LOS ANGELES — Summon up the term “theater-of-the-mind” and hardcore historians of the medium will instantly link it to what many consider one of radio’s authentic seminal points. In fact, roughly three months from now, that benchmark event will celebrate its 75th anniversary.
Rewind the clock to Halloween 1938, when a then-23-year-old Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater terrified America with “The War of the Worlds.”
Albeit that some classified the adaptation of an alien invasion as a tremendous hoax or fraud, it was inarguably compelling radio.
In its own way, such theater – or mystery – of the mind surfaces nightly on Premiere Radio’s four-hour (1:00am – 5:00am, Eastern Time) “Coast To Coast AM,” overseen with graceful aplomb by the tremendously eloquent George Noory.
Several show adjustments have eventuated since Noory assumed hosting responsibilities from Art Bell on January 1, 2003, although the Detroit native emphasizes the show’s primary focus is to allow people to think. “When Art did the show, this was a different planet – it was a different world,” Noory opines. “Once 9/11 hit in 2001, this planet changed. I had to start doing cutting-edge shows with our [twist] to it. I did not want to ‘do mainstream’ or what was on CNN. When the world was saying the SARS virus was going to be a pandemic, we came on the air with people who said it would not.”
Economists told Noory in 2007 that there would be a bubble burst in 2008. ”This was long before anyone else would talk about things like the mortgage crisis,” he remarks. “We have been way ahead of the curve with stories that many people said would never happen.”
Given that Noory’s background heretofore was primarily in (television) news, that is where he desired to take the show, but he stresses, “It is still fun, scary, and entertaining. I am from the ‘old school’ of broadcasting where I believe the airwaves belong to the public. It is not about me – it is about them.”
In terms of affiliate count, “Coast to Coast” is the second-largest long-form program in syndication behind Premiere Radio stable-mate Rush Limbaugh. ”We had about 440 stations when I came in and we have grown to 573,” points out Noory, who in mid-July signed a multi-year contract extension. ”The show can be about conspiracies, alternative medicine, or the bizarre paranormal. I try to do it based on what people will talk about the next morning.”
That precisely mirrors what Noory accomplished in his television news director tenure. “If our producers could not get emotionally interested in what they were doing, they were not doing it correctly,” he states. “‘Coast to Coast’ tries to inform, entertain, and help. We do that every night with a different guest, or a different format.”
Once predominantly male-driven, the program has become a virtually even male/female split. ”Many women have joined the team,” Noory declares. ”We have received phone calls from 11-year-olds and we hear from people in their 90s. This show is very strong [among 25-54s], but talk radio skews a little older – especially at night. People in older demos still have a lot of money and our advertisers are very happy. People will say that their father used to listen to Art Bell and now they listen to me. This is an all-encompassing show that blankets the entire population.”
Friday night “Coast to Coast” programming is dedicated to open lines with listeners able to interact with Noory regarding nearly anything they choose. Discussions have included “Bigfoot” sightings, or people claiming to have witnessed their dead grandmother at the foot of their bed. ”If guests become sluggish,” Noory comments, “I have to step it up to become more of the show.”
Silly to Suicidal
Several things – a few funny, others serious – define “Coast to Coast” and what the program has recently become. As an example, one caller was upset because she could not see any stars. “I told her that stars have a finite life and they had all burned out,” Noory remarks with tongue in cheek. ”She began crying and I tried to console her. I asked what the weather was like where she lived. She said it was cloudy, but she did not realize that the clouds were blocking the stars.”
Conversely and from what undoubtedly is an ample “eerily hard to explain” category was a call from a man who recounted how he wanted to commit suicide. “He said he was driving to find the spot to do it and decided it would be at a pond about one hour from his house,” Noory notes. “He sat contemplating the moment, but a farmer saw him and the two began to talk.”
By the time the conversation was over, the man felt so good that he went home, got a new job, and even began a new social relationship.
A brief amount of time passed and the man was anxious to thank the farmer who had saved his life. “He met his daughter who said he was the fifth person to thank him,” Noory recounts but the woman pointed out that, “Her father had died 15 years ago.
These two representative instances of listener input were broadcast, but Noory – who insisted on having a screener to eliminate inebriated callers or those dialing from bad cell signals – jokes, “You should hear some people who do not get on the air. We are on late at night so we get many different kinds of people calling.”
