Conspiracy theories propel AM radio show into Top 10
San Francisco Chronicle | December 1, 2006
There was a time when "Coast to Coast AM," the late-night syndicated talk radio show dedicated to paranormal activities and political conspiracies, didn't get much respect.
"At one point it was, 'Oh, that strange show about weird paranormal things?' " said George Noory, who has hosted the program on weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. PST full time since 2003.
That all changed when millions from the mainstream met up with the after-midnight fringe folks to make "Coast to Coast AM" a top-rated radio show.
The show that gives self-described vampires a place to vent on its Friday night Wild Card line is the same one that was taking calls about Sept. 11 conspiracy theories just two weeks after the terrorist attacks. And "Coast to Coast AM," which airs in the Bay Area on KSFO 560 AM, is the same show that can now reach upward of 3 million listeners through 500 stations each week, according to Premiere Radio Networks, the company that syndicates the show.
"There's absolutely a growing conspiracy climate," said Noory, explaining the phenomenon of numbers typically unheard of for that time slot. "People are tired of being misled and confused from taking information directly from a government official. After a while, it becomes almost like a pressure cooker that needs to let off steam."
That conspiracy theories have joined the mainstream is an extraordinary phenomenon in itself, according to Michael Barkun, a political science professor at Syracuse University and author of "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America."
"These kinds of ideas that used to be really out on the fringe and tucked away in a subterranean subculture are now a part of pop culture," said Barkun, who also sees a link between the growing political conspiracy climate and the end of the Cold War.
"As long as the Cold War was going on, the world seemed to make sense to the degree that we could think of (it) as clearly divided between forces of good and forces of evil. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were deprived of a defined enemy. The world became more difficult to understand."
Barkun also credits the Internet, which eliminates a gatekeeper, as an ideal medium to grow a culture of conspiracy.
"Whether that trivializes the subject matter as simple entertainment or turns it into something more powerful because it reaches a mass audience remains to be seen."
Noory, 56, took over "Coast to Coast AM" when the show's founder, Art Bell, retired. During the mid-1980s, Bell broadcast the same spooky subject matter under the name "West Coast AM" from Las Vegas. In the early 1990s, the show was syndicated and its name changed to "Coast to Coast AM."
Bell, who has come in and out of retirement several times over the years, now hosts the program on weekends from his new home in the Philippines.
Through the years, Bell was known for his sometimes wacky but fiercely loyal following. When Noory took the weekday helm, he managed to do two things that previous fill-in guests couldn't -- be accepted by Bell's believers and help "Coast to Coast AM" reach more listeners.
The even-keeled Detroit native splits his time broadcasting the show from a nondescript Sherman Oaks (Los Angeles County) studio and a damp, dark cave "somewhere out there" near St. Louis, where Noory was known for several years as the Nighthawk, sharing scary stories on the air.
Noory believes he had a paranormal experience -- his first and only, he said -- when he was about 11 years old in Detroit. Home sick from school, Noory remembers the sensation of floating to the top of his ceiling, looking down and seeing his body in the bed below.
"Suddenly I felt myself being lassoed around the ceiling as if with a rope," said Noory, who, unlike typical radio disc jockeys, sounds the same on the air at 1 a.m. as he does at 1 p.m. when he clocks in to prepare for the show.
Noory remembers waking up in his body. A couple of days later, feeling better, he headed straight to the library to read the first of many books on the paranormal. He was hooked.
Judging by the 300-plus phone calls and 1,000 e-mails the show receives on an average night, according to Noory's producer, Tom Danheiser, listeners include liberals, conservatives, senior citizens in San Francisco, college students in South Carolina and even soldiers in Iraq.
"It's not necessarily just the typical insomniacs who are listening," said Ken Berry, program director for KSFO, the mostly conservative talk radio station that has been broadcasting "Coast to Coast" in the Bay Area since its inception. "There are lots of night-shift folks who tune in, but there are also many who simply like to spend an evening hearing fascinating tales when the room is quiet and dark. I think it dates back to when people remember listening to ghost stories around the campfire."
Through the spring of 2006, 7 percent of people listening to the radio in the Bay Area tuned in to "Coast to Coast," according to Berry. During the same rating period, 4.6 percent in the Bay Area tuned in to Rush Limbaugh.
