Tuesday, March 4, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
The truth is out there. But probably not with the caller who says her lover is an alien lizard. Or the Emory University professor who insists the Hale-Bopp comet is towing an alien object. Or the caller who says 100 million Americans are actually alien life-forms. That number is clearly too low.
But perhaps some of the insomniacs and late-shift workers who call talk-radio host Art Bell from their various points on the midnight wacko spectrum aren't full of it. Perhaps someone out there in the great American night has seen something or thought something or gotten close enough to unusual information to be of interest to the 15 million people who tune in Bell's "Coast to Coast," the most popular overnight radio show in the land. So he keeps those phone lines open.
If you've suddenly recovered a memory of being kidnapped and probed by aliens or have a theory on cattle mutilations, well, no one wants to hear your story more than Bell and his audience. "I'll talk about anything," he says. Any topic that emits a weird glow in our pre-millennial gloom, you can tell him all about it on one of the five toll-free lines leading into the modest Pahrump home where he lives and broadcasts.
Mel from Washington state, you're on the air!
I have a bottomless hole on my property!
"People have been throwing their trash in the well for decades: furniture, household trash, dead cows, building debris, you name it. The hole never filled up, so I got curious, actually obsessed, and began trying to measure the depth of the hole." Fifteen miles of weighted fishing line later, he informs Bell, he still hasn't hit bottom.
As you can see, no snotty production assistant will screen your call; Bell runs the board himself and throws it wide open.
"I allow those phones to ring and I go straight to it," he says. "As a result, I get some very, very strange phone calls." From your mind straight to Line 1, up through the satellite dish in his back yard, down to a network in Oregon and out to more than 300 stations across the country.
"Los Angeles, Spokane, Honolulu..." Sitting in his smallish living room, having dispensed quickly with any false modesty, Bell is gleefully listing the many places where "Coast to Coast" is No. 1 in its time slot. "Wichita, Boise, Bakersfield...," he continues, running through a handful of ratings sheets. "We're picking up affiliates at the rate of about two a day."
It's only late morning, but he's just gotten up from a post-show nap (he broadcasts live 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.). He's wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt, the uniform of a guy who works at home. The big TV in the corner is tuned soundlessly to a headline news station. There's an expensive-looking stereo next to the TV and four loaded bookshelves nearby.
Ramona, his wife and support staff, is at a desk near the kitchen, furiously laptopping some bit of Art Bell business. And since he also has a heavily visited website, book ventures and so on -- artbell.com touts him as "the ultimate 'new media' personality" -- there's no shortage of Art Bell business.
"The question is, why are we doing so well?" he says, starting to interview himself in the manner of the often-interviewed ("Hard Copy" was here the other night, the Washington Post wrote him up the other day). "The answer is, I try not to think about it too much. I just do what's fun."
Here, then, a sampler of what's been fun recently:
* Speculation on the origin of a charred and pitted metal sphere found in a Texas field.
* A show about a 1957 Chevy that apparently fell from the sky into a Los Angeles neighborhood.
* The disappearance of a communications satellite from its orbit.
* A chat with abductee celebre Whitley Streiber.
* Much Hale-Bopping.
Bell's popularity sprouts at the confluence of such trends as the eroding borders between information, entertainment and fantasy commentary; the grass-roots vigor of talk radio and the Internet, media without a tradition of editors and accuracy; the pervasive sense that official channels are no longer reliable, that we're being lied to; a widespread gut feeling that society is accelerating beyond our control.
"What I do wouldn't work during the day," Bell says in his living room. "It'd be a disaster."
His show needs the night, when the imagination roams on a longer leash, when the darkness renders tales of government-alien alliances and blood-sucking demon monkeys and "remote viewing" (visualizing scenes from really far away) not only plausible but perhaps even likely. In the light of day, "the audience would be different; they'd be in a different frame of mind," he says.
He credits the show's unscreened spontaneity for his success. Politics, too -- he doesn't do much. Every talk jock out there in radio land is hammering politics, Clinton-traitor this and Clinton-hero that, and enough is enough! "If I was getting bored and sick of it, the average listener was, too." Anyway, the minute you declare your primary colors, you alienate half the audience.
Of course, "Coast to Coast" isn't all crop circles and alien implants. Recent broadcasts have featured discussions about the impending Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, the O.J. Simpson trial, assisted suicide, Gulf War syndrome and a chat with Steve Forbes.
"So many (talk show hosts) are so phony. Art's the real thing," says Alan Eisenson, program director at KXNT 840-AM, which airs Bell's shows locally. "I think the show is popular because Art's a genuine talent. I think the subject matter is secondary. He'd be popular and successful regardless of the subject he talked about."
