Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sensor Scan: Coast to Coast AM

The Long 1980s are usually seen as the era when the sweeping hegemonic counter-revolution came in and tore down all the radical mainstream institutions and media artefacts people had spent the Long 1960s putting into place. And there is an extent to which this is true, and indisputable. However, by virtue of being in many ways the high water mark of what we now call “traditional” or “old” media, the Long 1980s were also the period where people working in those structures pushed them to their limits and beyond. People have something to say in every era, and there will always be those who call for positive change, and they will make their voices heard in one way or another.

So, put another way, even though the Long 1980s can be argued to be the point where large-scale media consolidated itself to be firmly and inexorably a part of the authoritarian establishment, there were just as many people who freely acknowledged this, yet continued to use their master's tools against them. Television may have become the boot of the oppressor, but, whether you think it was successful or not, Star Trek: The Next Generation certainly strove to be a force for material social progress, as did its sci-fi colleague across the pond at the BBC (but we'll get to that soon enough). You can say the cinema of the 1980s swept away the auteur, experimentalist cinema of the 1970s, but there were still films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Thanks to Nintendo, the video game industry was as energized, inspired and full of life as it would ever be. And, the Long 1980s were really the last time pop music was allowed to be openly radical and critical of the status quo without making a ton of concessions, with people like Siouxsie Sioux, Laurie Anderson and Nena topping the pop charts.

And on the airwaves, on the one hand you had most of the medium being co-opted into the neoconservative revolution leading to a profound shift in the essence of talk radio. On the other, you had Coast to Coast AM.

Though the pioneer of paranormal radio is widely accepted to be Long John Nebel, who for years ran a wildly successful talk show out of New York that dabbled in the supernatural and conspiracy theories, the archetypical, definitive example of the genre really can only be Coast to Coast AM hosted by Art Bell, and later George Noory. Like Nebel before him, Bell was a tremendous showman, bringing a fire and zeal to his performance and quickly gained fame and recognition for his dogged pursuit of a huge swath of different topics, from the expected paranormal gossip and hypothesizing to quantum physics, theology, philosophy, science fiction and flagrantly radical political topics from all angles of the spectrum (which was an early indication of both the strengths and weaknesses of Coast's overall impact in my opinion).

For those who might not be intimately familiar with how a show like this works, the first crucial thing to remember about Coast to Coast AM is that it's late night radio, meaning it airs between 10PM (2200) and 2AM West Coast time and, if you happen to be on the other US coast (like me), it airs from 1AM to 5AM. This is an hour that nobody in their right mind chooses to be awake for if they have a choice in the matter-It's called the “graveyard slot” for any number of very good reasons (and do please note it's almost midnight as I write this). This means Coast to Coast AM's listener base is made up exclusively of both night shift workers (namely truck drivers) and fervently antisocial people who resent the world of daylight. This first group of people are the “Rocket Man” set who I brought up in my post on that song: Ordinary people who simply for whatever reason live very solitary and contemplative lives and spend a lot of time ruminating on mystical, philosophical and cosmic things because that's what you do when you're alone with yourself at Ungodly O'Clock. As for the second group...Well, that would explain some of Coast's callers, actually.

The show's structure facilitates this as well, split as it is between guest interviews and open line segments, with every Friday night being dedicated exclusively to open lines. It's on these Open Line Fridays that the show really comes into its own, for better or for worse: Coast to Coast AM already airs in an entertainment dead zone during the work week, and pairing that up with a Friday night airdate simply compounds things by ensuring that statistically nobody is listening, and the show becomes wonderfully mad and unhinged as a result. Because of this, the show has absolute freedom to talk about things absolutely no other media outlet would dare touch-For a time, it was one of the only places actual legitimate scientists who also had an interest in Forteana, like Loren Coleman and Jeff Meldrum, were able to get a large-scale audience. However, this also makes the show frequently a mixed bag: One the one hand, it can attract extremely challenging thinkers who operate as the enemy of institutionalized power structures who genuinely want to work for radical material social progress and will never attain a traditional audience because of that. On the other hand...the show also attracts paranoid misanthropic conspiracy theorists and people who claim to be time travelling extraterrestrial messiahs.

