Ra­dio host fo­cused on the weird, fan­tas­tic

Late-night talker Art Bell was 72

The Day - - OBITUARIES - By MARC FISHER

In the small of the night, when the mind is open and the de­fenses are eased, mys­ter­ies blos­som and con­spir­a­cies run wild. In the dark­est of hours, Art Bell was a light left on for the lonely, the in­som­ni­acs, the Amer­i­cans search­ing for an­swers in a so­ci­ety they be­lieved was spin­ning out of con­trol.

For more than two decades, Bell, who died April 13 at 72, stayed up all night talk­ing to those peo­ple on the ra­dio, pa­tiently en­cour­ag­ing them to tell their sto­ries about alien ab­duc­tions, crop cir­cles, an­thrax scares and, as he put it, all things “seen at the edge of vi­sion.” The Nye County, Nev., sher­iff’s of­fice said an au­topsy will be con­ducted to de­ter­mine the cause of death.

At Bell’s peak in the 1990s, his show, “Coast to Coast AM,” was on more than 400 ra­dio sta­tions. He took calls all night long, alone in the stu­dio he built on his iso­lated homestead in Pahrump, in the Ne­vada desert. He punched up the call­ers him­self, un­screened, keep­ing one line just for those who wanted to talk about what re­ally hap­pened at Area 51, the U.S. gov­ern­ment re­serve that for decades has been a lo­cus of UFO sight­ings and pur­ported en­coun­ters with alien be­ings.

Long be­fore fake news be­came a po­lit­i­cal topic, Bell made a good liv­ing en­cour­ag­ing Amer­i­cans to ac­cept the most fan­tas­tic and un­likely tales, to be­lieve that we are not alone, to ac­cept that in a world where the pace of life seemed to quicken with ev­ery pass­ing year, there were forces from be­yond that were try­ing to tell us some­thing.

In about 40 cities around the coun­try, and in Lon­don and Tokyo, Art Bell Chat Clubs met reg­u­larly to hear talks by ufol­o­gists and by or­di­nary peo­ple who de­scribed their near-death and past-life ex­pe­ri­ences. He also had more promi­nent guests on the show — singers, co­me­di­ans, ac­tors, sci­en­tists.

Bell started his show in 1984 do­ing a stan­dard-is­sue po­lit­i­cal talk pro­gram, but he quickly tired of the pre­dictable, emo­tion­ally dis­tanced de­bates over the is­sues of the day. For Bell, the ques­tions of the night were in­fin­itely more pow­er­ful.

In 1996, Bell sug­gested that the Hale-Bopp comet, then the sub­ject of great pop­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion, was be­ing trailed by a UFO — a the­ory cited as a pos­si­ble rea­son why mem­bers of the Heaven’s Gate cult com­mit­ted mass sui­cide the next year.

“There is a dif­fer­ence in what peo­ple are will­ing to con­sider, day­time ver­sus night­time,” Bell told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1998. “It’s dark and you don’t know what’s out there. And the way things are now, there may be some­thing.”

Bell’s voice was un­usu­ally for­mal, with a clas­sic an­nouncer’s cadence, pa­tient and crys­talline, by no means a sleepy sound. What he of­fered lis­ten­ers was com­pan­ion­ship and a ther­a­peu­tic ac­cep­tance.

The nov­el­ist Don DeLillo once wrote that “If you main­tain a force in the world that comes into peo­ple’s sleep, you are ex­er­cis­ing a mean­ing­ful power.”

Had 10 mil­lion lis­ten­ers

Bell, who drew an au­di­ence of about 10 mil­lion lis­ten­ers a week, saw him­self not as an au­thor­ity, but as a fel­low ex­plorer. He wore his gulli­bil­ity proudly. He be­lieved in pos­si­bil­i­ties, and he loved the idea that his openness to para­nor­mal events had helped build the na­tion’s ap­petite for “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files” and other ex­pres­sions of the edges of re­al­ity.

He wrote a book, “The Quick­en­ing,” spell­ing out his the­ory that ev­ery as­pect of life was “ac­cel­er­at­ing and chang­ing” so dra­mat­i­cally that the world was hurtling to­ward doom.

