But something strange happened midway through the broadcast. A frantic caller managed to choke out a greeting before announcing that he didn’t have much time. “They’ll triangulate on this position really, really soon,” he said, audibly crying:
What we’re thinking of as […] aliens, Art, they’re […] extradimensional beings that an earlier precursor of the […] space program made contact with […] They have infiltrated a lot of […] aspects of […] the military establishment, particularly the Area 51. The disasters that are coming, they […] — the government — knows about them […] They want those major population centers wiped out so that […] the few that are left will be more easily controllable […] I started g —
The signal cut out. After five seconds of dead air, the show lurched back to life.
“Well […] we are now on a backup system. […] Something knocked us off the air,” Bell reported. The satellite uplink transmitter had failed without explanation, a first for the veteran broadcaster. For the remainder of the night, Bell and his audience speculated on what exactly had occurred.
None of this was entirely out of the ordinary on Coast to Coast AM. For nearly a decade, Bell had beamed Coast into the dead of night, five nights a week, from 11:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. PST. Boasting 15 million nightly listeners across the United States at the height of his popularity, he famously dealt in paranormal, conspiratorial, and supernatural themes. “From the high desert and the great American Southwest,” Bell intoned over the pulse of Giorgio Moroder’s paranoid Midnight Express instrumental, “I bid you all good evening or good morning as the case may be.”
The mythologies of both night and desert lent Coast the allure of the unknown, locating it on the fringes of experience. One could equally expect to tune in to discussions of life on Mars, Bigfoot sightings, vaccine-administered microchips, government-sanctioned alien-hybrid breeding programs, doomsday predictions, or cataclysmic climate change.
Bell’s life and tenure as the host of Coast to Coast AM reflected the social and political landscape at the so-called end of history. Amidst the political disempowerment, material decline, and social atomization of the post–Cold War era, Bell soothed his listeners by offering them a proxy of self-determination: they could at least feel in on the game, even if it was stacked against them. In this way, Bell provided an affective mirror for the conditions under neoliberal democracy. And given what was to happen to the United States in the years to come, it’s clear now that he was a prophet too.
Arthur William “Art” Bell III was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, on June 17, 1945, while his parents, both Marines, were stationed at Camp Lejeune. Just a month prior, on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day marked the end of World War II in Europe and anticipated peace for generations to come. But one month after Bell’s birth, on July 16, 1945, the United States tested its first atomic weapon, nicknamed “the Gadget,” at the Trinity Site in New Mexico’s desert expanse.
As Bell was likely taking his first baby steps in early 1946, the American diplomat George F. Kennan sent the “Long Telegram” to the state department, advocating a hard-line strategy of containment of the Soviet Union. In 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act, creating the Central Intelligence Agency and institutionalizing the burgeoning US security state. By mid-1950, the United States was embroiled in the Korean War, a crucial precursor for the Cold War to come. Before Bell had enrolled in primary school, an already unstable world had been turned on its head.
Bell’s childhood was marked by traditional WASP values and an underbelly of discontent and rootlessness. In his memoir, The Art of Talk, he confesses that he believed from a young age that his fiery parents should have divorced. Yet they stayed together — admirably, he says — because of a nascent sense of principle that they had inherited in their military service. As Marines, Bell’s parents were frequently transferred to new assignments. By the time he reached high school, Bell had attended 35 different schools. Radio was one of few constants in his life. He obtained his Federal Communications Commission ham radio license at 12 and was soon communicating with amateur radio operators across the globe. Bell also nurtured a passion for flight, which, like radio, imparted an idealized sense of omniscience over terrestrial concerns.
Flight led Bell, fresh out of high school, to enlist in the Air Force. Wary of the nightmarish battlefield reports coming out of Vietnam, he became a medic. Though he didn’t see active combat, Bell was scarred by the carnage he saw in its wake. His heart remained set on radio. In Amarillo, Texas, where he underwent basic training, he ran a pirate radio station, secretly broadcasting rock ’n’ roll to appreciative GIs. He also set a Guinness World Record for the longest solo broadcast marathon, at 116 hours, prefiguring his midnight conspiracy binges.
