I have a soft spot in my heart for Art Bell. As a former overnight DJ and grad student who kept relatively nocturnal hours for a good portion of the 90s, I admired Bell’s unique ability to engage guests and callers in topics that ranged from scientifically plausible (the theory that there have been multiple Big Bangs) to hilariously absurd (blood-sucking Chupacabra) with equanimity.
While some critics pilloried him for uncritically harboring all manner of superstition and psuedoscience, I enjoyed his Coast to Coast AM as a sort of straight-faced performance art that provided an entertaining alternative to most late night commercial radio, offering stimulating company to night shift workers across North America. Heck, I remember tuning in for a show tackling pirate radio, in which he discussing the topic straightforwardly, neither treating it as enticingly taboo nor recklessly dangerous. (In fact, Bell was himself a radio pirate in the 1960s while serving in the Air Force at the Amarillo air base.)
Bell held court over nationwide nocturnal amplitude modulation for some fifteen years before going into semi-retirement in 2003, handing over the weeknight reins to current Coast to Coast host George Noory. Bell then took the mic for weekends until 2007, then doing occasional fill-in slots until 2010 when he retired. That first retirement only lasted until 2013, when he had a brief foray into satellite radio with Art Bell’s Dark Matter on SiriusXM for six weeks.
July 20 is when Bell will return to broadcasting once again, according to a FAQ posted to his own website. This time he’ll be on the internet station Dark Matter Radio with a live weeknight program called Midnight in the Desert, airing midnight to 3 AM Eastern Time. The show won’t be on terrestrial broadcast, with one exception. Apparently Tennessee-based Christian shortwave station WTWW will broadcast Bell live to the world.
As much as I like and use internet radio, I have to admit it’s a little disappointing that Bell won’t be back on AM. I have fond memories of road trips over the Midwest interstates where I listened to Coast to Coast, hitting the seek button when one station faded, knowing I’d soon encounter another transmitting the show. It’s unlikely I’ll go through the trouble of tuning my shortwave receiver just to recreate the experience.
Nevertheless, I will probably check out Midnight in the Desert, although at 9 PM Pacific Time it’s on a few hours too early here in Oregon. I’d go for the podcast to timeshift it after midnight, but on-demand episodes will be reserved for paid subscribers, and I’m not that much of a fan (though DAR.fm might do the trick). Anyway, on-demand isn’t really the proper Art Bell experience–he’s really meant to be stumbled upon, in the middle of a nearly inscrutable interview that you’re surprised comes slowly into focus.
I’m sure there are Radio Survivor readers who will scrunch their noses at my praise for Art Bell. I get it–his nutty melange of guests and strange blend of libertarian, conservative and occasionally progressive political stances (pro-gun and anti-abortion, but pro same-sex marriage) is admittedly out of step with much of the radio we normally highlight. But, again, it’s a mistake to take him a face value. He may never actually wink at us, but neither did Andy Kaufman.
Plus, c’mon, he did this commercial:
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