Peddling the Paranormal: Late-Night Radio’s Art Bell
Tom Genoni interviewed Art Bell late last year. This article is based on that interview. —Editor
Living in Los Angeles, I've grown accustomed to seeing neon-signed psychic storefronts, sidewalk fortunetellers, aura readers, channelers, spiritualists, and New Age advocates of all kinds. The “fringe” is well represented here.
But none of this — not even the psychic cat that occasionally shows up on Venice Beach — could have prepared me for the bizarre parade of paranormal oddities appearing regularly on the late-night radio program “The Art Bell Show.” Carried live five days a week on AM stations all over the country, “The Art Bell Show,” officially known as “Coast to Coast AM,” is America’s most-syndicated late-night talk radio program. (The show “Dreamland” airs on Sundays.)
The program began roughly fourteen years ago; that’s when Art Bell says he first became interested in the paranormal. As it grew in popularity, “Coast to Coast” gradually picked up affiliates and sponsors and today leads the late-night pack in ratings with an estimated nightly audience of eight to ten million. In addition to hosting the program, Bell publishes the After Dark Newsletter, based on his show’s topics, helps maintain a large Internet site (artbell.com) filled with images and links to pro-paranormal sites, and has published two books, The Art of Talk and, most recently, The Quickening, both available only through his 800 number. (See Robert Baker’s column, ”Art Bell’s Quickening Is Sickening,” S.B. December 1997.)
If you ever down enough coffee to catch the show (it airs live on the West Coast from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.), you are likely to hear Bell and his guests discussing topics commonly found in the supermarket tabloids: ancient structures found on the moon and on Mars; extraterrestrials living on Earth — and how to spot them; the latest crop-circle sightings; the use of remote viewing to see into the far-off future and the distant past. (One “remote-viewer” settled a long-standing historical debate by confirming to Bell that Jesus did indeed look as modern artists have portrayed him.) You are also certain to endure one of the many lengthy on-air product endorsements, ranging from water filters to tape recorders, that Bell seamlessly (and rather sneakily) weaves into his monologues. The topic may occasionally switch to politics or current events, but it inevitably returns to the wild and fantastic tales of the supernatural — his five unscreened phone lines for incoming calls make sure of that.
Bell says that he’s been “in search of wisdom” throughout his life and has investigated many religions, but he claims he makes no judgments about whether the numerous paranormal topics he discusses are real or not. (He does, however, confess a personal interest in life-after-death and UFOs. And, yes, he has seen one.) Bell says he doesn't like to “tear apart his guests” with tough questions and frequently expresses his desire to “let listeners make up their own minds.” Where, then, are the tools to enable listeners to do this? Why is the show and his regularly advertised Web site so completely devoid of any critical, skeptical material?
Bell believes there is already an “automatic skepticism” about his program’s paranormal subject matter and that plenty of skeptical information is available (though he didn’t mention where). Furthermore, as Bell points out, his program is simply about the paranormal, and he feels it’s not productive for him or anyone else to criticize what are frequently subjective stories. Perhaps, but many of the phenomena discussed on his show do involve questions of a scientific nature — phenomena that have been researched and investigated and can be considered without belittling the subjective experience. Nevertheless, although Bell insists he doesn't want his listeners to blindly accept the paranormal claims of his guests, he says, in apparent contradiction, that he is comfortable letting everyone have a chance to tell his or her story, unchallenged.
Not to be eclipsed by the perpetual weirdness of his callers and guests, Bell periodically refers to his own “millennium madness” theory named, ominously enough, ”The Quickening.” Bell says that for about the last decade or so he has been noticing changes of ever-increasing severity in our culture and environment; that “in many areas of our lives the gravity of events seems to be intensifying” and may be leading to some great “change” — and this by the end of the century. Bell cites the increase in violent crime and broken families, frequent climactic catastrophes of all kinds, the growing national debt, dishonest politicians, general lack of respect for others — about any and every “bad” thing you can imagine — as evidence of this coming global transformation. The multitude of factors contributing to ”The Quickening” are conveniently vague, and, like any good apocalyptic forecast, can easily be modified and re-explained to encompass facts that may, at first, appear contradictory. For instance, when I pointed out that last year’s violent crime rate was the lowest since 1989 (this according to FBI statistics released in October of last year), Bell’s response was: “Yes, but the increase through 1989 was horrendous.”
Does Bell fear that he may be contributing to the “dumbing down” of America by refusing to be critical of his paranormal topics? Hardly. Although he acknowledges that there is indeed a “dumbing down,” Bell scoffs at suggestions that he bears any responsibility. “If America is getting dumber it’s not because of my program. . . . There are a million shows like mine. Look at (the television show) ‘Strange Universe’ — they don’t feel an obligation to present contradictory materials.” For Bell, the root of the quandary is our educational system, but he’s emphatic that it is not his role to instruct listeners on subject matter he regards as “absolute entertainment” — even though comments from listeners that tout “Coast to Coast” as an informative and important source of news are proudly displayed on his Web site.
Not surprisingly, the real reason for the show’s divergent postures — simultaneously existing solely as entertainment and presenting supposedly reliable, scientific information — has little to do with any “search for wisdom.” The “Art Bell Show,” and others like it, exist because of a formula, one that their producers rarely concede and one that invariably precludes any meaningful, balanced discussion of the paranormal. “These programs,” Bell admits, “are on the air for a very specific reason: they're businesses. They wouldn’t be in business if people weren't watching. People watching equals ratings, ratings equals money.” He discusses the paranormal because, as he says, “it’s what people want.” And if it contributes to a population increasingly unable to critically evaluate his show’s topics? “It’s not my responsibility” is his refrain. Bell doesn't seem to care.