Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Art of Art Bell

Art Bell died a few days ago.

Most of you probably don't know who he is, but he was...well, influential isn't the right word. He was a notable figure in the formation of my college years. He was the host of a little radio show called Coast to Coast AM, pretty much the only offering available for anyone who is driving around at three in the morning.

Coast to Coast AM is an eclectic program, stretching out for four hours every night, consisting of a mix of call-in shows, extended segments, and news updates. What makes them unique is that they focus almost exclusively on the paranormal and conspiracy theories and futurism and a lot of strange bits. The first part of the program might talk about new solar panel technology, the second part might be about the government tapping our phone lines, the third might be how aliens are building bunkers in the midwest, and the last might have the host ask vampires to call in. It's as strange and as fascinating as it sounds. 

I was never a loyal listener--even in my crazy, crazy days if I was up at 3am in college it was because of Master of Orion II, not the radio. But I've always been fascinated by conspiracy theories of all types. I've been lukewarm on the paranormal until later in my life, but I've come around. And I still have a pretty good excitement level when it comes to new technologies. So I'd tune in to Coast to Coast AM every once in a while to get a hit of what the latest weirdo trends are and be happy.

But this eclectic nature was also its downfall.  A fascinating science story would be following by some obvious hoax that the hosts would egg on, seemingly sympathetic. Tuning in would be a gamble, even if you're open-minded about some things. And this sort of show naturally attracts a lot of extremists, which is fine if we're talking about aliens and spooks but not so much when it's political assassinations.

When I started listening in the late 90s, Art Bell was the host, but was sharing those duties with George Noory (and others). At the time, they were both pretty similar in style, albeit Bell always came across as a bit of a crank and Noory a little too easy-going with objectionable guests. (In the following decade, Noory tacked a very different tone, leaning less on paranormal and more on politics, but it was still a pretty good mix of topics.) While there's always a bit of risk when trucking with conspiracies, as we have seen lately, by and large it's a fascinating look into history and psychology. My Coast to Coast experience was probably more with Noory and Ian Punnett than Bell, but Bell was enough of a force to shape the show itself.

The state of conspiracy science wouldn't be what it is without Art Bell, for better or worse.

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