Art Bell transcended the earthly plane on Friday the 13th. Make of that what you will.
The late-night talker peaked perhaps in the late-1990s and early-2000s, when his show appeared on more than 500 stations and 15 million tuned-in nightly. He provided an experience like nothing else on the radio at a time when everything on the radio sounded like everything else on the radio.
Art Bell lulled the listener into believing that Art Bell lulled the listener to sleep. And he did until voices calling from Area 51 or the year 2063 jarred listeners into consciousness. Favorite subjects included shadow people, chem trails, space aliens, and time travel. Boasting three names — Linda Moulton Howe, David John Oates, Tom Van Flandern, etc. — seemed a prerequisite for landing an appearance as a guest. A fellow listener pondered aloud to me about this shared characteristic with serial killers; methinks ridiculed people take themselves super seriously when nobody else does, hence the three-name defense mechanism.
Bell sounded stranger than his menagerie of guests and callers. The man of mystery teased massive announcements with great frequency. He retired multiple times in very public ways citing very private reasons. Listeners grieved when his love Ramona passed away; they stood flummoxed when he remarried three months later, a period of delay two months longer than his waiting period between wife #2 and Ramona. He abruptly moved to the Philippines. He occasionally spoke of vague threats against him and his family. He sounded to his listeners as the type of person who might wear shades and a strange mustache, keep multiple cats as pets, and live in Pahrump, Nevada.
My favorite Art Bell moment came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A caller offered his unsolicited advice to the U.S. military on how to best respond to the attacks. He earnestly suggested dying the clouds above Afghanistan with a sort of red food coloring. Our ability to make it rain blood, presumably, would ward off thoughts of a future attack. Another host might mock; Bell marveled.
The host giving unscreened callers a forum, uncredentialled guests the floor (for hours!), and new life to Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase” and the entire Gordon Lightfoot catalogue all help explain his extraordinary success. More so does timing. Broadcasting in the wake of Waco and the Oklahoma City Bombing and contemporaneously with The X-Files, conspiracy theories found a massive audience. But even more than broadcasting in that time in history, broadcasting during a specific time of night — which witnesses our imaginations turn on when the lights turn off — catalyzed his popularity. It helped that evangelists and paid programming provided the competition. But the presentation and content of the show, rather than its weak-sauce rivals, attracted listeners in the darkness when all seemed possible.
Their fidelity did not mean a belief in the words said on the broadcast. They tuned in not for the truth but for a good story. Adults still want storytellers, preferably ones offering the most fantastical tales, to send them to sleep. Art Bell told them stories when parents and older siblings no longer would.
From the Heartland of America to the Gateway to the West, radio listeners mourn this weekend. The a.m. band lost one of its last great personalities.
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