While the Bay Area doesn't exactly give Limbaugh a home-field advantage, it's still a surprise to those in the broadcast industry how Noory and Bell hold their own against a morning talk show.
Talkers magazine, the trade publication that tracks radio ratings, has Noory in the top 10 of its "Top Talk Radio Audiences," alongside Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Dr. Laura Schlessinger -- who all generally broadcast during the day.
"What makes George Noory's numbers impressive," said Talkers founder Michael Harrison, "is that the universe of listeners is much smaller at night. And it flies in the face of the belief that talk radio is only about politics and relationships." The numbers are based on a study by Arbitron, a radio audience research company similar to television's Nielsen ratings.
Recent guests on "Coast to Coast," like author Philip Carlo, have a much simpler way of gauging the show's listenership.
"I average about 2,500 hits a week on my Web site," said Carlo, best known for his biography on "Night Stalker" serial killer Richard Ramirez. "After I did the show with George, I got 29,000 hits in one day."
Carlo also got an unprecedented three-hour on-air time slot to talk about his latest book, "The Iceman."
"Before I went on the show, I checked out 'Coast to Coast's' Web site and saw some pictures of funny-looking Martians and nutty things, but it takes all kinds of things to make the world go 'round," Carlo said. "In this day and age, it's impossible to get that much time on the air. All the people in the book business think (the show is) the cat's meow. "
What makes the show popular across so many demographic groups, according to producer Danheiser, is that Noory uses a format that most broadcast journalists would call crazy.
"We just put the subject out there and let people make up their own mind," said Danheiser, a big-time "Twilight Zone" guy.
On any given night, "Coast to Coast" guests might include a NASA scientist, an "earthquake expert" or a Bigfoot biographer. Because of the respectful approach accorded most subject matter -- and the fact that no one actually has to prove that anything they assert is true -- "Coast to Coast" has on occasion scooped major media outlets like the New York Times and CNN, according to Noory.
"We broke the story on the Dubai ports," said Noory, who has been collecting sources since the 1970s, when he started his career in television news back in Detroit. "We broke the story on SARS, and we were the first to report on the bird flu pandemic."
"Coast to Coast" also broke stories on the "praying mantis playing the piano," a "ghost haunting a gentlemen's club," and "the guy who says he is the son of Satan."
In his quest to understand, Noory doesn't believe everything he hears on the show. For example, the fellows who called a couple of years ago claiming to have captured an alien that loves hamburger meat sounded a little too scripted. Noory told them to e-mail pictures, but they never did.
Noory works in the same Sherman Oaks building as radio hosts Jim Rome and Casey Kasem. On the other side of the glass broadcast booth, he looks no different from a typical disc jockey dealing with Top 40 songs or sports talk.
Just before airtime, he adjusts a set of reading glasses tucked between his earphones and slanted down his nose. Noory spends the entire broadcast standing, occasionally moving the microphone around during commercial breaks. He divides his attention between the notes in front of him and the digital clock across the booth, above a big-screen television set to the Fox News Channel.
Noory communicates with his producer on the other side of the glass via instant message. He never seems to roll his eyes, even when callers go off topic asking questions about ghosts instead of Noory's guests.
Recently, when a caller claimed to have discovered a time-travel device and offered to prove how it works, Noory decided to give it a test drive.
Strapping a "weird device" onto his head, Noory felt his eyes flutter and his mind sink into a sort of hypnotic state. The first stop was the Dark Ages, where Noory wanted to see if an asteroid had hit. Alas, he didn't see anything. Naturally, it was "too dark."
But Noory did see something when he set the time machine for 1947 in Roswell, N.M., when many believe a UFO crashed.
"I saw two nuns," he said. "I can't say it proves anything, but I later found out that nuns reported having seen a UFO."
Noory purposely avoids taking vacations during holiday weekends. He knows that's when the truck drivers in the middle of nowhere and the lonely little old lady with a transistor radio count on him most.
But Noory does have his limits.
"There are three things I won't do or allow," he said. "I won't let any bad language or vulgarity on the air. I won't take injections of any kind. And I won't eat any food delivered to me at the studio."
The last time food arrived, it was, fittingly, a half-eaten fruitcake.
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