As Bell gallivanted between overseas US bases in the 1960s and early ’70s, the sociopolitical fabric of the domestic United States was being stretched to its limit. Institutional faith plunged to record lows with the Vietnam War, high-profile political assassinations, congressional committees, and explosive journalism that exposed covert action and political malfeasance. Bell reflected on these turbulent years to The Washington Post in 1998, concluding that Watergate and its ensuing disarray had “created a nation of cynics, a people who gave up on one reality and went off in search of another.” Beyond serving as a backdrop for his youth and early adulthood, the unrest of the midcentury United States — and its resulting proclivity for conspiracy — would shape both the content and form of his life to come.
In 1978, Bell became the host of a late-night talk show called West Coast AM, later renamed Coast to Coast AM. Bored with standard radio fare, he chose to open his phone lines, an experiment that would gesture at the opaque dysphoria of the time. Callers spanned UFO believers, hippies, doomsday preppers, long-haul truckers, militiamen, and Black nationalists, but they shared a dread about intractable forces controlling their lives. Neither neat nor uniform — nor ever really resembling a cohesive community — this cohort, however misguided at times, often carried within it a veiled critique of the implosion of American exceptionalism.
Despite the veneer of economic and political stability during the early 1990s, the large-scale withdrawal of people from politics, the supposed eradication of ideology, and the rise of managerial technocracy instilled a profound sense of drift. The post–Cold War years compounded decades of social fragmentation and were conditioned by computer-mediated interconnectivity, information overload, and a growing dissonance between expectation and lived reality. Bell had struck the zeitgeist.
Regular guests on Coast and its sister shows, Area 2000 and Dreamland, included journalist George Knapp, known for his investigations of UFOs; Linda Moulton Howe, a documentarian concerned with cattle mutilations; Ed Dames, a self-proclaimed expert in “remote viewing” — the practice of telepathically projecting one’s consciousness to distant locales — and military parapsychologist involved with the Stargate Project; Richard Hoagland, originator of the “Face on Mars” theories; and more.
By 1996, Coast was the highest-rated late-night radio show in the United States, syndicated on more than 450 stations nationwide. The Nevada desert imparted a settler individualism and a sense that Bell, abutted by the clandestine security state and Las Vegas’s hedonistic hypercapitalism, was dealing in classified knowledge. The desert was a place of hidden meaning — of secrets, bombs, lies, and things meant to be forgotten. In what he termed “the Quickening,” a quasi-millenarian interpretive frame for Coast’s diverse subjects, Bell observed that in “many areas of our lives the gravity of events seems to be intensifying,” leading towards monumental change at the turn of the century. “The world is not the same, not a place to feel safe in.”
For all its subversive posturing, Coast to Coast AM was still a product broadcast by a radio conglomerate. Wouldn’t its commodification by an elite media apparatus call into question its conspiratorial credentials? Bell’s proximity to the mainstream inspired conspiracies about his allegiances. Web users in the Usenet group alt.conspiracy.area51 speculated about whether Bell was on a government “Black Ops Payroll.” Given Coast’s far-out subject matter, they asked, “why doesn’t Art Bell suffer any flap from the ‘secret government’ that wants to suppress certain information?” Milton William “Bill” Cooper — the author of conspiracist handbook Behold a Pale Horse and Bell’s foil in call-in paranoid radio — reserved harsh words for “Art Babbling ‘B.S’ Bell” and the “myths, lies, and deceptions” that he spread. The paranoid fringe was never known for its ability to form effective coalitions.
What exactly Bell believed was admittedly hard to pin down. He leaned libertarian but was a self-described “political mutt,” having supported Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992, warmed to Bill Clinton, and enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama. Despite engaging with theories of illicit governmental activities at the highest levels, it seemed he could never decide whether governmental reform or abolition was the solution. Speaking to Skeptical Inquirer in 1998, he was adamant that he regarded Coast’s subject matter as “absolute entertainment” that was broadcast for one reason: business.
