I still switched over to a cassette filled with some rock tunes, though, because after a minute or two I thought whatever the hell was on was just bizarrely bat guano crazy to the extreme.
I don’t even remember the topic that was being covered, I just remember thinking that it sounded like lunatics had taken over the station and started discussing drug induced delusions they’d been having. This pattern repeated itself for at least a couple of weeks; being altered only when I turned the engine on and the radio started on a commercial. On those nights, I switched to music without the moment of ‘WTF’ involved. This pattern changed because of a guest on Art’s show that I had some familiarity with from years earlier.
That might actually be the episode I heard that night.
Richard C. Hoagland had started making a bit of a national name for himself back in the 1980s when he became the man behind the claim that there was a humanoid faced monument on Mars captured in NASA photos of Mars. He would go on to claim that this monument was directly related to the ancient structures found in Egypt, and then take it further by linking it to ancient legends like Atlantis. The popularity he had found with this theory led to his becoming an in demand guest for lectures and television and later to the publication of his book The Monuments of Mars in 1987. I was 16 when that book came out. I was still eating that kind of thing up like there was no tomorrow back then.
So, it actually piqued my interest when the radio turned on and Richard C. Hoagland was talking about Mars. I had gotten over believing 99.9% of the things connected to the theory, but I always found it entertaining and interesting in the same way one finds science fiction or fantasy entertaining and interesting. Plus, the bonus was they were at least also talking about actual (kind of) things that were going on with the planned NASA launches of the time. I listened on the entire drive home and then turned it on in my apartment as I cleaned up and got ready for bed. It was fun to listen to, and, now, actually giving the program a listen, I got kinda hooked on the host.
Alan Corbeth said during Bell's 2008 induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame that nobody was better than Bell at understanding "how to create theater of the mind." Josh Groban took to Twitter when the news of Art’s death broke and said, “I’m a night owl now but I pulled a lot of all nighters in high school. I’d stay up and listen to Art Bell many of those nights. His voice was one of a kind and his shows were so weird & spooky but somehow managed to hold off your skepticism. Of course he died on Friday the 13th.”
Those two things might be the most accurate and important statements about why Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM was so listenable even if you weren’t a true believer. Art Bell had an amazing voice and style for radio, and he could he could create wonderfully enjoyable theater of the mind with any topic that the guests or callers would bring to the show. Building on that, he used his style to work the show topics and the guests in such a manner as to make you more often than not turn off your skepticism. You might not have been a believer going in and wouldn’t become a believer by the end of a show, but he hosted the show in a way that made you stop shaking your head at it all and just enjoy the talk about the concepts and ideas being presented.
Art, unlike some connected to this sort of material, even made it clear that it was okay to be a skeptic and be a fan. He himself would often say the secret to some of his style was he approached everything with an open mind, but not so open that his brain fell out. He would point out that there were certainly some topics where he was a huge believer- particularly when it came to UFOs because of personal experiences -but even he didn’t believe what some of the guests and callers were saying. His show’s purpose was to give a platform where people could present the ideas and discuss them without being laughed at for saying what they were saying. All of that and a bit more (plus the show being an overnight show) added up to, again, the show just being so damned fun to listen to whether you were a constant skeptic, a constant true believer, or somewhere in between.
There were a lot of guests discussing a lot of topics you could find yourself wanting to be really skeptical about as well. Over the years, all of the highlights and lowlights of UFO belief were covered. Every form of paranormal belief was discussed at length and often repeatedly. I was probably exposed to more cryptozoology listening to Art Bell in the 1990s and 2000s than I was in the 1970s and 1980s when that topic was going through a pop culture boom. There were many, many nights where the topic was the myriad of beliefs about hidden or forgotten ancient cultures that once lived on Earth with technologies far in advanced of what we knew to be historically accurate. There were discussions about Mel’s Hole, a hole no one has ever actually found that supposedly had no bottom to it, supposed recordings of the screams of the damned in hell, time travelers in our midst, alternate realities, shadow conspiracies, and so much more. However, with every topic, other than maybe your most hot button “issue” topics, you could be the most skeptical person you knew when it came to the topic at hand and still just enjoy hearing Art Bell talk about it with his guests.
But, another fun thing was the fact that not all of Art’s guests were all about that stuff. Sometimes, you’d tune in and hear someone you would not have immediately thought of as an Art Bell guest. Who were just some of his guests (some of who were also huge fans) that you wouldn’t expect based on the show’s primary subject matter? I’m just going to swipe a passage from Wiki, because it’s an accurate if incomplete lists and it’ll save a lot of typing.
“Bell's own interests, however, extended beyond the paranormal. He interviewed singers Crystal Gayle, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Eric Burdon and Gordon Lightfoot, comedian George Carlin, writer Dean Koontz, hard science fiction writer Greg Bear, X-Files writer/creator Chris Carter, TV talk host Regis Philbin, Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, actor Dan Aykroyd, former Luftwaffe pilot Bruno Stolle, actress Jane Seymour, actress Ellen Muth, actor and TV host Robert Stack, human rights lawyer John Loftus, legendary disc jockey Casey Kasem, and frequent guests physicist Michio Kaku and SETI astronomers Seth Shostak and H. Paul Shuch.”
