Courtesy of Art Bell
Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When he was just starting out in the radio business, Art Bell was willing to go to great — sometimes silly — lengths to promote his program.
There was the radio marathon broadcasted while seesawing — “the Marine I was competing against fell flat on his face after 57 hours” — and the time he set the then-Guinness World Record for consecutive hours disc jockeying at 116 hours and 15 minutes — “No drugs. I held cans of frozen orange juice against my face. They gave me burns but kept me awake.”
Today, the radio host is known as the creator of “Coast to Coast AM,” the national show dedicated to the paranormal and fringes of science, which in its heyday was one of the most popular programs on radio.
Bell, 68, has not been on air regularly since 2003 and is coming out of retirement for a new show on SiriusXM that launches Monday from his home studio in Pahrump. He was wooed back onto the airwaves, he said, by an opportunity that was too good to let pass.
“A lot of things came together to make it possible,” he said. “It was tempting beyond my ability to turn it down. I don’t need the money. I’m doing this for fun.”
Bell, a 2008 inductee into the National Radio Hall of Fame, has a loyal following, and is long past his “young and crazy” days of wild promotions to gain audience. During its peak in the ’90s, “Coast to Coast” was heard on 500 radio stations and reached an estimated 15 million listeners nightly.
“The response from fans has been absolutely amazing, and I worry that I can’t live up to (their expectations),” he said about his new endeavor. “I think people’s memories of what was grow fonder as time goes on. I’ve got a lot to live up to. It’s not exactly like a NASA launch, where everything gets triple-checked. Not everything will go smoothly.”
To help him ease back into being in front of the microphone, Bell has booked physicist Michio Kaku, a frequent guest on Bell’s previous shows, for the inaugural episode of the new show, titled “Dark Matter.”
Due to a series of family events and conflicts with management, Bell has been through several retirements. The last time he regularly hosted “Coast to Coast AM” was in 2003. His last appearance on radio was for a special Halloween show, “Ghost to Ghost,” in 2010.
“I got other offers from terrestrial networks, but that’s what I did all my life,” Bell said. “This opportunity was really different. I used to have people driving cross country listening to the show, like truck drivers, and to stay in tune with the show they would have to keep finding new stations as they went. So people had a hard time listening to it.
“Sirius XM covers every square inch of the country and Canada, and it goes into Puerto Rico and into Central America. Now you can drive from California to New York and never change the channel,” he said.
Bell’s daughter just started first grade, which he saw as another sign the timing was right. Bell also likes the freedom he has at Sirius. He is scheduled to have a three-hour show Monday through Thursday that will then immediately be replayed. But Bell can stay on live for a fourth hour if he so desires. “Dark Matter” also will have fewer commercials than heard on traditional radio.
Did he find symmetry with a return to radio months after the U.S. government’s recent acknowledgement of Area 51, a frequent topic of his old shows?
“I don’t have much to say about that. I just laughed and laughed when I heard that story, as I’m sure most people did. It’s there, of course. It’s just over the hill from me particularly,” he said.
Bell became a licensed amateur radio operator when he was 13. He stayed on the radio while serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, operating a pirate station in Amarillo, Texas. Later, he worked for a private station in Okinawa, Japan, where they made a point to play the antiwar songs from U.S. artists that never made it on to Armed Forces Radio. In 1978, he started a late-night political call-in show on Las Vegas’ KDWN.
“Politics choked me to death,” he said. “It gets heated, and you go around in circles and circles. It’s like banging your head against a wall. Honest to God, it gets boring after a while. So, I was at KDWN and I said, ‘I can’t stand it anymore.’ I tried something else, it took off and away we went.”
Bell’s fans frequently laud his interviewing style, probing questions and ability to tease a good conversation out of the most unfocused callers. Adhering to the model of his original show, Bell will not screen calls on “Dark Matter.”
“In my opinion, any talk show host worth his salt can take any call and make it funny, informative or something,” he said. “If you are good at what you do, you can handle it. I don’t need to screen calls. It’s also entirely possible that a call-screener might well screen out a gem. Someone who might sound nutty to a call-screener may be a blast.”
Bell has indicated on his Facebook page and elsewhere that problems with Premiere Radio Networks, producers of “Coast to Coast AM,” contributed to him cutting back his hours and eventually leaving the show in the 2000s. For a while he wanted to move on, but now he says during his first show on SiriusXM, he will share his story about why he left “Coast to Coast AM.”
Bell said his show would shy away from politics and cover the paranormal, ghosts, theoretical science and other topics familiar to old fans. As he did when he was regular host of “Coast to Coast AM,” he will have a special Halloween episode dedicated to ghost stories from callers.
Bell is spending the last few days before Monday’s launch of “Dark Matter” making sure his new equipment works and finding his rhythm again.
“It’s a little bit like riding a bike,” he said. “But if you haven’t been on a bike in 10 years, you’re likely to fall on your ass a couple times.”
“Dark Matter” will air on Indie, SiriusXM channel 104, from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; the episodes are replayed at 10 p.m.