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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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.”

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.

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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