Nearly 20 years ago, Art Bell created the wildly popular radio program Coast to Coast AM, a wee-hour forum for weird science. We asked him why the show entertains, even encourages, the crazies.
Wired: You were hosting a political talk show before you jumped to the supernatural. What inspired the switch?
Bell: I was crushingly bored talking about politics 30 hours a week. So one day I said, "The hell with it," and I brought on John Lear, a very outspoken ufologist. The audience just went nuts! The phones lit up.
Wired: How did your bosses react?
Bell: They had heart attacks. But when the ratings came in, we were overwhelmingly number one. I was lucky because the show was on at night. There's a different breed of person awake at those hours. And the world is a quieter place, with less to distract us from esoteric thought. I think—no, I'm sure—Coast to Coast wouldn't work with a daytime audience.
Wired: Why are people so drawn to the paranormal?
Bell: The same reason we're drawn to God. The greatest question of all is whether our experience on this planet is "it" or whether there is something else. Things in the supernatural realm give support, strangely perhaps, to the things we take on faith. Like ghosts, for example—they underscore the possibility of an afterlife.
Wired: Do you believe in ghosts?
Bell: I've never seen one, so I'm skeptical. But I do believe in the paranormal, that there are things our brains just can't understand.
Wired: As you're listening to callers, how often do you think, "No f-ing way"?
Bell: Oh, all the time. But if you're into a really great tale, then it doesn't actually matter if it's true or not.
Wired: The funny thing about radio is that you never have to show any evidence.
Bell: That's right. That's why radio is "the theater of the mind."