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Midnight in the Desert
What Art Bell can tell us about aliens, ghosts, and learning to step back from the edge
You’re behind the wheel and there’s only darkness head.
Your eyes are losing focus. You haven’t seen another car for miles. Your dial is tuned to the talk radio station, in hopes that another human voice might keep you awake. It’s not working.
It’s after midnight, and you’re wondering if you should just pull over for the night.
That’s when Giorgio Morodor’s pulsing synthesizer crackles through your car speakers.
Broadcasting from somewhere in time and from the high desert in the great American Southwest, Art Bell was on the air.
Four hours every night, in the dead of night, Bell would take to the airwaves, welcoming his listeners to the unknown. The paranormal, the extraterrestrial. The unexplained, the downright weird.
Bell’s cult status was, and still is, an incredible thing. His late-night radio broadcasts were a dissemination of secret knowledge and government secrets. His radical understanding meant anyone and everyone could call in and tell their story — unless, of course, you were there to take the piss out of the show and its horde of loyal listeners. Then Bell would open the hole to hell and push you into it. His was a support group for the graveyard shift workers and the insomniacs, the ghost hunters and UFOlogists.
Coast to Coast AM may have come to you from some undefined point in time, but Art Bell was very much a product of his era. While he got his start in talk radio broadcasting to American GIs from Japan, Bell came into his own in the 1990s in a time of disaffection, paranoia, and conspiratorial thinking. He stared into that void until the void stared back.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we take some Art Bell lessons.
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The mid-90s were a paranoid time.
The sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge had left Americans of a particular political bent convinced that “the second American revolution,” as shortwave radio host William Cooper called it, had arrived.
I think about Cooper a lot, as you may have noticed by his frequent cameos in this newsletter (Dispatch #3, in particular.) My podcast The Flamethrowers studied the long tail of talk radio in America, and last year I wrote at great length last year about Cooper’s rise to prominence after Waco, his influence on Alex Jones, and his role in fomenting the American militia movement. I think that period in the mid-1990s is deeply reflective of our current age.
For most Americans, fundamentalist cults like the Branch Davidians and the off-the-grid anti-government sentiments of people like Randy Weaver represented something quite terrifying about the American psyche. The revolutionary spirit of the United States had turned against the very republic it had built. And some of it was informed by a messianic religiosity that nobody quite new how to deal with.
For many other Americans, the state had become so big, distant, godless, and secretive that resistance was not just their right, it was a tactical move of self-preservation.
The Pentagon Papers revealed how Washington had lied to the public to justify an unjustifiable war; Seymour Hersh’s first tantalizing glimpses into the CIA’s Family Jewels revealed how the White House’s paranoia of its own citizens had led to a broad-based state surveillance; and the Church Commission confirmed some of the worst excesses of the U.S. security state. All of that was enough to make even the most faithful American start questioning whether their state was really acting in their best interest.
That was the terrestrial stuff, but it proved how far Washington could, and would, go to keep a secret. That must have been the tip of the iceberg. Through the 1970s and 1980s, mumblings began of something out of this world going down in New Mexico.
It was a 1947 newspaper story that first reported the capture of a mysterious flying saucer in Roswell, but it would take decades for the idea of a government alien coverup to really percolate. The proliferation of classified facilities, set up to keep military secrets out of the hands of the Soviets, baked in the idea that something nefarious was going on. Even Jimmy Carter, while running for president, said he had seen a UFO — and he promised that, if elected, he would declassify any evidence of aliens he could get his hands on. Nothing, of course, ever came of that.
The Roswell Incident, published in 1980, is what really cemented the idea of extraterrestrials as a government cover-up. The book introduced the idea that a UFO hadn’t just been sighted in Roswell, but that it had crashed. "Before government censorship" got to eyewitnesses, the book alleged, locals reported seeing a vessel being whisked away inside the Area 51 compound. And, the book claims, “there may have been a survivor.” And the government had taken possession of the alien.
All these claims can feel kitschy now, but they were exciting once. Unsolved Mysteries was a direct response to the growing feeling like something extraordinary was happening, and the government didn’t want you to know about it.
This is the context, coming into the 1990s. A knowledge that the White House did not trust the American public, and an emerging belief that other worlds had visited our’s. These two ideas crashed together in Cooper’s best-selling (and oft-stolen) 1991 book Behold a Pale Horse.
