[BETA-UFO] The X Phones
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TIME MAGAZINE - AUGUST 9, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 6
The X Phones
When radio host Art Bell takes a call, it could be from a physicist, an
abductee or the Antichrist
BY RICHARD CORLISS
In the dark, in the night, over the airwaves of 486 radio stations, they
march: a parade of alien abductees and remote viewers ("scientific"
psychics), students of contrails and crop circles and reverse speech. Then
there was the fellow who found and, he thought, killed an alien being in the
Cascade Mountains. He stuffed the creature in a freezer in his garage and
later heard it screaming to get out. A week afterward he saw three vans in
front of his house and unknown men going in. He drove away. When he came
back, they were all gone. The men. The vans. The alien. And the freezer.
That tale consumed three enthralling hours a while back on Coast to Coast
AM, the 5-hr.-a-night radio show devoted to all things weird and shepherded
by Art Bell, a genial host shrouded, until recently, in his own poignant
mystery. Photo "evidence" of the parchment-skinned ET can be seen on Bell's
busy website http://www.artbell.com (44 million hits since January '97).
When he is asked about the alien in the freezer, Bell laughs heartily. "Do I
have doubts about that story? Yes! Was it entertaining? Oh, absolutely!"
Bell, 54, offers a forum for all manner of amazing stories--then, like
Ripley, challenges you to believe it or not.
Believe who will, but a lot of people are listening: about 9 million a week.
That makes Bell the fourth highest-rated radio talker, behind Rush Limbaugh,
Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Howard Stern. And Bell corrals his huge audience
in a night-owl slot (the show starts at 1 a.m. in the East) when only the
sleep-disordered should be listening. Yet the loose formula, and Bell's
intimate symbiosis with the listener, works handsomely. The show is so
popular that on many stations, each night's program is re-aired at an
earlier hour the next evening.
But nighttime is the right time to enjoy these campfire tales about UFO
sightings. They time-trip the ear medium back to its spooky prime, when
Orson Welles scared America witless with a Martian Halloween prank, when
Arch Oboler intoned sepulchrally, "And now, Lights Out." A typical Coast to
Coast is an all-night ghost story disguised as a talk show. The story being
told may be the truth; it may be a crock. But it's often great radio.
Bell is a throwback. Unlike other broadcast biggies, he doesn't bully his
callers or sensationalize his material. He knows it's sensational enough, so
he sells it with a soothing baritone and the coaxing, folksy manner of a
modern Arthur Godfrey. He doesn't whine or blurt, even if melodrama is
swirling around him. When Bell abruptly left Coast to Coast last October for
three weeks and took another hiatus this April, he showed old-fashioned
reserve in keeping his private anguish private.
But in a sense, Bell couldn't be more contemporary. For one thing, he
practically invented Y2K anxiety by spinning doomsday scenarios since early
'98. More generally, his show taps into the millennial malaise; in the wake
of Monicagate, it connects with people tired of little adulterous
conspiracies and ready for a big interplanetary one. Americans have soured
on political haranguing yet find issues like Kosovo too dense or distant. So
where do they go? Out There, where The X-Files' Fox Mulder says the Truth
is. And Bell, who says he once saw a triangular UFO hovering so low over his
car that "I could have thrown a rock at the damned thing," is way Out There
as the channeler of cosmic creepiness. What Limbaugh was to the beginning of
the decade, Bell is to the end. From his home-studio in the desert of
Pahrump, Nev., he takes the oddest calls--on the X phones.
Pahrump (also the noise that skeptics make when listening to Bell's show) is
small but, for the nexus of show biz and star biz, centrally located. It's
50 miles west of Las Vegas and just over the hill from Area 51, the secret
military base at the center of so much UFO lore. In a double-wide trailer
complex off a dirt road, there is Bell, the son of married Marines, a man
who has loved radio all his life and, as a disc jockey or talk host, is a
professional who has wooed audiences for 35 years. His wife Ramona may sit
in the studio with him, but Bell mans the controls, cues the commercials,
poses for live shots on the website (this is a radio program you can watch).
He pretty much does it all.
He also takes calls at random, which can spell radio democracy--or chaos. "I
have a lot of open lines," Bell says, "and I don't screen calls. As a
result, I'm as likely to be as surprised as the audience when something
comes out of left field." A few call-in segments have a theme: "I'll open a
line for vampires or time travelers." And tonight: Antichrists only, please.
The show isn't all about out-of-body (and out-of-mind) experiences. Michio
Kaku, the noted theoretical physicist from the City University of New York,
has discussed string theory and other weighty issues. But pure Bell is a
show with some earnest gent patiently explaining, as frequent guest Richard
C. Hoagland does, that humans are descended from Martians who fled their
planet a million years ago. Last December, Major Ed Dames, the leading
remote viewer, predicted terrorists would set off biological weapons in Shea
or Yankee stadium in July (didn't happen--whew!) and announced that he was
locked in a psychic battle with...Satan.
"I assume my audience is made up of adults who can take in what they will
and reject what they wish," Bell says. But some adults are not worthy of
that assumption. Bell learned that firsthand through a long ordeal involving
his son, Art IV, who lives nearby in Pahrump with his mother, Art's ex-wife.
Only now has Bell chosen to speak to the press about the situation.
"More than two years ago," Bell says, "my son was bound in chains by one of
his schoolteachers, who was HIV-positive, and taken across state lines,
where he was molested. There was an arrest and a trial. The man is now
serving life in prison for that. We filed a lawsuit against the school
district here using John Does. Then my son became 18." As such, the lad was
obliged to emerge from anonymity. "Within hours, boom, the news was
everywhere." Art IV has, so far, tested HIV-negative. "But psychologically,"
Bell says, "it slammed him into the ground. He sat in his empty room and
wrote poems about death. He failed in school and dropped out. I got him a
job, but he couldn't hold it. He's not doing well, but maybe time will heal.
It gets worse. Two men, broadcasting on international shortwave out of
Nashville, Tenn., heard that someone named Art Bell was involved in child
molestation. "Don't ask me how they did it," Bell says, "but they converted
it and said on the air that Art Bell has molested children and was indicted
for it, and paid officials in Nye County, Nev., to cover it up. That's why I
filed a lawsuit." Two other men, both former guests on Coast to Coast, also
spread unsubstantiated rumors about Bell.
"My own son had been molested," Bell says, "and then I was accused of child
molestation. I couldn't open my mouth because that would reveal my son's
situation. The impact on me was profound. I couldn't sleep; sometimes I
couldn't breathe. I had fits of alternating anger and depression. My private
life was falling apart while I was going on the air every night. It was a
Between lawyer consultations, Bell is doing Coast to Coast three nights a
week, in addition to a Sunday show, Dreamland. "I wish I was back full
time," he says. "I have a deep love for doing my show." It could also be
therapy for someone facing down a real-life horror story. To Bell, talk
about an alien in a freezer or the end of the world on Dec. 31, 1999, could
be the most comforting science fiction.
--REPORTED BY JEFFREY RESSNER/LOS ANGELES
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