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.
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Since the earliest radio broadcasts, the nighttime airwaves have abided hucksters, charlatans, and snake-oil salesmen of all kinds. But they’ve also enabled a bond between host and audience unlike any other in American media. Even so, the nighttime was considered so unprofitable that it became known, early and forever, as the dead zone. A few surpassing talents—like Barry Gray and Jean Shepherd—achieved relative success during the late shift. But more often, stations that stayed on the air at night tended to broadcast replays of earlier shows, or religious programs, or infomercials.

Noory’s lineage as a host traces most directly to WOR in New York City, in the 1950s, and a late-night circus refereed by Long John Nebel. Nebel’s show resembled nothing else at the time: he offered unprecedented airtime to callers, talked to guests involved in all manner of cosmic or governmental intrigue, and became a pitchman for products that would shame the ShamWow guy. Nebel’s authorized biography is called Long John Nebel: Radio Talk King, Master Salesman, Magnificent Charlatan. Larry King succeeded Nebel in 1978, and dominated the nighttime radio airwaves for the next decade with a national variety show.

Then, in the early 1990s, Alan Corbeth, a radio consultant, was looking to bring interesting local programs to national syndication. He started listening to an overnight political show hosted by Art Bell, broadcasting out of KDWN, in Las Vegas.

Corbeth had grown up listening to Nebel, and he remembered the strange hold a nighttime host could exert on the listener. He thought Bell had the right temperament and connection to make it nationally. Everyone else thought Corbeth was crazy. Advertising agencies laughed at him when he tried to sell time on the show. His friends in the business, he says, were even more dismissive. “They told me, ‘That’s stupid, there’s nobody listening, you’re wasting your time, and by the way, you can’t make any money anyway because who the hell is going to pay any kind of significant advertising rates on an overnight radio show?’”

At the time, Bell generally adhered to a traditional political format, but about once a week, he’d dedicate a show to the paranormal—and the pair noticed that interest in the program would spike. So, tired of political debate anyway, Bell devoted the program full-time to exploring the netherworld of American life. He started hosting his show from a double-wide trailer in a fenced-in compound in the desert town of Pahrump, Nevada, not far from Area 51, the infamous Air Force base thought (by a certain constituency) to house the government’s UFO-research labs.

“It really, really caught on at that point,” Corbeth says. So much so that within a few years their syndication grew to hundreds of stations, advertising sold out, and listeners flooded the office with requests for tapes of classic shows. In 1998, Jacor Communications, then Premiere’s parent company, bought the show (and a handful of lesser ones) for $9 million, and made Corbeth a senior vice president. (A year later, Clear Channel Communications bought Jacor for $3.8 billion.)

To the narrow but impassioned base of paranormal believers, the show changed the dynamic of the national conversation—suddenly, with The X-Files ascendant and millennial dread rising, they were being taken seriously. “Coast to Coast was absolutely critical,” says Stephen Bassett, the organizer of the X-Conference and the only registered lobbyist known to agitate Congress about UFOs. “From that point forward, we had an audience.”

But the corporate marriage was soon troubled: Bell suffered a series of personal tribulations—his son was kidnapped, he was falsely accused of molestation, he had health problems, enemies were made—and he quit the show more than once. A brief interregnum of unsatisfactory replacements followed his final retirement; ratings plummeted and listeners aired dark theories about why Bell had really left.

(Bassett has one: “I believe that elements within the U.S. government got alarmed. Suddenly this issue is on late-night radio frequently, and it’s starting to get traction and people are paying attention, and the government got a little scared. And I think they went aggressive. That’s when all hell started breaking loose. I mean, you had people having heart attacks, break-ins, phone taps, the vicious attacks on Bell—I mean the shit hit the fan.”)

Corbeth called George Noory, still known as the Nighthawk, in St. Louis, and hired him as Bell’s full-time replacement. Corbeth told me that Noory’s chief qualification, aside from his familiarity with the paranormal, was simple geniality. “George, quite frankly, was just a guy who was willing to roll up his sleeves and do whatever it took,” he said.

The program has by some measures surpassed its former listenership and become one of the most successful talk shows in the country, day or night. And its national advertisers have found in its loyal and credulous audience a lucrative niche for products that appeal to a certain sensibility: Lear Capital, purveyors of gold products, for those who know “things will get worse before they get worse”; Geico, the ubiquitous discount insurer; Ixquick, the search engine that doesn’t spy on you. “People that listen to this kind of radio are paying attention—it’s foreground, it’s like watching television,” says Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers. Noory, with his soothing voice and amiable persona, is perfectly suited for a syndicated, corporatized Coast to Coast, for a show that’s now a bit more Ventura Boulevard than Pahrump, Nevada. This gentle mainstreaming—which Noory freely admits to—seems to be what most irks online dissenters who dissect broadcasts with the zeal of true believers and refer to Noory as “Snoory.” But it’s also what has enabled the Coast to Coast phenomenon to spread into the broader American culture.

Bassett tracks mainstream news coverage of alien-related material. His firm, Paradigm Research Group, has found that the number of English-language articles mentioning the topic increased nearly sixfold between 2006 and 2008—and when we spoke, 2009 was on a record-setting pace. His tally doesn’t include the tabloids, he adds, or recent coverage on CNN, Fox News, ABC, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, and, of course, the Sci-Fi Channel. From ghost hunters and UFO hunters to alien autopsies and secret societies, the schedules of previously sober TV stations now resemble a giant nightly X-Conference.