In it, Cooper recounts a moment in his naval career, stationed in Hawaii, where he witnesses a UFO rise from the water, from the bow of his submarine. "I believe it was a flying saucer, sir,” he told his commander. In his telling, his commender ordered him to keep quiet and never mention the alien ship again, for penalty of jail time. This was 1963, just months after John F Kennedy was assassination, and Cooper couldn’t shake the feeling like it was all connected.
"The UFOs, Kennedy's assassination, the Navy, the Secret Government, the coming ice age, Alternatives 1, 2 & 3, Project GALILEO, and the plan for the New World Order,” Cooper wrote. “I believed it was all true then and I believe it is all true now.”
So did Art Bell.
Bell had been a rock DJ, then a late-night political call-in host for years — but it wasn’t until the anxiety of the early 90s that Bell really found his niche with his late-night show Coast to Coast AM.
“This earth, John, is a mess right now,” Bell told his guest John Lear, one of the world’s pre-eminent UFOlogists (and heir to the Learjet fortune) in 1992. “It is the most unorganized, warlike mess I've ever seen…I'm troubled by the whole operation and I see it as the first step in the grand new world order.”
This makes sense, right? If you believe that the U.S. government is willing and capable to keep an alien crash under wraps, then it must be capable of limitless deception. And, you have to wonder: What would it do to keep those secrets secret?
The deadly raids at Waco and Ruby Ridge answered that question for many. For them, the death and destruction was not the byproduct of a militant anti-government ideology, it was the intentional actions of a murderous government tyranny. A subsequent push by President Bill Clinton to impose sensible gun control capped off the narratively nicely. And Bell’s skepticism went into overdrive.
In one 1994 episode of Coast to Coast AM, Bell’s guest was Don McAlvaney, author of Toward a New World Order: The Countdown to Armageddon.
McAlvany’s book told readers to look for the three horsemen of a New World Order: The collapse of South Africa into a Communist state, the merger of America and Europe, and the confiscation of America' firearms: "A socialist dictatorship will be imposed immediately after the American people are disarmed."
On Bell’s show, McAlvany put the coming tyranny into stark terms.
Art Bell: Is the ultimate objective Don, to get all the guns?
Don McAlvany: Yeah, that's definitely the ultimate objective. It's not registration, it’s confiscation. You have to disarm the American people before you can establish a total socialist police state, before you can establish the New World Order. […]
Bell: A lot of people are starting to talk about militias. A lot of people are beginning to talk about actions and things that, I would think, would interest the ATF greatly. As they move one way, a lot of Americans are moving the other way. And there's gonna be a clash.
McAlvany: We're moving towards a major confrontation, Art. There are a lot of people across the country that — I think, for good reason — are getting very angry, as they see the Constitution just torn up and thrown away…They see the Randy Weaver, Waco, Donald Scott-type things, where the government just runs roughshod over people. If you raise a finger in objection they can shoot you, burn you, or gas you.
It was 28 years ago this week, on April 19, that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols drove a Ryder truck to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and detonated it. They had timed it for the anniversary of the Waco siege.
In the months that followed, these “patriots” would do whatever they could to convince their listeners that it wasn’t two patriots who had carried out the bombing — but that it was, instead, Iraqi or Iranian agents, perhaps working with the U.S. government.
There’s a Coast to Coast AM show from just a few months after the bombing, in June 1995, about Oklahoma City. Bell has on a private investigator who claimed to have a trove of evidence proving that one or both of the real bombers were not, in fact, American. Throughout the show, Bell invites on callers and reads mail from listeners, questioning not just the bombing — but Bell himself. Several accuse him of being a CIA operative. Through the show, his tone goes sour. He gets snippy and sarcastic with his callers, as he seems to confront the very paranoia that he had helped stoke.
In the months after the attack, even the FBI was pursuing the idea that there was a foreign element to the attack. But as 1995 wore on, it became increasingly clear that this was America’s worst-ever domestic terror attack — and it had been fed by voices at home. Voices on the radio: Like Art Bell.
For William Cooper and Alex Jones, they opted to double down instead of recognize their culpability. Not Bell. He had tried to convince himself that he wasn’t responsible for this climate of fear, but he couldn’t do it.
