ART BELL: BLAZING NEW TRAILS AT 70
Best known for his many years hosting the overnight talk show he founded,Coast To Coast, Radio Hall of Famer Art Bell is starting a new program. Now that his two-year contract with SiriusXM has expired, he is free to talk publicly again. His new three-hour nightly show is Midnight in the Desert, an online radio program that is being picked up by almost two dozen terrestrial radio stations. He’ll be doing that show from his own studios out in rural Pahrump, NV, with it premiering late Monday night. In advance of that debut, Art Bell talked with Radio Ink about the new project and his long career…
Radio Ink: You have been working in radio since the early 1970s, and retired from doing broadcasts… a few times, yet something keeps pulling you back. What attracts you to hosting daily shows?
Art Bell: “That’s an easy answer. I love, love, love radio. It’s in my blood. You know, I’ve been in radio all my life.”
RI: How did it begin for you?
AB: “I started as a ham at 12. I was doing my first commercial radio at 13. I worked for a little station in Franklin, NewJersey up on top of a mountain. It was hard to get to. A religious FM station. My job was to read the news every hour. But I had a station manager who had an obsession with people getting too close to the mic. So if thought I was too close, the guy would come in and yank the chair out from under me — right on the air.”
“From there I did 20 years of rock & roll radio, from here to everywhere, up and down the dial — 91X, a lot of big ones. Then I turned to talk. I did talk radio in Anchorage, in central California, Monterey, and I did it at KDWN in Las Vegas — that’s where the magic began. A big 50kw station.”
“My early talk was political, but I got sick of it. One day, I got a guy named John Lear (son of Learjet founder William Lear), who came on to talk about UFOs and the lines lit up like never before. In fact, we jammed up the 911 systems. I mean, it just went berserk! People who had never picked up the telephone to call a show, picked up their phone. So we started doing that kind of talk — much to the distress of the people who owned KDWN, I might add. They were really upset about, to the point where I almost got fired. Actually, I did get fired — twice. I got fired for having too large of an 800 phone bill and I got fired for going to Paris. I was offered a free trip on the supersonic jet (Concorde). I said ‘I’m going.’ My boss said ‘No you’re not. You’re going to be on the air.’ I said ‘No I’m not. This is a once in the lifetime opportunity and I’m going.’ She fired me. (*laughs*) Well, I was hired again by the time that I got back.”
RI: Do you want to discuss what went wrong with your very brief SiriusXM relationship, which had you under contract but off the air for the last two years?
AB: “I began with SiriusXM, but their streaming, oh gosh it was awful. When I signed up with them they said they had wonderful streaming, which was very important to me because I had people coming from broadcast. Then, people started having terrible trouble with the stream, getting cut off all the time. They also said the streaming would be international. NOT TRUE. It goes to Canada, but if you are in Timbuktu, or like England, you have to have an American address and an American credit card to listen. And of course, I love truckers, but that’s kind of what I ended up with was a million truckers going down the road, calling to talk me on their cell phones from the end of coverage. It was rough. Had their streaming service been good, it would have been alright. I asked them to make the streaming free until they could fix it. They said no. That did it. And that cost me two years.”
RI: Tell us about the new show…
AB: “We’re going through a sea change here. I see this new wave coming. My idea was to just do an Internet show — a live Internet show. I’ve got an iPhone. Everybody’s got one, or an Android, or tablet, or something. You can think of those as the new portable radio, because that’s what they are. We are going to be streaming the new show on TuneIn. Well, that and my website, ArtBell.com. We do have a podcast, too. People can join for $5 and for that, they download the podcast every day or old shows. They also get membership in ‘Wormhole,’ which allows them to send me a message live on the air to ask the guest a question.”
“This seems like a giant experiment gone right. #1, we are already sold out commercially. #2, we already have thousands of subscribers.”
RI: And that’s how you are monetizing the new show?
AB: “That’s it!”
“Of course, we could be surprised. By that I mean, Whitley Strieber, a friend of mine, does a podcast. He does half of it live and you have to pay to hear the other half. He only has one percent of the totality of the number of listeners that pay for the podcast. If that were to hold true for me, I’m going to have too many people listening and I don’t know if I can afford the bandwidth bill. But it’s OK. If we get a large number, that just means the advertising is worth more. So it will work out (even though it’s scaring me a little).”
RI: You are going to be broadcasting far wider than just “coast to coast” with the new Internet show, but rather worldwide.
AB: “That’s another thing I love about this is the international aspect. People will listen from all over the place, and hopefully call. ”
“Let me tell you how lucky I got. I built the studio, but of course I need a way to get the show from point A to point B. I need phones. I got lucky because a microwave Internet company came along with really good Internet. I have six ZipLines and I have two computers devoted to Skype — domestic and international. I can take calls from all over the place.”
