Whatever critics might say about George Noory, he earns credit for keeping an open mind. In fact, Noory's unmatched success on overnight talk radio may be due to his willingness to think the unthinkable -- such as when NASA gadfly Richard C. Hoagland rails about a government cover-up of ancient structures on the moon, or when a listener calls to report being attacked in bed by a dark, malevolent spirit.
"It sounds kind of farfetched," Noory conceded of the latter, "yet I can't tell you how many people have had this syndrome . . . the 'Old Hag Syndrome.' Apparently, there's this little old lady who comes into your room at night, sits on your chest and tries to suffocate you. You can Google her -- she'll pop up. She's out there."
Author Joseph Niezgoda is out there too. He is a classic example of the sort of provocative fringe intellectual who forms the essence of Noory's show, "Coast to Coast AM," which airs at 10 nightly on KFI-AM (640) in Los Angeles. As an interview guest recently, Niezgoda expounded on his book about the Beatles, having concluded that there was no way talent and songwriting alone could account for the group's extraordinary rise to fame. Rather, drawing from album-cover images, interview transcripts and historical events -- including the murder of John Lennon at age 40 -- Niezgoda pieced together an intricate theory in which Lennon had entered a pact with the devil.
Yes, a pact with the devil.
"You hear these stories," Noory said, citing still another tale of mind-boggling weirdness, "and they're chilling." People wait on hold for up to an hour and a half, he said, to relate their own tales of ghosts, premonitions, alien abductions, government conspiracies, yeti encounters, out-of-body experiences and other inscrutable mysteries during the open-phone-lines segment of the program.
Noory's role? "I let them talk," he said in a private interview. "I have become their brother, their confidant, maybe their therapist, by listening to them telling me about these incredible things. I mean, nothing can be more touching than a guy who calls and says, 'My mother died last week, but I woke up and she was standing at the corner of my bed.' "
The lure of "Coast to Coast AM," syndicated through the Premiere Radio Networks, is that it remains virtually the only forum in the mainstream media to hear about and discuss such topics. Founded in the early 1990s by radio legend Art Bell, who hosted the program from tiny Pahrump, Nev., "Coast to Coast" grew rapidly into a national clearinghouse for the strange and unusual. After Bell entered semi-retirement, Noory took over the role of primary weeknight host seven years ago. (Ian Punnett, Bell and George Knapp handle the show on most Saturday and Sunday nights.)
Noory, a one-time television newsman who began doing talk radio as "The Nighthawk" in St. Louis, moved in 2003 to Los Angeles, the network's hub, to carry on Bell's work. At 59, he brings an avuncular warmth and an occasional wit to the program, once telling a caller that she was unable to see the stars in her cloud-covered town because they had all burned out. Noory's reach is impressive: He's heard -- on 528 stations across the United States and Canada, plus Sirius XM satellite radio -- by an estimated 3 million listeners a week.
With a huge share of the overnight market nationwide, including Los Angeles, he is the soothing bedside voice who talks America through the night, although generally there is a boogeyman lurking under the box springs. If it isn't some demon likely to emerge through a Ouija Board, it is something else equally scary -- the possibility of a gamma-ray burst in space blowing away the Earth's ozone layer, or a super-volcano beneath Yellowstone destroying the continent.
"As far as the edge of science and reality is concerned, George is the center of the world right now," said author Whitley Strieber, a regular guest whose No. 1 bestseller, "Communion: A True Story," was supposedly drawn from firsthand experience, as an alien abductee. Strieber claims that a device was implanted in his ear in 1989 by invaders who entered his home dressed in black. He bristles at the cynics and likens Noory's show to a room with a warm fire where people with "rejected knowledge" can chitchat in comfort.
"It's not that he's credulous or easily led," Strieber said. "He's willing to take these [intellectual] journeys. He'll have guests on that you think are completely off the wall -- nothing they're saying is real -- but by the end of the program you will have made a discovery that there is a kernel of a question worth exploring."
Scholars attribute the show's popularity to the same human curiosity that has made ghost and UFO programs a staple of the History Channel and other television networks.
"Weird stuff happens," said Lou Manza, who teaches a course in paranormal phenomena and junk science at Lebanon Valley College in central Pennsylvania. Huge numbers of people have had some experience they cannot explain, Manza says. It might be a trick of the mind or it might not, but whatever the case, they find a sense of community listening to a program that reinforces their beliefs.
Some take comfort in thinking their relatives live on after death. Some like thinking that humans are not alone in the black cosmos. Conspiracy theories offer a more mundane satisfaction, a chance to try to figure out a complex and often menacing world.
Based partly on feedback from 1,500 e-mails a day, Noory has begun giving more air time to conspiracies, which run the gamut from age-old speculations about who killed John F. Kennedy to Hoagland's claims that NASA is hiding evidence of past civilizations on the moon and Mars. A contrary theory is that man never went to the moon at all, because radiation beyond the atmosphere would have fried anyone in a thin space capsule.
Manza, the university scholar, remembers his first time hearing the moon-landing naysayers. "I walked away thinking, 'Hmmm, maybe we didn't go to the moon,' " he says. But, of course, conspiracy theorists build only one side of an argument, making use of facts, alleged facts and often a wealth of purported research, including highly detailed "case studies." The effect is often, if not reality, at least a powerful semblance of it, enough to grab and hold listeners.
One of Noory's recent guests, Melinda Leslie, offered a twist on alien abduction stories, insisting that the U.S. military had begun re-abducting those abductees and using them to "interface" with aliens -- mainly alien grays but also reptilians. Hundreds of victims had been taken, she said. Having already communicated with the extra-terrestrials, the abductees require no special training.
"Rather than recruit somebody from covert-ops," Leslie said, the military "can pick up some abductee and plug them right in there."
Noory typically begins the four-hour program with news items involving politics, crime and an occasional oddity -- such as the hospital cat who could forecast death: It would curl up with whatever patient was just about to die. Then come interviews, followed by a chance for listeners to call in and question the guests. During periods of open phone lines, listeners can call and tell their own stories. After the show ends locally, KFI replays it from 2 to 6 a.m.
His nearest national competitors in the overnight talk-show market include "The Jim Bohannon Show," a mix of news, politics and entertainment features syndicated on more than 350 stations, including KNWQ-AM (1140) in Palm Springs; Doug Stephan's "Good Day USA" program, a lively political commentary show that is heard on more than 200 stations, among them KPSI-AM (920) in Palm Springs; and "The Phil Hendrie Show," a comedy talk-show that airs on 100 affiliates and fills the 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. time slot on KTLK-AM (1150) in Los Angeles. Noory also goes up against local overnight political talk on KABC-AM (790) and KRLA-AM (870) radio in Los Angeles, as well as an overnight money-and-economy talk show on KFWB-AM (980) in L.A.
None of those, of course, deals with the supernatural.
Plenty of critics dismiss everything about the program as hooey, but Noory voices a quiet confidence in "Coast to Coast's" singular mission.
"We're a seeker of answers to mysteries on this planet and the universe," he said. "We may not find the answers. We may not find Bigfoot. We may not find a chupacabra. We may not find out who was responsible for killing JFK, but we're going to keep looking, asking, probing. And one day -- you know what? -- we may get some of those answers."