By DELFIN VIGIL
San Francisco Chronicle
November 13, 2006
"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," 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."
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