At the same time though, he is adamant that his audience is very well educated. “I do about 10 speaking engagement events a year,” points out Noory, who boasts three regional programming and production Emmy Awards. “It is important for me to see the audience first-hand. Many of them are very dedicated and really understand what is going on in this planet.”
Claiming he had an out-of-body experience when he was 11 years old, Noory became interested in media though the paranormal. “My mother brought home books on UFOs and extra-terrestrial life – I was hooked,” he comments. “At a very young age, I wanted to go into the business to unravel those kinds of stories.”
Convinced by his father though that dentistry was a more stable career, Noory did two years of Pre-Dent at the University of Detroit but states, “I was bored out of my mind. I switched my major and went back into broadcasting. It was the best decision I ever made.”
By the time he was 19, Noory was a production assistant at Detroit’s WXYZ-TV and landed his first on-air job two years later in the same market at the original 50,000-watt WCAR. “In 1996, I watched the movie ‘Talk Radio’ [which starred] Eric Bogosian and I just loved it,” he proclaims. “It was a facet of my career that I had never done.”
Notwithstanding that the former public relations executive had run some of his own production companies, he sought to re-brand himself. “I was a television news director and had hired some of the best talent in the country but I wanted to be a talk host,” states Noory, who in 1996, relocated to St. Louis, where he worked part-time at heritage talk powerhouse KMOX. “[Then KMOX general manager] Tom Langmyer called me in his office and said he hired me to be a talk show host, not to do interviews about aliens and UFOs. He said there is no future in that. To this day, Tom will admit that was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.”
Management at cross-town KTRS however did allow Noory to do talk radio as “The Night Hawk” and he replaced the overnight show, “Coast to Coast,” which the station had just dropped. No one called Noory on his first night. “I was doing a talk show with an audience that was furious with me,” he explains. “I played Peter, Paul, & Mary’s, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’’ but whenever the word ‘flowers’ came up, I yelled ‘phone calls’ over it.”
One person finally broke the ice, but only to needle Noory about what it would take to end that stunt. “I told him he had to stay on the phone with me,” he laughs. “The show evolved and the numbers were strong.”
National exposure came Noory’s way in April 2001 when he did his first “Coast” show as the emergency replacement for Art Bell, who was suffering with back problems. “Many nights I would do my local [9:00pm-Midnight 'Night Hawk'] program on KTRS, and then run down the hallway to a different studio to fill in for Art on ‘Coast to Coast.’ If I heard Art, I knew I would not be [subbing for him], but if I didn’t hear him, I would begin talking.”
Viewers of The History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” are familiar with Noory for his regular appearances. In addition, he hosts a weekly internet-based program before a studio audience for Gaiam TV, but he “loves” doing nightly radio broadcasts, which generally require as much as 11 hours of preparation. ”To me, it is the most direct medium we have,” he declares. ”I have turned down offers to put cameras in our studio. My program allows a person to let his or her mind wander and let them think about conspiracies and UFO landings. I do not want to kill that image of the program. Radio paints pictures so people can think.”
Especially considering the way Noory has carved out such a unique niche, he does not anticipate anyone else attempting to compete against him in this arena. ”One thing that has helped is personality,” he theorizes. ”I do not do confrontational radio. I do not scream or hang up on callers. I picture a youngster listening to the program and I will not offend them. I wish more broadcasters would think the same way. Half the audience is listening in bed; the other half is either in the car or at work. They do not want to hear a host ranting and screaming about the day’s issues. I try to bring a calming effect and get the most out of my guests as if we were chit-chatting at a lounge.”
Already with three books to his credit, author Noory has contracts to write three more. ”I provide my partners with outlines, guidance, direction, and concept,” the nine-year U.S. Naval Reservist points out. ”They run around the country doing the legwork, but they are not ghostwriters. The book industry is not as profitable as everybody thinks. We get a little advance and I am happy if we can sell a few thousand books.”
Unlike some on-air talents who immediately listen to an air-check of their just concluded show, Noory does not engage in that practice because he maintains, “That is not my best program. The best one is the one I have not done yet.”
Perhaps of greatest significance to the affable Noory is that his father, who passed away approximately 18 months ago, was able to witness his son’s national radio personality success. ”That was important to me,” he confirms. “When my dad was in the hospital, a nurse came up to him and asked if he was related to the George Noory on radio. That was pretty emotional and something I will cherish forever.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be telephoned at 818-985-0244 or emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com