It will never again be midnight in the desert. For more than two decades, Art Bell broadcast Coast to Coast AM across America. He talked to alleged time travelers, ghost hunters, cryptozoologists, prophets, visionaries, kooks, and UFO-ologists. For the sleepless and the curious, his four-hour paranormal radio show was a nightly comfort. Bell died on Friday the 13th of April at the age of 72.
Bell was a pioneer. Starting in the mid 1980s, he began to broadcast Coast to Coast AM in the dead of night, from his home. What made Bell special was his ability to talk to anyone, seemingly believe anyone, and craft four hours of call-in radio into compelling entertainment. Bell syndicated Coast to Coast in 1993 and his audience grew to more than 10 million.
His legacy is complicated. Coast to Coast was a friendly program and Bell often went toe-to-toe with far right figures such as Turner Diaries author William Pierce. But Bell also popularized conspiracy radio, paved the way for dangerous figures such as Alex Jones, and made money for Talk Radio Network—a broadcasting company that hosted right wing figures such as Michael Savage.
Bell covered many topics, but one of his most popular was unidentified flying objects. Throughout the 1990s, no other single person did more to popularize the ideas that the earth had been visited by extraterrestrial creatures and that the government was covering it up. He interviewed current and former American military personnel, and often opened his phone lines to callers who wanted to talk about what they’d seen in the night sky.
In 1997, a man called in claiming to be a test pilot from Area 51. He was only on the air briefly, but he sounded paranoid and frightened. He claimed what we thought of as aliens were actually extra dimensional entities. Abruptly, Bell’s station was pulled off the air and the caller disappeared. It would be one of Bell’s most famous calls.
Art Bell was a special broadcaster who feels like he came from a more innocent and naive time. His was conspiracy radio before it got swept up in the far right. This was Alex Jones-style radio, that was less serious and less dangerous. Bell retired from Coast to Coast in 2003, but returned to the airwaves with a rival show 10 years later after he felt his creation Coast to Coast had moved to the far right of the political spectrum.
Bell had a way with people. He could draw out even the most paranoid conspiracist and get them to talk, at length, about their ideas. It was not that he believed everyone that came onto his show, it was that he wanted to believe them. The listeners—the ones who stayed up late into the night to hear about the next werewolf, witch, or alien—will miss him.