You never knew what to expect when tuning into Art Bell’s show; and that was true even beyond the way you might say that given the show’s regular subject matter. But you knew, even if you didn’t know what was on the show’s agenda when you were tuning in that night, that 99.9% of the time it was going to be a blast to listen to. That was especially true, except for the not knowing part, once a year every year when Halloween rolled around.
Art’s primary show was known as Coast to Coast AM. Once a year he would turn the show over to the callers for the Halloween season special, Ghost to Ghost AM. This may well have been my favorite radio broadcast of the year from anyone. Art would open the show in his usual way, he’d cover the day’s news and maybe a few updates on things discussed in past shows, and then the fun would begin. The entire show was devoted to listeners calling in and telling their favorite “real” ghost stories; whether it was something they claimed happened to them or reported as a family or local happening. For four or five hours on that night each year for so many years, you had a national version of everyone sitting around the fire and trying to top each other with a good ghost story. When Art was still on the air and they were selling “Best of” shows or show segments on cassette, the only shows I ever bought were the Ghost to Ghost AM shows, because, yeah, they were that much fun to listen to and they were great to break out and listen to each year as part of the Halloween season. That was even truer in later years when he left the air.
But it wasn’t just the guests and the topics or Art’s inimitable style that made the shows something to listen to. For a lot of people, at least to a degree, Art’s choice in intro and bumper music was worth tuning in for.
Some of the music was just the classic AM/FM radio hits and a few deep cut tracks you’d expect from someone Art’s age. You’d get music from The Moody Blues, Supertramp, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Electric Light orchestra, and others on a regular basis. Then there was the other part of Art’s taste in music that got regular airings on his show, and that was often in the form of music that totally fit the show while being music you’d hear nowhere else.
The opening theme for the show was at least familiar to me as a wrestling fan even if it wasn’t instantly recognizable to many other Art Bell fans. The piece in question was ‘The Chase’ from Giorgio Moroder’s score for the film Midnight Express. Then there was the other stuff that I’d never heard; even from people who liked the style of music some of his picks fell into.
Well before she become something of a big hit in the New Age and modernized Celtic music circles, Art’s then 10 to 15 million listeners were becoming fans of Loreena McKennitt because of his regularly playing two of her more haunting sounding songs. The band Cusco- a “German cross-cultural new-age music band named after the Peruvian city” –was also responsible for a lot of Art’s playlist as well as his show’s closing music. A couple of tracks from the group Inkuyo also made regular appearances on the show. For many of his fans, this music became synonymous with Art Bell’s show and remains so today.
Cusco actually acknowledged Art’s influence on their album sales and their boost in popularity. They even gave him and his show a nod in one of their later albums with a piece named after Art’s then hometown, Pahrump, Nevada.
Show guest, show fan, and eventual friend of Art’s, Crystal Gayle, even did a song inspired by the show; something she’s said on stage during live performances of it. The song’s title was taken from a part of one of the show’s regular promos. You may have heard it; it’s called Midnight in the Desert.
At the highpoint of his time on Coast to Coast AM, Art even started becoming a pop culture figure. He appeared on Dark Skies playing a one-episode appearance character, but would later appear as himself on the Chris Carter TV show Millennium, as himself in the game Prey, and as himself in the movies I Know Who Killed Me and Abduct. Snippets from his show would get used in songs by Tool and Sean Hogan, as well as making their way into other songs and films. Art himself would start showing up on major network interview shows (most often when the topic was UFOs) as a recognizable figure in the fields or the paranormal and the unusual.
Over the years he also penned a few novels looking at the paranormal and the supernatural. During the highpoint of his pop culture fame, Art Bell and friend/occasional guest host Whitley Strieber wrote a book called The Coming Global Superstorm. The book looked at the science (with more than a few liberties taken with the science) of global climate change. In between the bits looking at the science of climate change, they had a series of short stories examining what might happen and how various characters would react to it. This book would become the basis for The Day After Tomorrow.
Coast to Coast AM under Art Bell’s stewardship moved into markets that one would expect it to, but also into some that you wouldn’t expect it to find a huge listenership in. The tiny show that started as West Coast AM with a political talk format (until Art got sick of talking politics like everyone else on the AM dial) eventually became a show heard from coast to coast and beyond. Radio stations in other countries were carrying it, and the show’s stream from its website was listened to all over the world.
It was also seen all over the world. Art and longtime webmaster Keith Rowland loved to play with the growing capabilities of the World Wide Web. There were a lot of times during shows that Art would start posting photos to the show’s website taken from the studio web cam or streaming video from the studio as he was doing the show. A lot of times the featured attraction was one of Art’s many cats, occasionally it was his family, and from time to time it was something related to the show he was holding up to the camera from his studio. Then, occasionally, it was just stuff done for the pure goofy fun of it.
