-The first two weeks of Art Bell’s triumphant return to (extra)terrestrial radio.
When I was a kid, I was heavily driven by two major topics of interest: Radio and the Paranormal.
Being an adolescent insomniac, dozens (if not hundreds) of sleepless nights were spent doing one of two things: Quietly listening to WIXX (101.1 FM) under my covers, or scaring myself shitless with any book I could find related to ghosts and UFOs. In retrospect, I wasn’t doing myself any favors when it came to curbing my insomnia; most nights, I was either too afraid or invested in thought to even consider sleep. When I did manage to get some rest, my Sleep Paralysis (a very real thing that I totally have) would cause me to wake up screaming, certain beyond measure that an extraterrestrial was hovering over my bed, all set to probe me something fierce.
So, you can imagine the revelation at the time when I first heard of Art Bell and Coast To Coast AM. Before the Internet, before The X-Files, Sightings and Snopes, there was only one true place to hear more than you could possibly handle when it came to every bizarre topic and legend under the midnight stars. Every night was a trip through the wormhole: UFOs, ghosts, time travel, parallel universes, alien abductions, men in black and complex government conspiracies. The guests ranged anywhere from legit geniuses to high-functioning lunatics. The callers? Among the most entertaining (sometimes unintentionally so) individuals I have ever heard. Better still, Coast To Coast was broadcast dead in the middle of the night, when skepticism usually takes a backseat to getting emotionally enraptured by a compelling story and a scratchy AM station.
YouTube is now a tremendous resource of these early radio milestones. How about Willie Nelson lookalike Mel Waters’ saga of when he found not one, but two bottomless pits that supposedly had mystical properties? Or how about when a frantic pilot called claimed to be in the middle of an Area 51 kamikaze mission on Halloween night? Or weirder still, what about the time when an alleged Area 51 employee called in to ‘expose’ the site’s true intentions, only to have Bell’s entire station get knocked off the air seconds later by unknown forces? It’s irresistible, intensely entertaining audio. Bell, to his credit, remained a steady voice of non-judgmental reason. Whether he believed his guests and callers was moot; what was important was that they got to tell the story they so desperately wanted to share with the world.
Fast-forward to 1998. I was a teenager at this point, and by the time I neared the end of high school, I had all but forgotten of Mr. Bell and his show. My interest in the paranormal had morphed; my skepticism was at a fever pitch and the concept was no longer entertaining to me. What I didn’t know was that Art was about to begin a series of quasi-retirement jags and network frustrations that would have him skipping across affiliates and hosting duties for nearly the next decade. In fact, from 2010 to the Summer of 2013, Bell was off the air entirely with little-to-no expectations that he would ever return. George Noory took over full time hosting duties on Coast To Coast AM, and Bell disappeared into the desert of Pahrump, Nevada.
In March of this year, I bought a new car that came with a complimentary subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio. While I enjoyed the multitude of channels and all the genres Sirius had to offer, I preferred to listen to my iPod while driving, and I had my mind set on not renewing the subscription when it came due in October. I thought the price was a bit exorbitant, and I spent most of the time listening to channels that played songs I already owned. Paying money for this privilege seemed illogical.
Then came July 29, when the announcement was officially made. Art Bell had signed a deal with Sirius, and would be returning to the airwaves for the first time in three years come September (on Indie Talk Channel 104). A new show (titled Dark Matter) with almost total autonomy, four nights a week for four hours a night, with a format centering around his classic potpourri of intergalactic weirdness.
A day later, I wrote Sirius a check and renewed my subscription for a full year. This was too interesting to pass up; it was time for me (and all of us) to get back in touch with my less-skeptical side, reunite with my insomnia and take a ride.
In short, Art is back and better than ever with Dark Matter. For a man pushing 70 years of age, his enthusiasm and professionalism are indicative of a true radio master (and pioneer). Also, the old school feeling is still there in spades. This is, after all, a man broadcasting a radio show from his own home, airing unscreened phone calls about the paranormal. It gets no more delightfully pure than that, especially in 2013. He does live product endorsements, marvels openly at the superior functionality of modern satellite radio, and chooses all of his own bumper music (which is mostly obscure pop hits from the 70’s and 80’s, which makes perfect sense for some reason).
Furthermore, each episode over the course of the first two weeks took us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole with expert coercion and precision. It almost seemed planned in advance that we would start the week with Dr. Michio Kaku, one of the most respected and intelligent astrophysicists on earth, and end the very same week with the story of a man to beat an alien to death with a tree branch. Before we knew it, our disbelief was suspended, and any intention of listening to Dark Matter with a distant air of cynicism was as dead as Jonathan Reed’s alien visitor (that he nicknamed ‘Freddy’). All we want is to be taken on a ride and told a good story.
The best part, for me, is that you never know what kind of guest you’re going to get. Some nights, you take in a good-natured interview with a logical, healthily-skeptical-yet-open-minded scientist. Other nights, you deal with a ‘Soul Traveler’ who has built Bigfoot-hunting robots out of spare VCR parts (I’m not making any of this up). Some guests will truly open your eyes to ideas you’ve never analyzed from a certain angle. Other guests will make you wonder just how easy it is to get a book published if you’re willing to tell a complete lie to rubes for the rest of your life. In both cases, it’s equally compelling. Again, Bell remains unflappable.
Thanks to Sirius On Demand, I can listen to these episodes (which air from 9-1c Monday-Thursday) the next day at the office, but whenever I get the chance, I try to rekindle my youth by listening to them live, in bed, with my headphones on. Second only to a long drive into the endless deserts of the southwest, I assume this is the way Dark Matter is intended to be heard. Why just last night, I fell asleep while Whitley Strieber was describing, in detail, the night an extraterrestrial anally probed him while he was paralyzed in bed. Minutes later, I woke up screaming.
It was like old times.
Art, it’s great to have you back. Roswells.