The Listener

For four hours every night, on holidays and weekends, George Noory is the voice in the darkness for millions of Americans. His show, Coast to Coast AM, has perfected a charged and conspiratorial worldview that now pervades American media. It’s quite possibly the oddest show ever to cross our airwaves. And it may change the radio business forever.
Drew Reynolds

Every night, when most of the world has drifted into unconsciousness, some 30 percent of the American population stays awake. They’re truckers, insomniacs, night-shift workers, or just people who like to stay up late. They tend to adhere to a different set of norms. For one thing, in an age of digital distraction, they connect with enthusiasm to a decidedly analog device: they listen to the radio for longer periods, with greater attention, and with greater loyalty than do audiences at any other time of the day. They tend to listen alone—alone in bed, alone on a highway, alone in the world—and find that a voice in the darkness offers a bond with a wider community. Perhaps you’re one of them. Or perhaps, if you’ve ever driven across country in the dark, or flipped on the radio because you couldn’t sleep, you know the feeling.

You might also have caught a glimpse into one of the odder realms of modern media. Lately, night people listen, in huge numbers, to a syndicated program called Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. It’s by far the most popular overnight show in the country. And it’s probably the most successful program of its kind ever aired. But just what kind of program it is, no one can quite say. Its topical breadth alone defies categorization: aliens, time travel, 9/11 conspiracies, suspicious murders, vampires, mediated telepathy, birds of unusual size. Shadow People seem to show up a lot. Every evening, Coast to Coast offers a running commentary on what keeps people awake, in fear or fascination, through what Keats called the “unslumbrous night.”

And on such vague apprehensions, George Noory—a man of long radio experience, indeterminate politics, and ominous generality—is likely the world’s foremost authority. His show is more than a curiosity: it has propelled overnight radio from commercial obscurity into radiant profitability, and has helped set a tone that, both thematically and rhetorically, now pervades American media. In the process, it has become perhaps the most complete chronicle of our strange national anxieties ever agglomerated. And these are very anxious times.

From an unexceptional corporate tower in the San Fernando Valley, Premiere Radio Networks fills the American airwaves with 90 syndicated programs every day. To wander through its hushed offices at night is to find oneself in a monastery of the information age. Everything—floors, ceilings, walls, nameplates, overhead lighting—is white, projecting to the visitor an austere purity of purpose. During the day, the network will spread to the wider world the combative politics of contemporary talk radio, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Dr. Laura. Ideology is to these homilists what ale is to the Trappist: a stimulating attractant that may pull unbelievers toward the larger cause of loyal listenership.

But those who keep vigil after 10 p.m. are of a more contemplative sort, and George Noory undertakes his duties more through faith than works. He has faith in his listeners, and his listeners have a surpassing faith in him.

For four hours every night, on holidays and weekends, Coast to Coast beams from a small, unmarked studio, down the hall to Premiere’s National Operations Center, then out to 525 affiliate stations reaching every major radio market, and into the homes of some 3 million people and counting. The show has no national competition on the nighttime airwaves.

Tonight, Noory would be talking to Marla Frees, a psychic who communes with pets, and Larry Dossey, a physician who sidelines as an interpreter of intuition. Before the show, Noory and I sat and talked in the studio. A muted television tuned to Fox News flashed overhead, as it often does, and Noory sat at a cluttered kidney-shaped table, two serious-looking microphones before him. He is 59 and has a round chin, black hair graying slightly on the sides, and sad brown eyes. His left eyebrow rises in a semipermanent arch, lending him an aspect of either surprise or skepticism when he speaks. His voice has a deep, agreeable timbre and a relaxing radioman’s cadence that recalls Jean Shepherd more than Sean Hannity.

On this night, he wore jeans, a plain black T-shirt untucked, and a bejeweled silver watch that sparkled in the dim light. He repeated to me the personal mythology he has carefully fashioned since he took over Coast to Coast from his predecessor, Art Bell, in 2003.

Noory grew up in Detroit, the oldest of three children, the son of an Egyptian father who worked at Ford Motor Company and a Lebanese American mother. He was raised Roman Catholic, singing in the choir and going to catechism class. As a boy, he listened constantly to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and had a habit of announcing things—like the liftoff of toy rockets—to the neighborhood children.