For a variety of reasons- including once the unexpected death of his wife -Art left the show a few times over the years. If anyone ever wanted proof that Art’s inimitable style was indeed inimitable, his departures from the show and then his later retirements certainly proved it. When Art first left the show, it was in almost every market in the country and it reached an estimated 22 million listeners from coast to coast. In a number of markets, including mine in the at that time Central Virginia area, the show was such a popular attraction the stations aired that night’s five-hour long show starting at 1am EST after airing the previous night’s show’s last hour or even last two hours as a rebroadcast. Mike Siegel took over the show for a little over a year. Art literally had to come back to the show in order to save it. It had lost markets, had its total show length reduced, and seen commercial break time increase. Art returned with requests to increase the show length and, much to the surprise of the network, cut back on the amount of ads during the show.
After building the show back up, the show was handed over to Ian Punnett for a time before Art finally handed it over to new regular show host George Noory. No matter the hoopla and hype around any guest hosts or new host Noory, the show was never the same without Art Bell and its listener numbers (while still the most listened to overnight show) tended to indicate a lot of people felt the same way. Apparently, even the syndicating network knew it. In some markets, parts of classic Art Bell episodes of Coast to Coast AM were aired earlier in the evenings or Saturday evenings would run full episodes under the banner of Somewhere in Time episodes. If you’re wondering about the name, yes, from what I’ve read it was a nod to the film Somewhere in Time; a film Art liked and spoke about on the show.
Art’s final departure from the show was well and truly made his final departure from the show after a falling out with Premiere Radio Network. From there, Art had a short flirtation with satellite radio via his show Dark Matter before starting a streaming radio network for a time led by his show Midnight in the Desert before making his final retirement from broadcasting.
If you never experienced Art Bell in his prime, it’s a little hard to fully explain what it was truly like. Yeah, I keep mentioning fun and entertaining, but there was more to it than that. In the wee dark hours of the morning, Art Bell took us all on a ride into places that no one else was going. If you were a believer, you hung on every word as if it were sacred knowledge that no one else was providing. If you were a skeptic, you were hanging on every word in the same way you would with enjoyable, engrossing works of fiction. So, yeah, it was fun and entertaining.
But beyond that, there was almost a communal aspect to it. If you worked midnights or late into the midnight hours, odds were good you had coworkers or friends working those hours who were tuning in every night as well. You didn’t have to believe, but you would still be talking about the wild shows the next day (or night) with coworkers and friends. Sometimes you wouldn’t have to wait that long. There were more than a couple of nights where I was driving around in a patrol car and another unit (sometimes not even from my department) would pull up next to me at the stoplight, roll their window down, look at me with a huge grin, and ask, “Man, are you listening to this? Tonight’s show is crazy.”
I think a big part of it was because of something I said about the Ghost to Ghost AM shows was true about the entire Art Bell experience. It wasn’t just Ghost to Ghost AM where we were all sitting around Art’s fire listening to him and others tell us these great stories. This was true with every show Art did. In those dark, quiet hours of the morning, we were all sitting together, a giant, national circle around Art’s storytelling fire, and then talking to each other about it later on. That’s almost how the experience felt.
In an era when American talk radio- especially on the AM dial -was seeing its biggest shows being built by creating and driving partisan political anger or by playing to or reinforcing listeners existing political biases; Art Bell built one of the largest shows on talk radio around looking at the fantastical with an open mind and doing it in a way that anyone could appreciate and enjoy. His show wasn’t built on the AM formula of playing to angers, fears, resentments, or politics. It was an oasis of almost a form of joyful whimsy. That feeling carried through to the listener. Everyone I knew who listened to the show- even the diehard skeptics where the subject matter was concerned -enjoyed talking about the show with other fans of the show. We didn’t all have to believe to find the show interesting. We didn’t all have to be believers to spend five hours a night listening to Art acting as the master of the theater of the mind that he was while painting pictures in our heads with his words so that we were all wearing a big ol’ grin on our faces.
Art Bell started Coast to Coast AM in 1993. It continues on in the early hours on AM stations around the country today, long after he left it. It’s never been the same since he left it, and now, sadly, neither it nor the midnight hours will ever truly feel the same again.
And, yeah, for those who will know what this is a reference to… When he left the air the first time, I spent the money and bought those discs. Do they still work as advertised? Sadly, it does not appear to be so. The archived, original site and its contents seem to have been removed a little while back and all you can access now is the intro screen. So, sadly, outside of fan posted shows, all that’s left of Art for the many who followed him in the glory years of Coast to Coast AM are the memories. Still, not a bad thing when so many of the memories are just so much damned fun.
Thanks for all the great years of entertaining radio that got a lot of us through some really long nights. Goodbye and rest in peace, Art.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.