Art Bell glances across his technology-laden studio, takes a breath, and picks up another unscreened call.
"West of the Rockies, youíre on the air." His warm, smoky voice resonates across the late-night airwaves.
"Hello, Mr. Bell!"
"Hello, Mr. Caller."
"This is Robert from San Joaquin Valley, California."
"Whatís on your mind tonight?"
Robert is earnest. "This is going to be hard for you to believe," he begins, "but Iíve got a courtyard that seems like itís enchanted. All of the little creatures that come in there treat me like Iím family."
"What do you mean, creatures?" Bell inquires, suspiciously.
"I get everything from red foxes to cats..."
"Oh! Oh, you mean creatures of the Earth. I thought you were talking about gnomes or something."
"No, all of these creatures that we know about, and they come into my courtyard and they greet me. Like when my telephone rings, I got this little frog out there, and he speaks up just as though to tell me the phoneís ringing."
Bell deadpans: "You have a frog that monitors your phone."
"Yeah! In his own language, not English, and itís really interesting, because..."
"Iíve heard frogs talk," Bell shoots back, not missing a beat. "They do beer commercials all the time."
Itís just another typically atypical moment for talk-radio giant Art Bell, whose Coast to Coast AM is a nightly cocktail of UFOs, prophecies, conspiracies, cults, crop circles, the Y2K bug, Bigfoot, alien abductees, and even the occasional enchanted-garden story. Every night from 10:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. Pacific Time, while most of America sleeps, Coast to Coast reaches out via satellite to more than 400 radio stations and at least 10 million insomniacs. That makes Bell the fourth-rated talk personality in radio, nestled just beneath daytime heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
Bell is on his way to becoming the biggest late-night talk host of all time. Heís already one of the few true celebrities of the paranormal world. The ordinary-looking 53-year-old broadcasts nightly from the guest bedroom of his deluxe trailer home in the remote Nevada desert, about 25 miles away from Area 51, the "top secret" military base where many ufologists believe the U.S. governmentís UFO cover-up is headquartered. Heís an Air Force vet, a lifelong radio obsessive who held his first FCC license at age 13, and a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. Two UFO sightings of his own and handful of psychic experiences have helped give him a broad perspective on what passes for valid subject matter. "I look for the unexpected, the surprise, the shock, whatever it is on any given night," says Bell in a FATE interview. "I let that sustain me."
Thatís for sure. While Coast to Coast is essentially a general topics show, the subject matter regularly turns to the ultra-strange, thanks to its "freaks come out at night" time slot and its enigmatic host. One night, to poke fun at Jerry Falwellís recent declaration that the Antichrist is male, Jewish, and living today, Bell opens the phone lines to people who believe theyíre the Beast incarnate. "Falwell says heís out there, and if heís out there, Iím gonna try to find him!" Bell tells his listeners. "Donít disappoint me with this now! If I pick up that line, youíd better be the Antichrist!" Over the next few hours, a surprising number of Antichrist candidates--ranging from the convincing to the pretentious--make that call.
Bell has also reserved his lines for wicked witches, time travelers, extraterrestrials, or simply ordinary humans who want to air whateverís on their minds. Part of the secret of his success, Bell believes, is that he eschews the standard practice of using a call screener--which creates a unique tension of literally not knowing what to expect. "My view is that any talk show host worth his salt can take any call, no matter how strange and bizarre and weird, and make it entertaining, informative, humorous, whatever," Bell says. "I donít want to know whatís coming next." But itís almost always good radio.
When Bell isnít hearing from his listeners, his stable of call-in guests maintains the atmosphere. Thereís Richard Hoagland, who delivers massive conspiracy theories connecting NASA, Freemasons, and UFOs. Thereís remote viewer Ed "Dr. Doom" Dames, who predicts that an enormous solar flare may destroy much of the Earthís population in 1999. Peter Davenport from the National UFO Reporting Center checks with each new discernible wave of UFO reports. And then thereís Gary North, the fear-mongering fundamentalist who appears to hope that the Y2K computer bug will bring on the collapse of civilization on January 1, 2000. (Bell was discussing Y2K months before it was a household term.)
By Bellís own admission, however, Coast to Coast--and Dreamland, his Sunday evening show--range everywhere from "the scientific to the entertaining to the ludicrous." For this, Bell is often attacked by rivals and the media for what they see as a dangerously uncritical stance. Itís the "scientific" part that gets others up in arms. In November, the skeptical Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) branded Bell with its backhanded Snuffed Candle Award, presented for his role in "encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience, and contributing to the publicís lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry."
Bell responds to such attacks with savvy. "I said, ĎLook, a personís mind should not be so open that the brains fall out, nor should it be so closed that no useful input can be taken in," he says of the CSICOP award. "I listen to things that CNN and NBC and CBS and ABC donít listen to and wonít listen to, and I think the American people appreciate that."
Bell interviewed CSICOP leader Joe Nickell on the show, and the two mulled over their differences. "He finally had to admit that he never listens to the show," Bell says, exasperated. "Iím afraid that in the mind of the casual listener, he hung himself. That happens with a lot of my guests. You would be surprised how useful it is to give people enough rope."
The View from Dreamland
Pahrump, Nevada (pop. 1,300), is the last place on Earth youíd expect to find the headquarters of a talk-radio giant. But itís a natural place for Art Bell. At this remote crossroads, anti-federal government sentiment runs high, gambling and prostitution are legal, and the notorious Area 51--a.k.a. Dreamland--lies just beyond the nearby Spring Mountains. The so-called Extraterrestrial Highway and the Area 51 gateway town of Rachel, Nevada, are clear on the other side of the military zone from Pahrump, but Bellís town still sits firmly in ufologyís mecca zone. Residents regard lights in the sky as a not uncommon occurrence.
When the subject of Pahrump comes up in a Las Vegas taxi, the driver immediately mentions Art Bell. "Ask anyone in that town where he lives," the cabbie says, "but no one will tell you." Privacy seems to be one of Bellís top values. As a condition of this FATE story, Bell politely insisted on a telephone-only interview, citing a profound weariness with reporters, photographers, and unexpected visitors.