Art Bell Made Our Lives Weirder and Better

Art Bell (speaking to caller on his “alien line” in 1995): How and why are you here?

Alien Caller From the Rigel System: It started as a cultural exchange to see what’s going on here.

Art Bell: And what have you learned?

Alien Caller From the Rigel System: You guys are in trouble.

On Friday, paranormal radio pioneer Art Bell took his final midnight ride across the Nevada Desert, passing away at the age of 71.

More than anyone in the last thirty years, Bell’s late night radio show Coast to Coast AM was America’s entry point to the weird. Bell talked about things on the fringes of regular society. UFO’s, global storms, Area 51, religious prophecies, conspiracy theories, strange happenings in small towns, unknown diseases, paranormal entities, cryptids, dreams, apocalypses, monsters, mysteries, and the uncharted possibilities of existence. That sort of thing.

While he often interviewed experts in those fields, he would just as often clear the show’s schedule for “open lines” – an hour or more where he’d just let people call in and talk about whatever the hell they wanted to. Cranks, kooks, jokers, and genuinely troubled people all were given the same opportunity to unburden themselves to Bell, who listened, asked questions, pushed back when he smelled a rat, and often sat silently.

Bell’s legacy is a complex one, as befitting someone who spent 30 years on the radio, minus a few retirements that never quite took.

Was he bad for critical thinking, debunking, and skepticism? Or was he someone who expanded the boundaries of what it was acceptable to talk about, leaving listeners to make their own judgments?

Personally, Bell was my first window into the weird world outside my suburban upbringing. He talked about things people didn’t talk about, things that probably weren’t real – but maybe they were.

This stuff wasn’t mainstream during Bell’s heyday. It was the domain of street-corner shouting, self-published pamphlets, impossibly slow internet message boards used by early adopters, and weird people who had no place in polite society.

I remember in December 1998, when Bell had UFO and “secret space program” crank Richard C. Hoagland on numerous times to breathlessly talk about a possible alien landing in Arizona on December 7, 1998.

It was a hoax signal picked up by a fake astronomer in Britain. But as a college kid working on stuff late at night alone, it was riveting storytelling. I was glued to Bell’s show night after night, even knowing the whole time it was full of crap.

Bell made it okay to believe in weird things. I think that’s a good thing, even as a dedicated skeptic and debunker. Everyone believes in something unusual, and if they don’t, their life is poorer for it.

Then again, how much of our current boom in conspiracy theories can be traced to Bell? Without Bell, do we get Alex Jones and his conspiracy movement, dedicated to shrieking racism and grifting in equal parts? Do we get the modern anti-vaccine or climate change denial movements? Our obsessions with wellness and useless alternative medicine? Are we crapping ourselves in fear over GMOs and fracking and the “deep state” without Bell having made this stuff okay to talk about in public? Would we be smarter and more able to think critically?

When Coast to Coast kicked off in 1988, Bell was much more of a traditional political broadcaster, trending right wing and talking conspiracies, militias, and gun control. It was the height of the militia movement, with small, heavily-armed outlier groups forming in rural America threatening to “take America back” from the liberal destruction wrought by Bill Clinton – and Bell was giving it legitimacy every night.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, he shifted toward the format he became much more famous for.

And in that guise, he lent credibility to people who had little, including psychics, remote viewing experts, UFO abductees, cryptozoologists, and hardcore conspiracy theorists. Bell wasn’t always entirely sympathetic to them, particularly to people in the anti-government movement. But he asked questions as if what they had to say carried equal weight to actual scientists and researchers.

Listening to Bell, it’s clear that he was never entirely one thing or the other. For example, unlike today’s conspiracy movement, which trends either far left or far right, Bell’s politics were never easy to pin down. On a 1995 open lines show, he refers to both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as “a little bit fascist.” Liberals and conservatives each called in frequently, and Bell treated each the same. In an era where entertainment is more politicized by the day, that’s something to behold.

But much more than that, Bell radiated a sense of wonder that’s almost totally lacking in today’s conspiracy theory and paranormal believers. Even when he was giving equal time to lunatics, Bell often seemed like an amused outsider. He found this stuff interesting, not to sell books, website subscriptions, and supplements – but because it WAS interesting.

He spoke openly about his skepticism regarding the “one world government” conspiracies popular during the 1990s, and often met bizarre callers with humor and bemusement. There was no sexism, no racism, no name calling, and no diminishing of people for what they believed.

The instant churn of conspiracies and deep state plots taken up by the far right has little to do with Bell’s show, nor does the left’s obsessions with corporate maleficence and holistic health. He was more complicated than that – and that’s why his show endures, even if subsequent hosts have taken it in a much more conservative and unskeptical direction.

The best way to get a feel for Bell’s impact on critical thinking is simply to listen to old shows. They’re all over YouTube, and make for fascinating time capsules of where we were and what we thought when Bell was recording them.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum of conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs, you’ll hear something surprising, something that makes you laugh, and something that makes you think.

These days, we could all use a little more of that.