Which, mostly, is crop circles and alien implants.
* Bump! "Did you hear that?" Bell says, whirling in mid-sentence toward the small room where his studio is. His life is full of mysteries! Things that go bump in the late morning.
"It can't be one of your cats," Ramona deadpans. "They haven't gained that much weight."
Well, who knows what it is. Maybe it's a rabid Art Bell fan trying to get a close encounter; that's happened before. Or worse: "My FBI file is this thick, threats and so on." He's holding his fingers a good inch apart. Every so often the Bells get a warning from a far-off police department that a nutcase from that jurisdiction is looking for him. Thus the security fence outside and hush-hushiness he enforces regarding his address.
Bell is fast-forwarding through a few videotapes, looking for bits of his resume. Whoa, stop tape -- here's an episode of NBC's alien-invasion series, "Dark Skies." Bell guest-starred as, get this, late CBS patriarch William Paley, who, in a detail unknown to most Paley biographers, was apparently part of a tribunal of military leaders and power brokers controlling a vast UFO coverup. Bell was asked to reprise and expand the role in a later episode but said no; who wants to spend two full days filming in L.A.?
"Anyway," says Ramona, "it would have wrecked our vacation."
Wait, hold it, this is what he's looking for: a segment about him from the syndicated show "Strange Universe," a sort of paranormal "Hard Copy." He's described glowingly as a "prophet of the paranormal, a Moses of sorts," who leads his listeners out of the bondage of their ignorance. It shows a little back-and-forth between Bell and a typical guest -- the guy who insists 100 million Americans are actually benign aliens -- as a typical listener reclines in bed, rapt with attention.
What you notice right away is that Bell, although clearly quick-witted and very bright, doesn't just whack the guy with a karate chop of sarcasm or common sense. One hundred million aliens? Are you on dope? He keeps his skepticism in check. The question is duly begged: How much of this stuff does Bell buy?
"I buy certain amounts of what they're saying," Bell tells the show. "I help them tell their story and let the audience judge."
Watching in his living room, he emphasizes that point. "I get a guest on the air, and they're weird or strange, and I help them tell their story," Bell says. "I don't laugh at them. I listen. There's a lot of things in this life we can't understand." Which doesn't mean he uncritically accepts their every bizarre assertion. "If someone's a flake, I help them dig their own hole. I let the audience be the judge. And believe me, they are.
"Some of it's totally BS and fun, some of its true and intriguing."
Of course, it's easier to be nonjudgmental when you've beheld some irrational phenomena yourself, and that's not solely a reference to the framed Playboy photo of a naked Shannen Doherty that hangs in his studio.
* Picture, if you will, a car, a car driving through darkest Pahrump about five years ago. "It was about 11:15, 11:20 at night," Bell begins, matter-of-factly. He and Ramona were driving home from Las Vegas. "My wife said, 'What the hell is that?'" Lights in the sky behind them, closing fast!
Apparently resisting the urge most of us would have to get out of there, and pronto!, Bell pulled over and got out. This, he says, is what he saw: A triangular craft, about 150 feet between points, "this gigantic mother of a thing," completely silent.
"It was about 150 feet above our heads," he says. "It wasn't flying. I was in the Air Force, I know what flying is. This was floating. It made zero noise. We watched it sail all the way across the valley and over the mountains. Toward Area 51."
He knows what you're thinking -- Orderlies, Mr. Bell's medicine, quickly! Yet, like so many people reporting such encounters, he seems as maddeningly normal as his story is maddeningly abnormal, his very reasonableness stifling the "X-Files" theme music rising in your mind. He's careful not to leap to extraterrestrial conclusions.
"I can't say for certain whether what I saw was alien or terrestrial," he allows, although it's clearly way beyond anything covered by the phrase "existing technology."
"Either way, it's a big story. This wasn't a light in the sky; it was very close."
* Say you were the 814,913th person this year to click into artbell.com, his heavily linked, constantly updated, full-service website. It's a vital complement to the radio shows: Here he posts the photos he describes on air, publishes the related documents, letters and newspaper articles.
As No. 814,913, you zip past the interview with author Richard Noone, who says a cataclysmic polar something or other will occur May 5, 2000; past the file on the "chupacabra," a small vampirish primate "blamed in the deaths of about 150 animals" in Puerto Rico; past the photos of anomalous metal debris recovered from the UFO crash site at Roswell, N.M. You hit the Hale-Bopp page for a lesson in how goofy ideas, presented in a sheen of pseudo-fact, acquire an inexplicable momentum thanks to what the Washington Post calls "the synergistic power of a new media loop: talk radio and the Internet."
