"THERE WAS A LOT of excited screaming going on when we heard of Art's return," exclaims Charlette LeFevre of the Seattle Art Bell Chat Club. Monday, February 5, marks the comeback of the enigmatic radio host to his own creation, Coast to Coast AM, the phenomenal overnight radio program about UFOs, the paranormal, and all things unexplained. The program, syndicated on 430 radio stations nationwide, is so popular in Seattle that the local affiliate, KOMO-AM, actually used to repeat it in the prime-time slot of 7-10 pm.
At 2am last April 27, Art Bell signed off the air after 15 years on the radio, resigning from broadcasting and "all other forums of media including book publishing, television, etc.," to live an anonymous lifestyle. Besieged with personal difficulties over the last few years, Bell hung up his professional hat to pursue a legal battle against a small-time radio host in Nashville, former FBI agent Ted Gunderson, and his guest David Hinkson, who falsely accused Bell of child molestation. This trouble occurred after a schoolteacher actually sexually assaulted Bell's own son. When Bell won multiple libel suits that cleared his name, he slowly began to resurface from his trailer in Pahrump, Nev., outside Area 51. Devotees have heard Bell recently on hamm radio and taking calls on a shortwave frequency at 3831kHz in his home studio.
Meanwhile, Coast to Coast had been turned over to Seattle's controversial talker Mike Siegel ("UFOs coast to coast," SW, 9/21/00). Although Siegel has worked on many different stations, including KING-AM and KVI-AM, and in a variety of guises, including conservative hot talker and populist Democrat, he is possibly best known for a 1996 debacle. The incident involved sustaining a wild rumor circulated by a disgruntled former city employee that alleged then-Mayor Norm Rice had a homosexual affair. The on-air discussion got Siegel fired for jeopardizing the "integrity, credibility, and reputation" of his radio station's parent company.
Despite Siegel's checkered past, he was supposedly handpicked by Bell for the job of hosting Coast to Coast AM. But Bell's stamp of approval didn't prevent a serious falloff among listeners. "It was a no-win situation," says KOMO's Darren Reynolds of Siegel's brief reign. "It's like replacing Rush Limbaugh." (Premiere Radio Networks, Coast to Coast AM's syndicator, says it will continue to use Siegel in a variety of ways.)
After Bell's departure, 11 affiliate stations quickly cancelled Coast to Coast AM. Besides missing Art Bell's distinctive delivery and command over the subjects of aliens and crop circles, listeners missed the live reports of UFO sightings from Peter Davenport, the head of the National UFO Reporting Center based on Mercer Island. Davenport refused all appearances on Coast to Coast AM after Bell left.
When significant stations in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles dropped the show last fall, negotiations between Bell and Premiere most likely began in earnest. It was a bloody negotiation, according to Bell as well as Kraig Kitchin, president of Premiere. Although a company spokesperson says the "bloody" reference is meant playfully, Bell received serious concessions from the network. Coast to Coast AM will now feature an additional hour of live show time and a whopping 33 percent fewer commercials.
Bell explains his return simply, "I'm doing this for two reasons: I love it, and I think the program that I founded has been suffering to some degree and that kills me."
Art Bell's Coast to Coast AM starts again Monday, February 5, from 10 pm-4 am on KOMO-AM 1000.