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.

The next night, I joined Noory and one of his producers, Tom Danheiser, for dinner before the show. We met at the studio, then rolled down Ventura Boulevard in Noory’s black Lincoln Navigator. We got out at a Greek restaurant, and Noory handed his keys to a valet. Inside, the pair greeted everyone by name and shook hands with the owner, who was clearly thrilled to see them. The bartender asked if they’d seen Elvis today. They found themselves a table near the back, and we talked about the show. Before long, the impulse to tell funny stories about life within the Coast to Coast universe—which extends past the studio’s orbit and into conferences, TV appearances, and speaking engagements, and is expanding—proved irresistible. And I realized, as I listened, that all the stories were funny in a particular way: it’s never clear, in their world, where the demarcation between fantasy and reality is drawn—or, indeed, if such a line can really be said to exist anymore.

We talked about the time a man in traditional Mayan garb interrupted a conference of fringe scholars who believe the ancient Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012. He was wielding a cane, and unloaded a profane tirade on the attendees. “He went ballistic. I mean he had lost it,” Noory said. “Plus, I didn’t know what was in his cane. You never know—people are passionate about these things.” They told me about Ed Grimsley, who for years would lurk around paranormal conferences with a suspicious-looking backpack that, he finally revealed, contained the night-vision goggles through which he witnessed a UFO war unfolding, night after night. (Noory says he saw two UFOs, his first and only sighting, with Grimsley not long ago.) And about Dr. Roger Leir, whom the pair watched perform surgery on someone putatively afflicted by an alien implant. “Oh, he definitely cuts people,” Danheiser said, laughing, when I expressed my skepticism about the procedure’s authenticity. And about the man who approached Noory at a dinner and told him, urgently, that he needed to show him photos of a perpetual-motion machine he had created, only to slap down pictures of common toilet parts. (The man admitted he hadn’t quite gotten the machine to work yet.) And, finally, about the time they had a nurse on the show to discuss Morgellons disease, a possibly psychosomatic ailment in which one feels crawling sensations beneath the flesh, and 10,000 listeners e-mailed the poor woman to report that they had it.

“Or thought they had it,” Noory said.

“Or thought they had it,” Danheiser repeated.

These stories reminded me of the first time I met Noory. He had been the featured speaker at a meeting of paranoid minds called the X-Conference, held in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a few months back. His presence electrified the crowd, hundreds strong, who greeted him with chants of “George, George, George!” On either side of the podium, huge projection screens showed a close-up of his face.

“All of us are here because we believe. Or want to believe. Or there’s something happening in our lives that seems to be drawing us to this,” he told the crowd. “We’re looking for answers … And until we can get the right answers—of who we are, and what we are—we’re going to be plagued with this inner feeling that you all have.”

He paused, and looked around the packed ballroom. “I mean, how many of you have that emptiness inside of you?”

Not a single hand went up.

“They all felt it,” he said, when I asked him, at the restaurant, about that moment. “They were afraid.”

I asked him if the emptiness he was talking about was one reason his show seemed to be taking off. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window.

“You know, I don’t know,” he said. “It just continues to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. People are interconnected, and they are pulling themselves to a central point where we’re all meeting, which happens to be this radio show. But there is something out there that is truly profound. I mean, today they announced that the astronauts had attached a brand-new camera to the Hubble telescope, which they said would allow them to peer back to just 500 million years after the dawn of the universe. Isn’t that an incredibly profound statement? Five hundred million years after the dawn of the universe? What dawned it? You know, how did it start? Who are we? What are we doing here?”

“You know what, though? He won’t say it, but I will,” Danheiser said. “They also trust him. And there’s not a lot of people on the air that you can really tune in to and not think you’re being fed a line of whatever. These guys out there, these other dudes, they’re on there yelling and screaming, and they’re cutting off callers. And the listeners have a sense of trust with George, they know they can speak what’s on their minds and he’s not going to berate them or make them feel little—like a little person.”

Each night, Coast to Coast begins at ten o’clock L.A. time with a rundown of the day’s news. Tonight’s show includes a report from Alex Jones, a frequent correspondent (and the creator of the film Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement), about Timothy Geithner meeting with the Bilderbergs in Athens: “They’re considering this weekend whether they want to have a prolonged, agonizing depression that dooms the world to decades of stagnation, decline, and poverty, or an intense but shorter depression that paves the way for a new sustainable Economic World Order,” Jones explains.