On air, however, Bell developed sociological and scientific theories and detailed his own UFO sightings. Most importantly, he let people talk. He didn’t cut his guests off or interject unnecessarily — except when he interrupted white supremacist Tom Metzger to say, “I am married to a brown-skinned Asian woman. What does that make me?” To which Metzger replied, “A traitor to your race.”
Coast’s participatory format allowed for folkloric narrative construction and community formation that transcended Bell’s role as its host. The ambiguity and, at times, contradiction between Bell and his programming didn’t change what Coast had become for its listeners — in fact, it was so in spite of it.
On October 13, 1998, Bell announced mid-episode, out of the blue, that “a [life-]threatening terrible event” would make this his last broadcast. Naturally, conspiracies abounded.
Bell returned to Coast without explanation and drifted in and out of host duties for several years after his first retirement. A perfect storm of personal crises — including persistent health problems, the kidnapping of his son, and false accusations of sexual misconduct — had led him to eschew his celebrity. Listenership declined, and advertisers dwindled. Coast’s heyday was over.
For all the handwringing, the new millennium came without much commotion. The Y2K bug was supposed to have brought about the end of the world as we knew it and, according to some conspiratorial circles, allow FEMA to declare martial law and the New World Order to fulfill its totalitarian machinations. Aliens had neither come to annihilate nor save the errant human race. Computers didn’t ascend to Skynet levels of malignant superintelligence. The historian Peter Knight, paraphrasing Jean Baudrillard’s visionary declaration, writes that “the year 2000 wouldn’t happen, because the idea of the end of history was an illusion that had already imploded on itself.” Reality could never live up to the saturation of end-times predictions within the popular imagination.
Coast changed as a result. Where Bell had often avoided outright politics, replacement hosts leaned into them and increasingly infused conspiracy theories with more explicitly reactionary views. Bell retired from radio for good in 2015. Hospitalized for pneumonia in 2016 and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his health declined. On Friday, April 13, 2018, he died at home in Pahrump of an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Bell’s life and career don’t lend themselves to simple moralistic tales. Instead, they attune us to the interlocking drivers of historical change and their effects — triumphant, tragic, and otherwise. Through Coast to Coast AM, Bell held a kaleidoscopic mirror to the contemporary United States. In the shadow of the bomb, in the shadow of the American century, and on the doorstep of an uncertain future, his broadcasting both indicated and alleviated the precarity of the end of history period. As liberal norms continue to recede in the present, Bell’s willingness to engage with the unknown may help us to understand our own destiny — be it destruction, abduction, or salvation.
Speaking to Larry King in 1998, Bell observed that “[w]hen we’re done here on Earth, we all want to know that there’s something else out there, don’t we? That’s the land of the paranormal.” Death, he continued, “is the greatest unknown because, cosmically, we’re not here all that long.”
The wonder with which Art Bell approached the night sky has been hijacked. My family and I recently sat around a campfire near South Addison, Maine — a small fishing town — on a cool summer night. As we stargazed, one of the children noticed a shooting star near the horizon. Then we all watched, dumbfounded, as one star became many, forming a neat line and crawling across the sky. Was this Independence Day? Close Encounters? Though the stars — or ships — passed over us uneventfully, we were at a loss for any explanation of what we had just seen.
In another time, I might have called Coast. But we now carry supercomputers in our pockets. Frenzied adrenaline gave way to disappointment as I learned about something called “Starlink” — a new satellite internet constellation operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. As alien billionaires colonize the skies, we can no longer revel in uncertainty’s comfort. “I want to believe” is as trenchant now as ever before.
Jesse Robertson is a writer from Maine, living in New York.
Featured image: Benjamin F. Berlin. Figures, mid-to-late 1920s. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Sokol. www.lacma.org. Accessed November 11, 2022.