Art Bell has died. The legendary late-night radio host, who spent decades at the helm of his massively popular interview and call-in show, Coast To Coast AM, calmly listening and questioning as his guests and callers outlined every damn conspiracy theory, alien abduction idea, and off-the-wall opinion that happened to cross their minds, was 72.
Bell’s genius as a radio host can be boiled down to a few key points: He (almost) never screened callers, and he never shut anybody down. Instead, Bell’s M.O. was to listen, asking questions and pushing back on certain points, but allowing his guests to lay out the vast, personal labyrinths of mythology that existed in their heads. As a consequence, Coast To Coast’s night owl timeslot became a haven for weird ideas and weirder characters: backward speech experts, psychic assassins, Mel’s Hole, and any number of purported Area 51 employees or infiltrators all got their time in the spotlight; so, too, did a great many celebrities and actual, accredited experts. (Chris Carter, Leonard Nimoy, Willie Nelson, and Regis Philbin have all appeared on the show at one point or another in its life.)
Regardless of his own beliefs—reportedly a sort of skeptical Libertarianism—Bell understood that there was good radio in letting these elaborate ideas play out; like a great improviser, he could yes-and almost anything, whether his guest was talking about “shadow people,” secret Navy experimentation, or a whole host of alien-related ideas. Occasionally, that openness would run him into trouble; when the Heaven’s Gate cultists killed themselves in 1997, there were those who accused Coast To Coast’s propagation of the idea of a “companion” object traveling with the Hale-Bopp comet of prompting the suicidal act. But Bell soldiered on, walking listeners through the darkness until 2002, when he stepped down from his regular hosting duties on Coast To Coast, backing off to only covering an occasional weekend shift.
Bell’s life appears to have taken an unwelcome and chaotic turn in the years that followed; his second wife, Ramona, died in 2006, which was followed by a swift re-marriage. He moved to, and from, the Philippines, impacting his ability to host the show on weekends. He retired and un-retired several more times over the following years, launching shows on Sirius and on the internet, before ultimately quitting for good in 2015.
At his height, though, Bell’s voice reached millions; for many years, Coast To Coast was regularly the most popular show in its timeslot, and one of the most popular radio programs in America, period. In 1998, The Washington Post wrote an in-depth profile on him, describing him in a number of conflicting ways: A true believer, a joking prankster trolling journalists, a simple man looking for stability in his life. At one point, he discusses his own, personal UFO encounter, describing an object that hovered in the air in front of him and his then-wife. “It really doesn’t matter that much to me if anyone believes me,” he told The Post at the time. “Thousands of people seeing the same thing cannot all be wrong.”