Of course, Bell had his own ex­pe­ri­ences that matched those of his call­ers. On the way home to Pahrump from Las Ve­gas one sum­mer night, he and his wife, Ra­mona, were about a mile from home when she blurted, “What the hell is that?”

The cou­ple gazed up. Hov­er­ing over the road, they saw an enor­mous tri­an­gu­lar craft, each side about 150 feet long, with two bright lights at each point of the tri­an­gle. Af­ter a while, the craft floated di­rectly over the Bells. “It was silent,” Bell re­counted. “Dead silent. It did not ap­pear to have an en­gine.” Af­ter a few mo­ments, the craft floated across the val­ley and out of sight.

On the ra­dio, when he told such sto­ries, he would ask lis­ten­ers to “try to send men­tal con­nec­tive thoughts to ask these be­ings to show them­selves.”

“It re­ally doesn’t mat­ter that much to me if any­one be­lieves me,” Bell said years later. “Thou­sands of peo­ple see­ing the same thing can­not all be wrong.”

And if they were wrong, at least they were wrong to­gether, he said. Whether his show was taken as en­ter­tain­ment or rev­e­la­tion, he be­lieved it was health­ier than the other blather on the ra­dio: “Morn­ing shows that com­pete to find the worst lan­guage you can man­age to get on the air, the most con­tro­ver­sial top­ics,” he said, dis­mis­sively. “Guns! Abortion! I talk about weird stuff. What I do only works at night, only on the ra­dio.”

His pol­i­tics were all over the map — a self-de­scribed lib­er­tar­ian, he op­posed abortion, sup­ported same-sex mar­riage and was skep­ti­cal of the sci­ence be­hind global warm­ing. He blamed Richard Nixon for spawn­ing a na­tion of cyn­ics, sup­ported Barry Gold­wa­ter in 1964 and Ross Perot in 1992, came to con­sider Bill Clin­ton a great pres­i­dent and said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Bell had no stom­ach for haters. He had a white su­prem­a­cist on as a guest, made him com­fort­able enough for him to spout racist views, and then Bell in­formed the guest that “I am mar­ried to a brown­skinned Asian woman.”

Born June 17, 1945 in Jack­sonville, N.C., Arthur Bell III grew up with a seven-tran­sis­tor AM ra­dio tucked under his pil­low at night, and when he was sup­posed to be sleep­ing, he lis­tened in­stead to the pi­o­neers of talk ra­dio as they bat­ted around al­ter­na­tive ideas about who re­ally killed John F. Kennedy or how the CIA con­trolled peo­ple’s minds.

Was medic in Viet­nam

Bell, a Marine brat who said he at­tended more than 30 high schools as his fam­ily moved around, served as a medic for the Air Force in Viet­nam, and be­gan his broad­cast­ing work on the mil­i­tary’s sta­tion in Ok­i­nawa, Japan, where he once stayed on the air as a DJ for 116 hours non­stop, earn­ing an en­try in the Guin­ness Book of World Records. (He also held the record for see­saw­ing while broad­cast­ing — 57 hours. Top 40 AM ra­dio DJs did that sort of thing in the 1970s.)

Af­ter study­ing en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Bell re­turned to ra­dio, play­ing the hits on small sta­tions in New Eng­land and Cal­i­for­nia. The work left him feel­ing empty, and he moved to Las Ve­gas, where he was work­ing as a ca­ble guy when a ra­dio sta­tion asked him to take on a part-time, overnight slot as a talk-show host.

His nightly “Coast to Coast” show ran from 1989 to 2003, and he con­tin­ued broad­cast­ing on week­ends un­til 2007. He briefly re­turned with a satel­lite ra­dio show in 2013 and an on­line pro­gram, “Mid­night in the Desert,” in 2015. That show ended af­ter a few months, be­cause, Bell said, some­one had taken to fir­ing a weapon at his Ne­vada prop­erty.

Nat­u­rally, Bell died on Fri­day the 13th.

AARON MAYES/LAS VE­GAS SUN VIA AP

This March 7, 1997, photo shows late night ra­dio talk show host Art Bell near a satel­lite dish at his Pahrump, Nev., home.

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