What is it about the Mojave desert that seems to inspire widespread and abiding interest in weird stuff? Did all of those above-ground nuclear tests cause some sort of genetic mutation among the masses, something akin to The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman? Is there an undiscovered psychoactive mushroom that stimulates strange visions or distorted thoughts? Something in the water, maybe?
“I don’t know. Something in our air. Something in our water. Whatever it is, we seem to be motivated to explore that which other people don’t,” radio icon Art Bell tells me. And if anyone should know, it’s Bell.
Long before most of the world had heard anything about the mysteries of Area 51, before controversial scientist Bob Lazar became a household name, before former CIA pilot John Lear was warning about secret treaties between the U.S. government and space aliens, before space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow established his own scientific think tank to pursue paranormal subjects, Pahrump resident Art Bell was hot on the trail of weird, wacky and wonderful subjects that reside out on the fringes of science and media.
UFOs, alien abductions, Bigfoot, ghosts, mystery creatures, unseen realms and parallel realities have been explored and dissected by Bell for decades, to the frightful delight of millions of radio listeners. Most of the programs he’s hosted originated from a comfortable compound on the edge of Pahrump, a home ringed by a forest of thin radio antennae, in a community known for its love of freedom, individuality and odd characters — an area dubbed by Bell as “The Kingdom of Nye.”
“Even though I have been approached a lot about TV projects, I have a face that’s made for radio,” Bell cracked during our recent interview at his home. “And there is something about Pahrump, something about the desert, that I love.”
Bell has radio waves in his blood. He earned his first radio operator’s license at 13, operated a pirate radio show for the troops during the Vietnam conflict, was a record-setting DJ at a Japanese radio giant after his service, and in the late ’70s found himself behind the microphone at KDWN, a Las Vegas-based 50,000-watt AM powerhouse. He hosted a call-in talk show during the late-night time slot that most radio stations ignore.
“When I was on KDWN, it was a political show, and I got to the point where I was fed up,” Bell says. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so one day I said, that’s it, I’m done with politics. I’m going to talk about things that interest me. So I did. And the phones lit up.” Within a few years, Bell had transformed late-night radio from a wasteland into a juggernaut. In 1988, Coast to Coast AM was born, with Bell broadcasting from his Pahrump home as a radio version of Rod Serling.
These days, it seems every third cable TV show is about UFOs, Bigfoot hunters, ghost expeditions or similar mysteries. Movies about alien invasions or specters lurking under beds are staples of blockbuster box office receipts. And paranormal websites and chat groups are nearly as popular as online porn. Does Bell feel at least partially responsible for the public fascination with things that go bump in the night?
“The world has changed only in the sense that what I was doing back then is being done now, times 10,” Bell says. “These questions, deep questions like life after death, UFOs — are we being visited — ghosts, are the same questions we faced back when I was doing the broadcast. And they’re even bigger now.”
Bell’s mellifluous voice and flair for the dramatic helped turn Coast to Coast AM into a media phenomenon, syndicated on more than 550 stations, with a listening audience of perhaps 15 million people. One media journalist recently characterized Bell’s success as the result of making “the utterly juvenile completely captivating,” describing the typical interview subjects as “more the denizens of Star Trek conventions or local asylums,” an assessment that misses the mark by a wide margin. Another critic suggested, “it’s more fun to be weird than to be right …, more fun to wonder than to know.”
“I don’t think these are juvenile questions. Where do we go after death? What happens to us?” Bell asks. “Some of what I do is flat-out entertainment. Some of it is hard science. And I leave it up to the audience to decide which is which.”
Bell was an early proponent of climate change. A book he co-wrote with Whitely Strieber was made into the climate-change doomsday movie The Day After Tomorrow. Bell also helped turn physicist Michio Kaku into a version of Carl Sagan, sort of the go-to guy for mainstream media on a range of science topics, including space exploration, cosmology the multiverse, you name it.
The story of Bell’s departure from the show he created is complicated. He bristles at the suggestion that he is a “serial retiree,” a reference to the circumstances that led to his initial retirement from Coast to Coast in the late ’90s, followed by subsequent stints as a part-time host. (The first retirement was the result of a terrible crime. Bell’s son was sexually assaulted by a Pahrump schoolteacher.) After the sudden death of his third wife, Bell moved to the Philippines, where he remarried, but there were technical problems in broadcasting from the islands.
The circumstances surrounding his final break with Coast to Coast are of prime interest to Bell’s legions of diehard fans because he is about to make a much-anticipated return to the microphone. Bell’s last live broadcast for Coast to Coast was in 2010, and there have been rumors about his possible return ever since, though, until now, the offers weren’t intriguing enough to coax him out of a comfortable life with his young wife and 6-year-old daughter. That changed when he got a call from Sirius/XM satellite radio. When he debuts his new program, Art Bell’s Dark Matter, on Sept. 16, it will be carried — appropriately enough — on extraterrestrial radio.
“It’s going to be a little different, a lot more unstructured. The only instructions they gave me were to have fun — go on the air and have fun,” Bell says with a smile. “Broadcast radio, as you know, is very structured. Everything is to-the-minute. The breaks have to be where the breaks are, but they told me to put the breaks wherever I want them. I can do three hours, four hours, five hours, so that’s very different.”
In the beginning, the show will air four weeknights, with a “best-of” recap on Fridays. The time slot is earlier than his usual late-night gig, which means he will not compete directly with his former program. Fans of both programs are trying to read the tea leaves, looking for hints of a feud or lingering animosity on either end.
Bell would not dwell on his feelings about Coast during our interview, except to say that he feels the competition will be good for both shows, but in recent days it has become clear via social media that there are unresolved issues. Bell has made pointed comments on artbell.com about Premiere Radio, the company that distributes Coast to Coast (along with other talk-show behemoths, including Rush Limbaugh). Bell has suggested he will share his side of the Premiere story once his new show gets going. For their part, Coast to Coast AM folks say they wish Bell nothing but the best in his new incarnation.
Bell declines to say anything about his lineup of guests for the new show, except that he has a stable of interesting and controversial names in mind, many of them familiar to longtime listeners.
“My favorite line from the movie Contact is, ‘Wanna take a ride?’ Well,” he says, “we are going to take one heck of a ride here.”
Editors note: George Knapp was a contributor to Art Bell’s Dreamland radio show during the mid ’90s and is a twice-monthly guest host on Coast to Coast AM.