“It has definitely tapped into something in the American psyche,” Corbeth said of Coast to Coast. “I think people are looking for answers. And they’re looking for them anywhere they can find them. They see a world which is very, very troubled, and getting scarier by the day, and I think they’re looking for some escape.”

In a 1958 essay, Carl Jung tried to come to terms with what he called the “dark problem” of UFO sightings, which at the time were reaching a peak. “The psychic situation of mankind and the UFO phenomenon as a physical reality bear no recognizable causal relationship to one another,” he wrote, “but they seem to coincide in a meaningful manner.”

In the occult generally and in UFOs in particular, Jung saw a strong connection to the decline of the Christian worldview. The concept of Christ as a savior, he wrote,

reflects a profound psychic need which does not simply disappear when the expression of it ceases to be valid. What happens to the energy that once kept the idea alive and dominant over the psyche? A political, social, philosophical, and religious conflict of unprecedented proportions has split the consciousness of our age. When such tremendous opposites split asunder, we may expect with certainty that the need for a savior will make itself felt.

Coast to Coast offers a running nightly commentary on the modern quest for that savior. In the process, it confirms that what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” has reached one of its periodic peaks. This style, which Hofstadter understood to include a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” today finds its clearest expression on talk radio—and not just at night. In fact, if you were to remove the explicitly political statements from the monologues of, say, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity on a given day, what you’d have is a worldview that, in its understanding of the workings of power and its sense that some elusive but monstrous Truth is being withheld, very closely resembles George Noory’s.

“There’s no question that right-wing talk radio features that characteristic of distrust and fear that is a part of the text of Coast to Coast—fear of the unknown, fear of invasion, fear of being taken over by some kind of evil force,” says Michael C. Keith, a communications professor at Boston College and the author of Sounds in the Dark: All-Night Radio in American Life. “I think political talk radio is very much aware of the Coast to Coast phenomenon, and knows that if it pushes certain buttons, albeit with a political motif, it will also generate the right kind of response. All of this feeds paranoia, regardless of where it comes from.”

But paranoia performs an important social function: it’s one way of ordering a disorderly world. Particularly a world in which the problems we face, from climate change to financial collapse to nuclear terrorism, are of a newly existential order, and our options for action are cosmically ineffectual. Through the paranoid worldview—through the belief in dark and interconnected and all-powerful conspiracies, terrestrial or otherwise—one may impose structure in a time of randomness, perceive meaning in a culture stripped of its religious moorings, imagine a degree of volition in a threatening world that increasingly seems beyond our power to influence. Listen to Coast to Coast at night, and you’ll hear the sound of millions of people trying to come to terms with what Yeats called “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”

Late one night, as a warm breeze blew through my bedroom window, and only the hum of fans and air conditioners filled the ether, I tuned in to Coast to Coast to hear Brian Greene, the Columbia physicist and science-popularizer extraordinaire, join the program by phone. Greene seemed to me, at first, the perfect guest: a man who could answer questions about time travel and strangelets, black holes and wormholes, with good cheer and scientific coherence—a man who, like Noory, knew that things unseen animate the cosmos.

As the show progressed, though, and as Greene fielded call after strange call and question after question, he seemed to suck the life out of the show’s nightly connection. Noory brought up the concept of extra dimensions, a topic that would seem to brim with Coast-ish possibility. Greene replied that he had, in fact, studied extra dimensions for 15 years, but saw nothing all that mysterious about them. “The thing to bear in mind is that extra dimensions are less exotic than the name ‘extra dimensions’ might lead you to think,” he said, deflatingly. “They’d be very similar to the ones you do see, there would just be more of them. So that doesn’t in any way link into the afterlife, doesn’t link into paranormal phenomena, it’s just more dimensions of space that we don’t have direct access to with our eyes.”

For three long hours, Greene acted like a parent debunking a willful child’s belief in Santa Claus. Time travel to the past was surely impossible, he said, and scientists had long ago stopped even trying. The prospect of a UFO visitation seemed dim, and he had seen no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Life after death, much as we might yearn for it, wasn’t plausible scientifically.

But in the show’s final hour, Jim in Hendersonville, North Carolina, challenged him on that last one. A lot of researchers, Jim said, had come to the opposite conclusion about the afterlife—some of them even had videotape.

“Well, I’ve never studied the data,” Greene said, his condescension not entirely suppressed. “But I’ve certainly never encountered anything that has convinced me, even in a slight degree, that there’s anything beyond death.”

Then something strange happened. For the first time in the years I’ve listened to the program, I detected what sounded, for all the world, like fear creep into George Noory’s amiable voice. “It—it just seems so empty,” he blurted.

It did, late at night, all alone. Greene’s view of the universe, for all his scientific enthusiasm, imperiled the Coast to Coast ethos in a way no UFO skeptic ever could. No ultimate mystery inhered in it, no potential savior inhabited it, nothing in its great expanse seemed to endow our little lives with meaning.

“That is a brute, cold, hard fact of the universe,” Greene said. “When you pull the battery out of your computer, it shuts off. When you end a life, it shuts off. And I think that’s just it.”

Noory didn’t want to let it go. “A lot of great cases, though, of near-death experiences documented by doctors—” he offered, hopefully.

“I think ‘near’ is the operative word there.”

Seconds of dead air ticked by, an eternity at night.

Then, in a rush, almost like he couldn’t help himself, Noory said, “But they do leave their body, they say.”

“Well, that’s what they say.”

Finally, reluctantly, George Noory conceded defeat.

“San Francisco we go. Max?”

I turned the radio off. And I lay awake in bed, for a long time, in silence.

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic associate editor.
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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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