Over the past two decades, only a small handful of people can claim to have “redefined” talk radio — among them Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Howard Stern. Add to that list Art Bell, who turned the “graveyard shift” of radio — 10:00 pm to 3:00 am — into the hottest time slot in the business with his Coast to Coast AM show, and attracted millions of listeners to his offbeat blend of the paranormal, paranoia and politics. And he did it all from a distinctly libertarian perspective.
Bell, born in 1945, got his first taste of the power of radio while operating a pirate rock ‘n’ roll radio station as a U.S. Air Force medic during the Vietnam War-era. After leaving the military, he worked as a disc jockey in Okinawa, Japan, where he landed in the Guinness Book of World Records by broadcasting continuously for 116 hours and 15 minutes. After returning to the USA, he briefly attended college before getting back in the radio industry as a chief engineer. Over the next decade, he worked both on-air and behind the scenes in the radio and cable television industries.
In 1989, Bell got his big break when KDWN, a 50,000-watt station in Las Vegas, offered him a five-hour, late-night time slot. After dabbling briefly in political talk, Bell switched over to the paranormal, focusing on the occult, UFOs, conspiracy theories, vampire monkeys, time travel, ghosts and pseudo-science. Bell did not claim to believe everything he broadcast — he said he offered only “entertainment” and a non-judgmental forum for speculation — but fans flocked to the far-out format. The show became a huge hit, and was soon syndicated around the nation. By the mid-1990s, Coast to Coast AM was broadcast on almost 500 stations and reached 9 to 15 million listeners weekly. Those numbers made Bell the fourth most popular radio host in America (behind only Limbaugh, Stern, and Schlessinger). Art Bell Chat Clubs sprang up in more than 40 cities. Bell also hosted the popular Sunday night Dreamland show.
The industry took notice. In 1997, Bell won the Best Male Radio Talk Show Host award from the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, and in 1998 was named to Talkers magazine’s list of the “Top 100 Most Important Radio Talk Show Hosts in America.” In 2002, he placed #12 on Talkers‘ list of the 25 greatest radio and television talk show hosts of all time. Bell’s “open-minded approach, excellent broadcasting skills and keen interest in the subject matter helped propel him into late-night super stardom,” reported Talkers, and made him the “most listened to late night talk host in the modern talk radio era.”
On May 5, 1998, Bell made his libertarian identification official when he joined the Libertarian Party on-air. With two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne sharing the microphone, Bell said he joined the party because he feared the decline of liberty in America. “We’re clearly heading toward a more totalitarian state,” he said. “I completely distrust the government — and everybody should. They’ve told lie after lie, so the average American has become so cynical. Today, the first assumption is that what the government is telling you is a lie.” Bell said he “likes almost everything” in the Libertarian Party’s platform. “The Libertarian Party is the closest ideologically to what I now believe,” he said. “I really believe in freedom. I am proud and happy to have found a [political] home.”
In October 1998, Bell’s career took an unexpected turn when he vanished from the airwaves for two weeks because of what he called threats against his family. In April 2000, Bell again left his show and did not return until February 2001. Bell later said he had to deal with a sexual abuse case involving his son and a substitute teacher. (The teacher was convicted of sexual assault.) Bell retired in 2002 because of back pain and turned the Coast to Coast AM microphone over to George Noory. Bell returned to host a weekend show in 2003, and semi-retired again in June 2005. He now hosts two Sundays a month on the Premiere Radio Networks, and makes occasional guest appearances on Coast to Coast AM.
Bell is the author of The Quickening: Today’s Trends, Tomorrow’s World (with Jennifer L. Osborne, 1997), The Art of Talk (1998), The Coming Global Superstorm (with Whitley Strieber, 1999), The Edge: Man’s Mysterious Past & Incredible Future (with Whitley Strieber, 1999), and The Source: Journey Through the Unexplained (with Brad Steiger, 2002).
– Bill Winter
“The Libertarian Party is the closest ideologically to what I now believe. I really believe in freedom.” — Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM, May 5, 1998