Pahrump-based radio host Art Bell dies at 72

Updated April 14, 2018 - 10:05 pm

He was awake when most of the country was asleep, cultivating a loyal following while sharing his fascination with the unexplained on his nighttime paranormal-themed show.

For the better part of two decades, longtime late-night radio personality Art Bell was his own producer, engineer and host of his show, “Coast to Coast AM.” He later launched his own satellite radio program from his Pahrump home after retiring from full-time hosting duties in 2003.

On the airwaves, Bell captivated listeners with his fascination for the unexplained, such as UFOs, alien abductions and crop circles. He died Friday at his home at the age of 72.

“As he begins his journey on the ‘other side,’ we take solace in the hope that he is now finding out all of the answers to the mysteries he pursued for so many nights with all of us,” Coast to Coast said in a statement Saturday.

Coast to Coast was syndicated nationwide on about 500 stations across the United States and Canada in the 1990s before he left in 2002. He broadcast the show from Pahrump’s KNYE 95.1 FM, a station he founded.

Lorraine Rotundo Steele, who had been listening to Bell for more than 21 years, said Saturday that she was stunned by the news of her favorite radio host’s death. The 60-year-old Canada resident started tuning in to Bell’s show after her dad died.

“Art taught me how to keep an open mind,” she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “At a very dark time in my life, he kept me sane. Art’s fascination with life after death was what I needed after losing my father.”

Bell’s show had a huge national following in part because he played to people’s imaginations, “like a Disneyland for sci-fi,” local talk show radio host Alan Stock said. He remembered Bell as a creative, unique, nice man who will undoubtedly live on as a radio icon.

“Nobody talked about Area 51, and about chupacabras and about aliens,” Stock said Saturday night. “And he talked about that on a regular basis.”

His show, popular with truckers and others awake in the wee hours of the day, offered a look into a world nobody else on the radio had touched, Stock said.

Stock recalled listening to his show early one morning in the 90s. A caller into Bell’s show said he was piloting a small plane toward Area 51 — the classified Air Force facility located about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas — to find out “what’s really going on.”

“And Art said, ‘Don’t do it, they will shoot you down,’” Stock said.

Bell and the caller went back and forth for about an hour and 20 minutes, he said, until the man reported seeing military planes flying behind him, signaling him to ground the plane. Despite Bell’s insistence on the man obeying their commands, the caller said he would keep flying.

“The next thing you know, it went dead and you heard nothing at all,” Stock said. Stock had Bell on his show about two weeks later, and he asked Bell what happened to the caller. Bell said he never heard from the man again.

Bell retired several times in his career, which included a short-lived show on SiriusXM satellite radio in 2013. He also co-authored a book, “The Coming Global Superstorm,” with Whitley Strieber.

Returning to terrestrial radio afterward was not a difficult decision, he told the Pahrump Valley Times in August 2013.

“That’s easy, because I love it,” he said at the time. “It’s my life, and that’s all I have ever done. I went through a lot of family problems, so that interrupted things, and I was overseas for four years, and that certainly interrupted things. I went back into radio because I love it.”

Pioneering broadcaster

Bell was inducted into the Nevada Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2008, the same year he sold KNYE to Karen Jackson.

Bell’s genuine interest in the topics he discussed contributed to the interest and entertainment his show generated, she said in a press release to the Review-Journal.

“Art was a pioneer in broadcasting taking overnight talk radio to new heights which generated huge audiences,” Jackson said. “He was a master at creating spell binding, intriguing, sometimes frightening and thoroughly compelling talk radio.”

“No one has been more loved by their family, friends and listening audience,” she said.

For a time, Bell also held the Guinness world record for a solo broadcast marathon, logging more than 115 hours of airtime while working as a DJ in Okinawa, Japan. The stunt raised funds to rescue over 100 Vietnamese orphans left stranded by the conflict in their country, according to Coast to Coast.

An early love for radio

Bell was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, on June 17, 1945. The only child in a military family, he moved around a lot as a kid.

He later served in the the Air Force as a medic during the Vietnam War, but his love for radio was always there. According to Coast to Coast AM, he was an FCC licensed radio technician at age 13, and while in the Air Force, he created an on-base pirate radio station that played anti-war music.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when he returned to the United States and joined KDWN-AM in Las Vegas, that talk radio captivated Bell. There, he mastered his famous blend of contemporary and unsettling.

“I want to bring topics on radio you otherwise might not hear,” Bell, then 50, told the Pahrump Valley Times in January 1996.

His cause of death has not yet been determined. Bell’s autopsy is scheduled for later this week, according to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.

Bell leaves behind his wife, Airyn, whom he married in 2006, and his children Asia, Alex and Art Bell IV. He is preceded in death by his parents, Jackson said.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Mike Shoro contributed to this report.

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