After his death this weekend, Art Bell, whose “Coast To Coast AM” show owned overnight radio for a couple of decades on hundreds of stations, is being mourned by many in the radio industry. I am not one of them.
I believe Bell contributed to the dumbing-down of America by regularly embracing pseudoscience, the paranormal, claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions, crop circles, remote viewing, and other such nonsense. While his guest list occasionally included scientists and others, he mainly played host to a series of people who made unprovable claims about pretty much anything you care to name. If you had a conspiracy theory, Art Bell gave you a platform to share it — and he did all of this with no touch of skepticism, no denial of obvious falsehoods, no challenge to outrageous assertions.
Many who have praised Bell said he was a “compelling” broadcaster. There’s no doubt he was good at what he did, but the same could be said of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Alex Jones, and others who mastered the microphone while spewing garbage onto the airwaves. Unfortunately, our nation is full of too many gullible people who believe anything they hear as long as it comes from someone they perceive as an authority figure — and that includes “the guy on the radio,” like Bell.
Bell’s willingness to give a soapbox to pseudoscience may have played a role in the death of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed mass suicide in 1997 in the belief they would be transported to an extraterrestrial spacecraft that was following a comet called Hale-Bopp. Bell had hosted guests who had promoted the bogus story, although he removed all evidence of it after the horrific event. In an issue of Skeptical Inquirer that summer, Tom Genoni wrote about the Bell connection and ended with this paragraph:
Whatever the Heaven’s Gate cult members or anyone else may have done with the information presented on his radio show, Bell feels that is not his responsibility. “I’m not going to stop presenting my material because there are unstable people,” he insists. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.” Constitutional rights aside, Bell’s wild Hale-Bopp tales have clearly extended beyond the confines of harmless late-night entertainment and have contributed yet another ominous paranormal myth to a public of both stable and “unstable” people regularly misinformed about science.
I was friendly with George Noory for a few years when we both worked at KTRS/St. Louis (I did middays, he did evenings), but we haven’t spoken since he got sucked into Bell’s orbit, first as a substitute host, then as the full-time replacement when Bell gave up the national show, where George followed the same path of enabling bullshit. I’m sad to say he continues down that road at full-speed today, enabling harmful nonsense five nights a week.
Unfortunately, George is not alone. Cable channels are full of shows hyping psychic mediums, UFOlogists, ghost hunters, hauntings, and more — all without a critical eye or equal time for skepticism.
Every time one of them airs, America’s collective IQ drops a few notches and Art Bell’s estate should get a royalty check.