Noory’s paranormal odyssey began, appropriately, in the liminal space between sleeping and waking. One day, when he was 11 or so, home in bed and sick with a fever, he felt himself float to the ceiling and hang there, tethered by some unseen mechanism, looking down on his sleeping body. The moment was brief and scary. But it left within him both a conviction and a compulsion—a feeling that something unseen animates the world, and the impulse to investigate it. The next day, he searched the library and found The Projection of the Astral Body, by Hereward Carrington and Sylvan Muldoon, a briefly famous handbook on out-of-body experiences. Not long afterward, his mother gave him Walter Sullivan’s We Are Not Alone. His fascination with the occult burgeoned. He joined a UFO club and developed a close relationship with his cousin Shafica Karagula, a psychiatrist and the founding mother of New Age medicine.

“My life really began to evolve at that young age,” Noory told me.

A few years later, while at the University of Detroit, he filled in as a production assistant at the local ABC television affiliate, getting coffee and cleaning the teletype machines, and eventually parlayed that into a full-time reporting job at a 50,000-watt local radio station. For years after college, he lived the itinerant life of the broadcast journalist, working his way from producer to news executive and from Michigan to Minnesota to Missouri. Finally, he became the news director for KSDK-TV in St. Louis. He won three Emmys, raised three children, and quit journalism for an executive position at the giant PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, where, he says, “I really honed my corporate and marketing skills.” But he grew restless. He started a restaurant, a video-production company, and various other enterprises, successful and otherwise. “Then, you know, I just sat around for a while trying to regroup at an age of around 46, tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

At about that time, he saw the movie Talk Radio—which stars Eric Bogosian as a caustic radio host who gets gunned down outside his studio—and felt that perhaps an on-air position might be his true calling. He found a job doing the overnight shift for an AM station in St. Louis called KTRS. He began calling himself “The Nighthawk” and entertaining an initially small audience with tales of the unexplained. Slowly, his popularity grew, and his reputation spread in the small and fervent brotherhood of paranormal media. Eventually he landed his dream job of subbing for Bell—who had by then become a cult hero—on Coast to Coast AM. He took over full-time after Bell retired, in January of 2003.

When Noory discusses his current job, his psyche seems split by the imperatives of show business and journalism. He fully inhabits his on-air persona—oracular, persistent, amiable in the face of dark machinations—but offers hints that he remains at heart a newsman of the old school. He likes to mention his days as a city reporter, the big stories he covered, the fact that he was the last journalist to speak to Jimmy Hoffa. Then he’ll say things like this: “I believe that there are groups on this planet far above governments—who control governments. I think that there are players on this planet who are so wealthy, and so powerful, that the game for them is control and manipulation. And they make presidents, and they make kings and queens, and they make leaders of nations. Who are they specifically? I’m not going to give the names—I never do on the air. But we all suspect who they may be. And those are the ones that you have to be careful of.”

Lately, of course, such a worldview has acquired a new plausibility. To the paranoid mind, the government’s heavy-handed response to the financial crisis—the nationalizations, the bailouts, the immoderate stimuli—confirmed a particular understanding of the way power is wielded in the world. And Noory has detected, in his nightly callers, a new seriousness. “This push for more of a world government that so many people laughed at five or six years ago, including me—we aren’t laughing anymore,” he told me. “Because you begin to see the pieces of a puzzle, and when you put them together you begin to see a picture you really don’t like. This incredible need to control and manipulate—I think our program cuts to the heart of that.”

Noory seems most alive when entertaining these strange cosmic designs—when he’s connecting conspiratorial dots, endowing the most mundane of everyday events with numinous possibility. But it’s almost impossible to tell, at these moments, how much he really believes. He doesn’t seem to know himself.

“I think there’s a huge shift under way,” he said, looking up at the TV. “People are beginning to realize that they can’t fully trust government anymore, that they can’t fully trust even their neighbors sometimes, sadly enough. So they’re reaching out for something they can grasp, and they’re doing it now in numbers higher than I’ve ever witnessed as long as I’ve been in this business. We’re in a very strange time right now.”

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic associate editor.

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