This is what really makes Coast to Coast AM special and unique: There are plenty of radio shows on the air that deal with paranormal topics or fringe politics, especially nowadays with the advent of the Internet and podcasting. Many of those shows handle their subject matter more seriously (and more frighteningly), but on none of those other shows will you get to hear somebody call in with a panicky declaration that she's half Martian and her pickup truck is a portal to another dimension or somebody claiming to be Jesus angrily threatening to throw people into boiling pits of sewage for watching pornography. Seriously, do you like Welcome to Night Vale? That show is basically Coast to Coast AM mashed up with Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, except Night Vale is fiction and comedy and Coast to Coast AM is real life. Truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction.

And yet Coast to Coast AM is not a parade of the bizarre put on display for our slack-jawed amusement: For one thing, the paranormal is, as I mentioned above, just one of many different topics the show tackles every night. Physicist and science popularizer Michio Kaku is a big friend of the show, as was Casey Kasem. Both Art Bell and George Noory have a strong interest in and love of science fiction, and Leonard Nimoy, Marc Zicree and Ray Bradbury have all been regular guests at different points in time. When Enterprise was going through its most turbulent and tempestuous period, Jolene Blalock, a friend of Noory's, would occasionally come onto Coast, which was the only outlet that actually seemed interested in engaging her in an adult conversation about things she was passionate and outspoken about (even things that, shockingly, didn't have anything to do with Star Trek!) instead of ogling her. Art Bell even managed some legitimate and serious acts of actual journalism: He was one of the first people to express concern about global climate change in the 1980s when nobody else in the media was listening to the climatologists, and it was Bell who broke the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center torture abuse story in 2001.

The reason Coast to Coast AM can manage all of this effortlessly lies in the quiet, gentle patience of its hosts and its foundational, unshakable promise to its listeners. From the very beginning, Coast to Coast AM has always been an absolutely open forum: Apart from overt verbal abuse, explicit threats or hate speech, pretty much anyone can call into the show, express any opinion and be given a podium completely unchallenged. That was a central tenet of the show Art Bell introduced from the start, George Noory continues that tradition, and I think it's even more evident under him. Coast to Coast AM is not a show about banter, debate or confrontation, it's a show about giving a voice to people and giving them a place to be heard and treated with the respect and attention that they might not be able to get anywhere else, which, when you get right down to it, is a basic human right. And though open lines can be a total spectacle and the show frequently books guests who are provably wrong about pretty much everything, Coast to Coast AM never, ever mocks or patronizes anyone. This isn't a talk show so much as it is a listening show.

George Noory himself gave a very moving example of this philosophy in a book he wrote a few years back called Worker in the Light, which also doubles as an extended exploration of the subject. Every year, Noory hosts a special all-open lines episode of Coast to Coast AM on Christmas Eve dedicated to people who are alone during the holiday season. Noory feels nobody should have to be lonely, especially at that time of year, and he wants to make sure people know there's at least one person who will always be there to listen if they have nobody else and need someone to talk to. And in his book, he elabourates on why he feels this is such an important thing that he must do.

Noory's book is largely about his personal conception of light magick, which apparently has a lot to to with meditation on Love and Empathy on both a microcosmic and microcosmic scale. Noory believes we shouldn't preoccupy ourselves with the grand-scale problems of the world because there's nothing we can practically do about that sort of thing as individuals, and focusing on this will only get us depressed and frustrated with ourselves. However, if we really ruminate on True Love and Empathy and try to take that into ourselves, we can help make the world a better place just by living our lives. Noory thinks he can do his part by helping provide something like Coast to Coast AM: He's merely a worker, just like all of us, but he's been able to dedicate his work to what he feels can promote lightness and good in the world.

It's good basic life advice in general, but conveying this the way he does is a reminder of how magick gains power through words and meaning: I've thankfully never found myself in a place where I've felt something like Coast to Coast AM was the only place I could turn to anymore and would need something like its Christmas Eve show, but it is comforting to know that George Noory would be there if I ever did. His sentiment touches me, and I can feel the love behind it in his words on paper and on the air.

Maybe that's a sign his magick is working.

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