RI: You have some very strict restrictions for radio stations that wish to carry your show. Even with these, at least 20 stations quickly signed up. That has to feel good knowing that the radio world still wants you.
AB: “Oh yes!”
“We announced it just as an Internet radio show. Well, gosh! Radio stations began to call us asking to carry it. I couldn’t think of any real reason to say no. I didn’t ever anticipate it. The latest being, by the way, KXL in Portland. And we are going to be on two big shortwave stations, too!”
“It’s a pretty interesting story. We’re doing it backwards. We came as an Internet show, and the Internet is what’s going to feed the radio stations. How weird is that? Also weird is we’ve got 21 or 22 affiliates — and we haven’t said a word on the air yet.”
“I think it will actually get even easier going east (in regards to gaining affiliates). I’m starting at midnight on the east coast. Well most stations aren’t exactly overloaded with inventory at midnight. So for them, it will really work.”
RI: Your show will have all of the familiar elements that your past shows will have. Tell me something new you have planned.
AB: “You know most stations when you are syndicated run five minutes of news at the top of the hour? I connected with an old mutual news guy, who’s really good. We’re going to run five minutes of news at the bottom of the hour, but it’s going to be a paranormal newscast. It will sound just like ABC News, but it’s going to be all paranormal.”
RI: Any special plans for the first show?
AB: “I’m going to have Crystal Gayle on the first night for a short time in the beginning. She sings a song for me called Midnight In The Desert. She came to my house and said ‘Here. This is yours. I did it for you.’ That’s how we named the show. We’ll use that theme to sign out every night. She’s quite a lady.”
It talking about his long career, and looking at his present and future career, Art Bell said: “Here I am at 70 years old, going to do it again. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“Where it’s going to go? I have no idea.”
Q: “Hey Art Bell! This is Stan from San Dimas. First time caller, long time listener. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about the time when I was driving home from work and was abducted by aliens . . . . “
A: No, I am not Art Bell, and yes, I made that up. But if you ever listened to Art Bell’s old radio show, Coast to Coast AM, you know that this would be a tame call for that one-of-a-kind show.
Like millions of other people (at one time, there were more than 500 stations carrying the show and 15 million listeners), I used to love listening to Art Bell. The mix of Art’s voice, tempo, and smarts combined with great guests, unusual topics, and interesting callers made for too many late nights.
Sadly, Art retired in 2010, Coast to Coast has never been the same, and except for a brief return on Sirius/XM two years ago, he hasn’t been on the airwaves. Nevertheless, at 70, Art Bell is coming back, only this time I am happy to report, he’s ditched his corporate gig and instead is going to do it on his terms, his way.
Starting July 20, Art returns to the airwaves on his new show, Midnight in the Desert, streaming live over the Internet using the TuneIn app and on the Dark Matter Digital Network; a network he has created with his longtime friend and webmaster Keith Rowland. Here’s how he put it to me recently:
“If there’s anything I learned it’s that I want to do this myself. I had the most fun in my life before my old show was purchased by Clear Channel. Winging it, trying new things — it was a blast. That’s what we are going to be doing with the new show. Lots of new and fun things.”
Art started out on terrestrial radio in the ’80s with a single station in Las Vegas and grew that into a large syndicate by the mid-90s with his mix of unusual topics and high entertainment. Not surprisingly, a courter came-a-calling and he eventually sold the show to the Clear Channel Network, staying on doing the show for a few more years.
But, like many of us, Art learned the hard way that corporate life was not for him. He went into semi-retirement in 2003 and fully retired in 2010. In 2013 he teamed up with Sirius/XM, but for various reasons that gig only lasted six weeks. But, as he says, “radio is not a job, it’s a way of life. You can’t really ever leave it.”
And so, knowing that he had a two-year hiatus, Art and Keith began to plan for his return again, only this time he was going to be completely in charge of the process and do the show they way he’s envisioned it for some time: live streaming and free over the Internet, with a truly worldwide reach and audience.
“This is going to be great,” he says. And it sure sounds like it. He had spent the last few months building a brand new studio with state-of-the-art equipment. “The sound quality is going to be excellent.” Keith also has new facilities that are going to make the streaming top-notch as well.
You know your new endeavor is on the right track when things start to break your way. That’s what’s happening for Art right now:
■ Music played an important part in his old show – “it sets the mood” – and he needed it to again. But the cost to stream mainstream music is not inexpensive. Suddenly, an affordable solution presented itself. Problem solved.
■ While he planned on having it available only online, to date 20 terrestrial radio stations have already signed on to carry the show. The catch? They have to agree to carry only six minutes of commercials an hour. “Why is that a requirement?” I asked. “Because I want content and more content!” he bellowed happily in that unmistakable voice.
“I’m doing this to have fun. This thing is taking off and I don’t know where it will take me, but it’s going to be a blast. I’m excited about being able to do what I want.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur.