RIP: Art Bell - For Making Radio Weird
Take a look at that photo there. Look at that guy who sort of looks like Gomez Addams there, right? That guy matches a voice that, in turn, matched a weird nighttime radio show that, for a brief and glorious time, dominated overnights in this country. That is Art Bell and for a time in the late 90s, he was there for me in ways others in my life were not.
I had an obsession with radio for years. I got involved in it myself when the college I attended started a radio station. I was bad at it and never really got good enough for a guy who was a fan of talk radio like the kind we had in Chicago at that time. I loved Steve Dahl and Kevin Matthews and guys like that and thought I could do it.
Turns out - not so much. But I still love radio. I love the idea of being a voice coming through a box or a dashboard. I got to do radio as a part-timer for a bit in the 90s and then again from '03-'06. I always pictured, as I worked weekends playing Zeppelin in Rockford, IL, a guy working on his car in his garage during the weekend and there was an old, greasy, battered radio balanced on the hood or roof of the car listening to me. That was who I imagined broadcasting to.
Since I was obsessed, I found ways to listen to interesting people and when I lived in St. Louis and my first marriage crumbled and then I was left alone in a city that was not my home and I was sad and lonely and messed up in the head, I turned back to radio.
That was where I found Art Bell.
Art broadcast his show from his own home studio in a Parumph, Nevada. Yeah, you can only imagine what that was like. He called it the "high desert" and he started back in the Army and did radio broadcasts while serving as a medic in Vietnam and played protest songs. He was a lot like the Robin Williams character in Good Morning Vietnam, but without the craziness.
He eventually ran his own station and started doing an overnight talk show to the west coast. Then he started to syndicate that show and his target audience became the late night truck drivers. Seriously. He talked about them a lot. The guys out there in the darkness, driving, probably high on uppers, and listening to AM radio stations across the country.
And Art got syndicated on big, powerful, 50,000 watt radio stations that covered pretty much the entire United States. In St. Louis, they syndicated him on KMOX and that was one of the biggest in the country. He broadcast overnight and those were sleepless times for me and times when I would sometimes stay out too late with friends and during those drives at night, as I wondered why my life had turned into the broken wreck it was, it was Art's voice I listened to.
Art gave voice to conspiracy theorists. He talked to guys who claimed to be time travelers. He did interviews with ghost hunters. He discussed UFOs and Area-51. He talked about Sasquatch and secret societies and government conspiracies and was on the topics of alternate dimensions, shadow people and chem trails before they were big like they are now.
The glorious thing about Art was that he took them seriously. No matter how lunatic or delusional it was obvious his guest was, he gave the psychics and guys who claimed to be from the future equal time and he never made fun of them. He treated them like guests. It was creepy, weird, funny and just awesome.
The problem is that Art Bell's creation got away from him. He left and came back to the show that eventually became Coast to Coast AM and then he begat guys like Alex Jones. That's sad because Art never preached the hate and bigotry Jones does. He did not get frothing at the mouth and espouse lunatic ideas himself. He was the ringleader, looking like Gomez Addams, with his calm, sane, voice talking to guests and callers that were talking about the most insane things you would ever hear.
Art Bell died, sadly, just this past week. He tried to come back a few times and it never quite matched his heyday in the late 90s. He smoked like an unregulated factory chimney and eventually that did catch up with him. There were weird controversies connected to his wife, his kids and he had his own belief his life was in danger. At the same time, he brought David Icke and the frantic Area-51 phone call to us.
I miss those days and I spend a lot of time listening to his shows recorded and uploaded to YouTube. I suggest you give them a try. They are amazing and unless you hear them, you cannot appreciate how weird and wonderful it was hearing Art Bell's radio show in the middle of the dark, cold, long night in the late 90s. We'll never see it quite that way again.
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