"Wild card line, you're on the air . . . "
Across the darkened landscape of a sleeping North America, it happens nearly every night -- the voice of an invisible man, a wizard behind a great curtain holding a massive audience transfixed.
"Coast to Coast with Art Bell" is not easily cataloged. A nationwide radio hit (heard daily from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and Sunday 7 to 10 p.m. on KFMB/AM 760), part of the show's success is rooted in its spontaneous, often ad-lib nature. Almost anything goes and any topic is open for discussion in a hotbed of controversial, off-kilter, even "crazy" ideas, opinions and experts.
Some nights Bell clears the table for a round robin with his callers and a special guest. These have included an exorcist, a so-called participant in the Philadelphia Experiment (an "X-Files"-like anti-radar military mission that turned into a purported time travel experience), a Ph.D. who runs an institute of "remote viewers" (people who mentally extract information from distant locations, in the past, present or future).
Other nights Bell simply opens up the phone lines and lets the listeners determine the course of things, which may include La Chupa Cabra (a phantom goat-like creature), UFOs, government conspiracies, women in the military, presidential politics and what really brought down TWA flight 800.
"West Coast line, you're on the air . . . "
From his outpost in Nevada, Bell is heard by more than 10 million listeners (he also has a Web site, www.artbell.com).
The show crawled along for 10 years on one 50,000-watt station in Las Vegas. Then, 3 1/2 years ago, he began syndicating. Now 310 affiliates carry it and more every week, Bell says.
"If I ever even think about how many people are out there," Bell says with a laugh, "I get panic attacks and I'm not myself."
A spectacular showing for a kid of modest -- but promising -- beginnings. A Marine brat, Bell grew up traveling the country. He fell in love with radio when he received his first ham license at age 12 (he still haunts the ham airwaves at 3820 in the 75-meter band).
He got his first job at 15 at a religious station on a mountaintop in Franklin, N.J., reading the news at the top of the hour. In winter, he had to climb the icy, snowy road on foot.
"The guy who ran the station was maniacal -- and that is the right word. He had a thing about you getting too close to the mike. There you were reading the news and he'd come in and yank the chair right out from under you, and that was your lesson. So the people listening would hear this big crash."
A few years later, after joining the Air Force, Bell built a pirate radio station at the Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas.
"The idiots on the base, not knowing it was illegal, provided me with a barracks for the radio station. After a year on the air, a survey on the Amarillo Arbitron had me in the ratings, and the real stations called and complained to the general, who called us into his office, told us to stop and we said, 'Yes, sir!' "
Bell, 51, has worked for 30 or 40 stations over the years. He did a show in Alaska with the late Wolfman Jack. In the '70s, he lived in San Diego for a time, driving down to Tijuana to broadcast for XTRA/690.
"For a lot of years I starved. A lot of people in this business do, and I did. So its kind of nice that doing what I love decided to feed me."
"First-time caller line, you're on the air . . . "
How Does Art Bell describe his own show?
"Eclectic. Usually pretty much out of my control. It's an element that allows me to do five hours because I don't know what's coming next and the audience doesn't either."
Another staple of the show is Bell's personalized commercials. He does all of them himself, often live and his testimonials are all true, he says.
"If the listeners only knew how many (products) I've rejected. And worse yet, I have to try them all. I'm like a crash test dummy. Once I tried some facial cream and my face exploded. I have to really be able to believe in a product."
Perhaps most amazing of all (well, not as amazing as "Art's Parts," a collection of metallic fragments sent to Bell from a guy who said his military-man grandfather took them from the Roswell, N.M., UFO crash) is the fact that Bell does his show alone.
He's got no producers, no program directors, no engineers, no call-screeners. He's got no one but himself because, in what may be the ultimate telecommute, Art Bell does his show from home. Yup, home. He's linked by satellite to the world, but he runs the board by himself, from a studio built into the home he shares with his wife and teen-age son in Pahrump, Nev., 65 miles west of Las Vegas.
Consequently, Bell suffers from what may be described as the Wizard of Oz Syndrome.
"I have a tiny little studio from which this big voice comes. It's kind of like 'The Wizard of Oz.' There's a giant curtain and a shadow. Well, I'm the giant voice behind the curtain. It's real, but the reality is never the same as the imagination. Radio is the theater of the mind. You form a mental image based on what you hear. No matter what I am -- fat, thin, bald, with hair -- I'm not going to meet up to your image."
Bell will appear on an episode of NBC's "Dark Skies" Dec. 14, in which he'll play the president of CBS and a member of Majestic 12, knowing things even the president doesn't know. It's a rare appearance, for Bell hates TV.
"TV isn't spontaneous," he says. "It's rehearsed, encapsulated, so structured. It's just a completely different world than radio. And I don't like that kind of world. I don't like a place where things can't go wrong. I like the unexpectedness of live radio."
Have things ever gone wrong? Boy, have they.
"One time all the phones went out. It's very strange to be doing a talk show by yourself, with no phones, sitting there ad-libbing for hours. Over the years, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, but that's OK; that's live radio."
Art Bell doesn't avoid his fans. Next year, for his annual vacation, he's heading for Egypt -- along with 400 listeners booked to join him. This year he went with his listeners to Russia. He's also been to China, where he traveled through hundreds of miles of factories.
"I don't go away from home very often," he says, "but when I do go, I go a long way."
Does Bell ever doubt any of his guests?
"I'm sure that a lot of things my guests say are crazy. I don't try to put them under a third-degree light. I don't dissect them. I let my audience decide. If I started to batter them, they'd immediately go into defensive mode and you wouldn't get to hear what they have to say."
Postscript: Robert Hayhurst, a San Diego State journalism student, called Art Bell's show several weeks ago. A guest claimed he had built a time machine out of a CD player and sent a screw a few seconds into the future.
On the air, Hayhurst reported that the earth's rotation and orbit would have made the screw materialize several miles from the man's apartment -- probably never to be found. The man later amended his adventure by stating that the screw had reappeared on the other side of the room.
Hayhurst should have simply gone to bed, but he just couldn't let it go.
"We've got many miles to go before we sleep."
-- Art Bell on the radio in the middle of the night.
Original file name: CNI - About Art Bell
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