Hale-Bopp is a comet that will pass near Earth in April. Not long ago, people of an otherworldly bent began claiming that an alien object -- a ship, a canister of biological cleansing agent ... anyway, something -- is hitching a ride in the comet's tail. They know this through remote viewing.
One Courtney Brown, described as a tenured professor at Emory University, claimed on Bell's show that a noted astronomer would announce such a finding soon. He provided Bell a copy of the photographic evidence.
Predictably, the press conference never happened, and soon Bell received letters from someone claiming to be a Vatican priest who'd discovered a "heavily encrypted subsystem" in the Vatican computer network revealing the truth about Hale-Bopp, and soon the priest's family had been killed. ... As the tale unfolded on the air and in cyberspace, traditional media outlets picked up the story and spread it even further.
To Bell's credit, he is as willing to debunk as to believe. No sooner had Brown's Hale-Bopp photo appeared on artbell.com than Bell published a rebuttal from a Hawaiian astronomer proving the picture had been doctored. The site also reprinted a news story indicating that Mel from Washington probably doesn't exist.
But it's easy to see how the credulous, the dangerously unskeptical, the Internet unsavvy can get caught in a sticky Web of assertions disguised as fact. There's a scary lack of attribution and qualifiers on the new media frontier -- not even something as mild as saying chupacbras are allegedly blamed in the deaths of unfortunate Puerto Rican livestock. You have to wonder how many mouseketeers stop to consider whether the report comes from an official source or the unraveling mind of some guy gooned on "X-Files" reruns.
On the other hand, where but the Internet could you access artbell.com's cache of Hale-Bopp poetry? Or learn that, in a vote on what to call the comet's alien companion, "Hale Mary" captured 35 percent of the vote over visitor No. 814,913's personal favorite, "Steve," which earned a measly 8 percent.
* "Strange Universe" described Bell's Pahrump home as "isolated times two," with snakes, scorpions and lizards for neighbors, which might come as a surprise to his neighbors, who, judging from their homes, are actual humans.
He moved out here years ago after living in Las Vegas, working for what is now Prime Cable and KDWN 720-AM. He likes the solitude, the quiet, the fact that his place is almost paid off. He's been married to Ramona -- perhaps the only Filipino-Hawaiian-Chinese-French Indian woman in Pahrump -- for six years, and if he's the star behind the mike, she's the power behind that. She books guests, handles mail...
"All those annoying tasks he can't stand to do," she says, laughing.
"Without Ramona, I couldn't begin to do what I do now," he admits. For one thing, she is his buffer from the world: "The talk show host is not a talker," she says.
And even though he doesn't broadcast for another, oh, 12 hours, it looks like the phone lines are open! The post office calls to say there are two tubs of letters waiting to be picked up (Bell receives several hundred a day); the network calls to say a station in Pensacola, Fla., wants to pick up "Coast to Coast," and calls again to say that seven more stations have picked up "Dreamland," his Sunday evening program.
The studio decor attests to his interest in otherworldly life forms -- a cartoon of an alien sent in by a listener, a flying-saucer model, a black-and-white of a young Barbra Streisand. And there are cat pictures galore. Bell has three cats, including a wild one that pretty much lives next to the couple's bed.
Outside, Bell shows off his latest baby, an enclosed spa, the perfect place to while away his post-show wee hours. "Have I mentioned the Quickening?" he asks suddenly.
Well, sit down, Mr. Reporter. It goes like this: From his catbird seat in Pahrump, Bell has observed the nation's growing debt, race riots, gang warfare, soulless criminality, broken families, venal politicians, haywire ecology and has discerned therein a pattern, a hint of meaning, a sense that it all adds up. He calls this process the Quickening.
"Everything is occurring at an ever-increasing pace," he says. "A lot of people feel it in their gut. I think it's all leading to something. We're racing toward something."
The publication of his book on the subject, for one thing. In "The Quickening," he will lay out his thoughts and evidence, but, no false mystic, he won't advance any predictions, other than to generalize. "It doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world, but it'll be something different."
Perhaps he's on to something here. Maybe being tuned into the vibes of 15 million night owls affords one a little advance notice on the apocalypse. Or maybe he's got a bad case of the same millennium jitters responsible for asteroid and volcano movies. Or maybe it's just business as usual in a strange universe. Cue that "X-Files" music now.