A weekend news item that may have gotten lost in the shuffle with all the stories about Syria, Russia, and Trump’s lawyer was the death of legendary talk radio host Art Bell.
Art had been mostly retired for over a decade. My audience tends to skew younger, so it’s unclear how many people reading this ever listened to Coast to Coast AM, the show Art created. Mp3 playlists and blogs have replaced top forty and talk radio for going on a couple of generations now. When you say “talk radio”, most Millennials and Gen Zeds probably think of some pudgy Boomer polemicizing about presidential politics, if they think of it at all.
It’s a shame, too, since the usual topics of discussion on Coast–at least during the Art Bell years–couldn’t have been further from basic bitch politics. Art was one of the dying breed of honest skeptics–perhaps the last–who genuinely thought everyone should be allowed to say his piece and that judgment should be reserved till all the evidence was in. And he put his money where his mouth was by running his show with open lines. Anyone could call in to Coast and get on the air, and quite often, anyone did.
I discovered Art late in my high school days, and he kept me company during many an all-nighter throughout college. Art was like the favorite uncle who’d take you aside at family gatherings, hand you a beer when your dad was safely occupied elsewhere, and chat with you man-to-man about his time in the service overseas. Or pass on a tall tale he’d picked up from a merchant marine in Saipan. Or confide the weirdness he and a buddy encountered while hitchhiking in the Badlands.Tuning in to Coast was like having that uncle on speed dial.
I say “was” because Coast has never been the same since Art retired. The sorts of folks who like to rubberneck at car crashes are encouraged to look elsewhere to have their curiosity satisfied. You’ll find out why he left if you look. I prefer to keep some books closed, leave old wounds to heal, and let the dead sleep in the peace they’ve earned. I will say there are people out there as of this writing who are guilty of slanders that no doubt haunted a good man to his grave. Here’s hoping they meet justice on this side of eternity.
Art was the kind of once-in-a-generation visionary who comes along and redefines a field. The trouble with visionaries is that they’re rare, and their visions seldom align. Hence the sad phenomenon of the genius who builds an empire only to have his successors piss it away. It’s an old story. See the case of D&D creator Gary Gygax’s estate.
Coast to Coast AM has slid in the ratings and disappeared from more and more local stations since Art’s retirement. It’s not surprising. None of the hosts they brought on to fill his shoes ever did figure him out. They all thought the secret was in the format–understandable, since their jobs depended on it–when Coast’s success was due to Art himself.
It wasn’t about New Age evangelism, nor was it about rounding up a bunch of street corner cranks and parading them through your living room for laughs. Art’s would-be successors should have listened to him. He explained more than once that he didn’t buy ninety-nine percent of his guests’ bullshit. That didn’t stop him from conversing with wackos and hucksters like a serious journalist (yes, they did exist) interviewing the head of NASA. If you went on Coast in the late 90s, you knew that Art would give you a fair hearing and let the audience decide.
A tragedy of Art Bell, amid a lifetime of too much tragedy, was that of the great man who outlives the era he helped define. Go on YouTube, and you’ll find any number of tawdry clickbait videos claiming to show ghosts caught on Google Maps and PG-13 horror flick demons stalking Venezuelan streets. That’s where the audience that would have been Coast listeners has gone, and they’re the poorer for it.
Godspeed, Mr. Bell. You leave behind a country that has long since ceased to deserve you.
For generous helping of weird stories that don’t claim to be true but are definitely a lot of fun, pick up my new short story collection Strange Matter.
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