Art Bell returns to the airwaves this fall. Fittingly, he won’t be broadcasting on terrestrial radio. The out-of-this-world host comes back on SiriusXM — extraterrestrial radio if you will.
The late-night talker’s hardcore followers may be disappointed that their guru chooses to broadcast via satellite radio instead of mental telepathy. But at least they’ll hear him regularly, a joy they haven’t been able to indulge since the latest of Bell’s retirements over a decade ago.
For the uninitiated, Bell comes across as an amalgamation of The X Files’ three “lone gunmen”; his show evokes In Search Of on the radio. The conspiracy theorists, alien abductees, and remote viewers laughed off the lines elsewhere on the dial win a respectful hearing here.
Callers on garden-variety talk radio provide a name and where they are from. My most memorable Art Bell moment came when a caller gave his name and when he was calling from. It was the distant future. Late-night radio serves as a soporific; this jarred me awake.
On another occasion, a listener in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 enthusiastically phoned in his plan for retribution. The U.S. military would seed the clouds above Afghanistan with red dye to make the locals believe the sky rains blood. Bell marveled at his ingenuity; I questioned my sanity for listening.
Bell gets the callers the other shows screen out. They don’t know what they’re missing.
The AM band overflows with hosts who want to be Rush Limbaugh or Jim Rome. Only Art Bell, as we’ve discovered from his string of replacements, can do Art Bell. From the Gordon Lightfoot bumper music to the showmanship that always seems to tease an “important announcement” next week, Coast to Coast — and now, hopefully, Art Bell’s Dark Matter — exuded a style as original as its callers.
Whereas other hosts personalize themselves by telling us details of their private lives, Bell shrouds himself in mystery. We know he broadcasts from the high desert in Pahrump, Nevada. We know that he’s on his fourth Asian wife. Beyond that, we don’t know much. Does he even believe any of the people he grants a forum to?
The 68-year-old talker benefits from scheduling. Coast to Coast placed him before listeners from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. eastern time. Art Bell’s Dark Matter will air from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. The competition certainly thins out overnight. But that’s not his greatest asset. We turn our imaginations on when we turn out the lights. There, in the dark without distraction, we wonder. Ideas dismissed during daytime win a hearing before we drift into dreams, which consider even more impossible possibilities. Our beds, not our cars, remain the ideal setting to listen.
In the same way that people watch Amish Mafia, Moonshiners, and other reality TV fare even though they know that it’s fake, Art Bell’s guests entertained even (especially?) when listeners understood them as storytellers rather than truthtellers. Some hung on the experts’ every word; others tuned-in to diagnose them. A few Bell mainstays proved more fascinating than funny. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, for one, generally provided appointment radio. But a Harvard degree and a Berkeley Ph.D. didn’t generally describe the pedigree of guests, who seemed more the denizens of Star Trek conventions or, in extreme cases, local asylums.
Bell’s greatest achievement is to make the utterly juvenile completely captivating. Unlike fellow microphone icon Howard Stern, whose reliance on sex talk almost universally draws ears closer, Bell delves into the conversations we seek to escape. The words “grassy knoll,” “face on Mars,” “Anunnaki,” and “Roswell,” usually spoken with Tourette-like compulsion, hit the ears as code-words with a singular translation: run. The private conversations we desperately seek not to get trapped into are the same ones that Art Bell attracts ears to on the public airwaves. Surely, this makes his success as astounding as the realization of any of the alien infiltrations spoken of on his program.
Put on your tinfoil hats. Check the skies for black helicopters, chemtrails, and alien landing parties. Art Bell is back — at least until his next retirement.