In July 1995, just a month after his broadcast suggesting Oklahoma City had been a cover-up, Bell had on Representative Steven Schiff, of New Mexico, to talk about the investigation into what had really happened in Roswell. Schiff had also been on the Congressional investigation into the events at Waco. He answered Bell’s questions honestly, seriously, credibly.
Art Bell: There are a lot of people in America believe that there is a government behind our government, behind the elected representatives, even behind the president. I know that's a big handful of a question. But do you ever wonder about things like that yourself, Congressman?
Steve Schiff: Well, there's not anyone behind me. And I get one of 435 votes on the House floor. And I have not seen the evidence of what you're talking about. I've heard people talk about it. But not as far as I can see.
Bell: When you guys are together and the — now, no longer smoke-filled — rooms and just chat among yourselves, is this ever a subject of conversation?
Schiff: I think there are suspicion about other branches of government. [laughter] I don't remember anyone ever sitting down and saying: Someone is controlling Congress. I remember a number of people wondering what's going on in the White House. [laughter] And maybe they sit around wondering what we're doing.
In that conversation, you can almost hear the anxiety escape from Bell. He’s not terse and grumpy, like he was a month earlier. Here he is, questioning a man with real power: And they’re having a laugh about it.
In the months that followed, Bell’s show changed. Not because of his conversation with Schiff, but because he seemed to recognize how self-reinforcing this paranoia can be. Coast to Coast AM still delved into the murky world of the unknown, probing how the government was keeping its citizens in the dark, but it lost that anxious edge. Coast to Coast AM became about adventure and discovery, not fear and paranoia.
In his 1998 book The Art of Talk, Bell revisited Oklahoma City:
Early on, authorities believed that this was some Middle Eastern terrorism. I was really hoping that this was the case because, if so, you have an enemy that you can identify. In the back of my mind, however, I feared that this tragedy was brought on by Americans. […]
This fact scares the hell out of me. To me, this means this country is in bigger trouble than most people realize. This has the potential of resulting in some horrible incident in which Americans are pitted against each other. America should come to terms with itself and know the truth of what is happening in this country today, and unfortunately, the televised Waco congressional hearings did not yield much healing. People still believe that in some way the government mishandled the whole Waco incident. This to me suggests that Americans are growing cynical. But Americans must be aware that this country is going to ruin itself if the continued cynicism is not curtailed. A recent survey showed that three out of four Americans do not trust their government and frankly, I don't blame them, although things should not be this way. The danger of this should be apparent: as Americans fear their government more and more, their government fears those whom they govern more and more. The possibility for tragedy increases exponentially. And that's where we are right now in this country.
In short, we must televise and otherwise let the American people know the truth about what this government does. As things are hidden or covered up, and the truth is evaded, the people find out sooner or late, and this undermines their faith in those who run the country. It sets everyone up for tragedy.
I think about those paragraphs a lot.
Art Bell doesn’t get a lot of mainstream respect. He’s beloved as a cult figure, but he’s always been treated by the mainstream as an oddity. A kook.
But as his career continued — he would keep broadcasting, off and on, until 2015 — he played this incredible role in the American body politic. One part journalist, one part conspiracy theorist, one part desert therapist, one part deradicalization expert.
Every Halloween he hosted Ghost to Ghost AM, inviting listeners to submit their most chilling — but real, he stressed — ghost stories. He welcomed callers to share their experiences and sightings, no matter how ludicrous, and he asked polite, probing questions. His listeners grew into a stable of regulars: Like “Anthony, Mr. Friday Night from St. Louis.” He dug into government conspiracies with a smile on.
Sometimes the field of misinformation, extremism, and conspiracy theories takes a puritanical approach. There is, I think, a desire to root out bad beliefs where they sprout, to stop the weeds from reaching the rest of the garden.
Bell, however, diagnosed the real culprit behind radicalization: It’s mistrust. And he recognize the positive element in his listeners: Curiosity. And so he channeled their thirst for knowledge into the unknown. Sure, there was still a secretive government that didn’t want you know these things. But Bell left behind the fear, the paranoia, the anxiety. He gave his listeners something to do with their curiosity. He didn’t try and monetize or weaponize them. He listened to them.
I think we could do with a lot more Art Bells.
That’s it for this week.
As Twitter descends further into uselessness, I’ve decided to completely stop using it. So if you want to keep up, follow me on Mastodon or here on Substack Notes.
Until next week!