“It is truly amazing, Alex,” Noory says. “Keep your eye on the Bilderberg Group.”

Standing behind his microphone, looking down at his notes, Noory discusses the Hubble repairs, the woes at Chrysler, the conviction of a man who had been carving up cadavers and selling them, and a study on health risks for night-shift workers. Finally, he mentions a Seattle artist who developed horse-leg extensions for people seeking a “taller and more graceful” look, which he admits is “kind of creepy.”

“That’s on the same level as the clown with razor teeth— It, remember? What is it with the person who created these things? I would say some kind of contact with a specific type of E.T. being, wouldn’t you?” he asks, knowingly. “And if so, would you think this person must have had good experiences with these types of beings? I don’t think so.” Noory then introduces the first guest, a paleo-psychologist named Howard Bloom, known as the “human computer.” The phone lines light up. I’m sitting with Danheiser in the producer’s booth, which overlooks the studio through a soundproof window, and listening in to the calls on a headset. They get hundreds each night, through lines apportioned into five categories: East of the Rockies, West of the Rockies, First-Time Callers, International Callers, and, everyone’s favorite, the Wildcard Line. (Sometimes they’ll dedicate another line for specific topics, like one for time travelers, or vampires.)

“Are you a freak?” Danheiser asks the first caller. Tonight’s program is about freaks. A study published in the journal BMC Ecology found that some predators avoid animals that look different from the rest of their species, possibly offering an evolutionary advantage. Noory asks Bloom how the finding might relate to humans.

“Freaks, geeks, and rebels have got a very, very strange advantage,” Bloom says. “In most things we’re sort of disadvantaged, but society needs us very badly—we’re its eyes and ears, we’re its antenna, we’re the way it stretches out and finds new things.”

Ralph from Oceanside, California, on the West of the Rockies line, is telling Danheiser a rambling tale about mysterious desert cats of unusual jumping ability. Danheiser listens impatiently, then interrupts him and puts him on hold. On Noory’s monitor, he types: “Ralph, Oceanside, CA—FLAG.” The flag, I assume, means don’t take this crazy call. In fact, it means just the opposite—take this crazy call as soon as you can. Callers who are too polished (boring callers, in the vernacular) sometimes have a harder time getting through, though Danheiser admits that the line between interesting and unhinged is a fine one. And unlike producers for most other shows, Danheiser doesn’t indicate to Noory what the callers intend to talk about (for example, “Roger, Delaware—hates Obama’s tax plan”). “We want it to be a surprise,” Danheiser says.

Noory lets Ralph have his say on air about the suspect cats—40 pounds or so, eight-foot jumping ability—then says: “Wow,” betraying no doubts. “You always wonder, Howard, how many more different oddities are out there on this planet.”

Noory can be an uneven broadcaster. Sometimes he seems to not pay full attention to his guests, offers strangely obvious commentary, or—and this has alienated some fans—lets clearly delusional or pseudoscientific assertions slide by without challenge. But he listens, with heroic patience, to all of his callers. He does the show live on holidays, he says, because that’s when the listeners need him most. For the same reason, he takes only a third of his allotted vacation time. Listeners send him thousands of cards and e-mails for his birthday. When I speak with Danheiser alone in his office later, he says that in all his years of commercial radio—working for the likes of Jim Cramer, Suze Orman, and Dr. Laura—he has never known a host who has a more intense connection with his or her audience.

As Noory patiently listens to callers explaining the ways in which they’re freakish—“I really, truly believe in boron,” Robin in Toronto says—he seems to me the polar opposite of a commercial radio host as typically understood. He doesn’t shout, he talks to guests calmly for 40-odd minutes in an hour, he has no discernible politics, and, perhaps most shocking of all, he seems to respect his callers. Through such heresies, Noory’s quiet evangelism wins converts, and creates undeniably riveting entertainment—so riveting, in fact, that on good nights you’re never quite able to dismiss what you’re hearing as entertainment. The show is an exemplar of the art of the plausible.

During the break, Noory’s voice booms through an intercom into the producer’s booth. “Give me the strange ones if you can find them.”

“Yeah, I know,” Danheiser says.

Presented by

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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