The New Yorker
Ken Layne was at Theatre 29, a space in the town of Twentynine Palms, in the Mojave Desert, conducting a sound check before a live performance of “Desert Oracle,” his late-night radio show and podcast, which is also the name of the culty zine he publishes, in nearby Joshua Tree. He was testing a vintage rotary phone that he would invite audience members to use during a call-in segment. His nasal, gravelly baritone rang out through the speakers: “Hello-o-o? Hello-o-o?”
Layne, who is fifty-six, narrates “Desert Oracle”in character as a kind of oldschool AM-radio host, but with a dash of Mark Twain (in the writing) and a Tom Waits growl. The show inspires fervent fandom, from California to Brooklyn. Six-four and fair-skinned, Layne has alert blue eyes and a gray beard. Although it was a hundred and eighteen degrees out, he wore a longsleeved black shirt, green pants, and a foldable ranger’s hat.
Theatre 29 had been closed since the pandemic began, and the stage was still set for a production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that never happened. Layne draped a black tarp over the Narnia wardrobe and plugged in a string of lights that simulated a campfire. Soon he was pacing the stage, reciting bits of monologue over a moody soundscape created by the musician RedBlueBlackSilver: “In America alone, more people believe in space aliens—sixty-five per cent—than the sixty-four per cent who believe in the Biblical God . . .”
Layne is a former blogger, and he dreamed up Desert Oracle during visits to a Buddhist monastery in Carmel and a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur. He put out the first issue in 2015.The pocketsize publication mixes news with features about oddballs and local lore. Its desert strangeness extends to its realestate listings: “Missile Silo with 25 Acres” near Roswell, New Mexico; a “Fabulous Cave Home” in Bisbee, Arizona.
The radio show came two years after the zine, but Layne had first sketched it out in 2010: “Desert weather report, pick a place, tell its story in long rambling humorous monologue,” he wrote in a note at the time. He wanted to talk about missing pets and “funny Europeans.” It wasn’t an obvious fit for the local FM station in Joshua Tree, but Layne prevailed and now his show is on eleven stations, mainly in the Southwest. (He is planning a national tour for later this fall.)
The next night, Saturday, the theatre was packed.“Finally, it’s the time of night when you can go outside and you can touch things again without gloves,” he told the crowd, referring to the fact that the temperature had dropped one degree. He sat at a desk to tell what he calls a “radio story”—actually, a string of them. He started with Snippy, an Appaloosa mare that was found dead in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in 1967, with surgical cuts all over her body and her head stripped to the bone. He ended with the sordid tale of Richard Doty, an agent for the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, who fed disinformation to ufologists in the seventies and eighties.
After a few audience calls (including one from a woman who described a camping trip during which she had seen a “blank darkness”move across the sky and block out the stars), Layne “lit”the campfire. As crackling sounds played through the speakers, he closed with a campfire story. He talked about billionaires launching themselves into space, mysterious drone sightings, and the “Tic Tac” U.F.O. video shot by a Navy fighter jet off San Diego. “It’s a time when our space age is really kinda on our minds,” he said.
What had begun as a story ended as a sermon. Layne urged the audience not to wait for permission to see inexplicable things.The government’s U.F.O. reports are always missing one thing, he said: “It’s the fact that a regular person— walkin’ the dog, takin’ out the recycling at night, comin’ back from getting milk at the convenience store, or whatever they’re doing—can have an encounter that will forever change your lives.”
Afterward, Layne came to the lobby to greet fans and talk about the heat.
“Yesterday, the air-conditioning in my car quit,” one woman said. “Oh-Jesus-Lord,” Layne said. “I remember the days when we didn’t have air-conditioning and we would have to roll the windows down,”another woman said.
“My grandparents and my parents would only roll the window down halfway, because you couldn’t hear anything,” the first woman said.
Layne nodded. “Wouldn’t want to miss any important conversation during your heatstroke, right?”
A guy in Desert Oracle colors—black shirt and jeans, yellow sneakers—wanted a photo. But first Layne wished his booking agent a safe drive home.“The stretch between here and Joshua Tree?” he said. “Keep your eyes open.”