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Nashville Scene Tune in on Terror

Promoting Paranoia on Conspiracy Radio.

By Liz Murray Garrigan

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  One crisp October night nearly 60 years ago, listeners all across America clicked on their radios. They heard a broadcast of big-band music from a ballroom in New York. In moments, though, the music was interrupted by an urgent message: A strange craft had been sighted near Princeton, N.J. On-the-spot reporters described the scene. Suddenly, a death ray from the craft began zapping helpless civilians. Their screams rang out from speaker cabinets and radio receivers all across America. At home, listeners shrieked. They gathered their belongings and panicked.

As it turned out, they were safe. The broadcast was a fake, a production of The War of the Worlds. But the show's young director, Orson Welles, understood perfectly the power of his medium. Radio reached into people's homes and cars and offered pictures made only of words. There were no photo records; there was no video footage. There was only the voice. And a voice as powerful as Welles' carried plenty of authority. It sounded so real, so true, and so convincing that it made America think the Martians had landed.

Today, you can turn on the radio and again hear that aliens have landed. You can hear that America has a puppet government, and that our enemies control the strings. Only these days, no one is kidding. On a coast-to-coast network of talk shows, AM stations, and shortwave broadcasts, America's obsession with conspiracy theories has reached fever pitch. Some of the theories are plainly wacky--President Bill Clinton holding a secret summit meeting with space aliens, Proctor & Gamble and Liz Claiborne devoting revenue to Satanic cults.

Others, however, are merely topical--unthinkable, yet plausible enough to cause a tingle of suspicion. Was the death of Vince Foster actually a suicide, or was the Clinton advisor murdered to cover up White House scandals? Was the assassination of J.F.K. ordered by the Mafia, or by a shadowy right-wing cabal who thought he was soft on Communism? And does the Air Force really have actual evidence of extraterrestrial life--evidence housed in the hangars of Area 51 in Nevada?

On conspiracy radio, the convincing, the creepy, and the crackpot are all broadcast with the same enthusiasm. The authority of the voice is as close as you get to proof. And the more you listen, the more that little voice in the back of your mind starts to wonder: What if these people are right?

By their nature, conspiracy theories rarely surface in the mainstream. Shows such as The X-Files and Millennium have successfully exploited their appeal. Oliver Stone has made a career of them. Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory is mostly an underground phenomenon, an alternate explanation for seemingly inexplicable events. Take, for example, the crash of TWA Flight 800, which killed 230 people off the coast of Long Island last year. After a lengthy investigation and hearings this week, the National Transportation Safety Board says the crash was accidental--probably the result of an exploding fuel fuselage and definitely not the result of a bomb or missile.

That story didn't sit well with former Naval commander William Donaldson. Donaldson has eloquently pointed out possible holes in the government's explanation, telling a media-watchdog panel that the fuel used by jet airliners these days doesn't even burn. Then he gave his own explanation: The crash, which happened just a few months before the presidential election, was likely a foreign terrorist act, covered up so that the tragedy would not harm President Clinton's chances of reelection. Donaldson's views were even carried on C-SPAN, an exposure that seemed to grant them additional authority.

As is the case with other conspiracy theories, Donaldson's explanation may not ever be proved or disproved. Most of us will probably never know with an absolute certainty whether those 230 people died because of a fuel tank explosion, an act of terrorism, or some other reason. Nor are we ever likely to know whether federal government officials have answers they are unwilling to disclose. Perhaps the virtual impossibility of proving--or disproving--such ideas is what makes them so mysterious, and therefore so intriguing.

There's no mystery, however, to the burgeoning interest in a collective conspiratorial mentality that, in many cases, pits the U.S. government against its own citizens. Donaldson's TWA Flight 800 theory is just one example. There are plenty more, including radically variant notions about the ATF's assault on the Branch Davidians, the FBI incident at Ruby Ridge, and the Oklahoma City bombing. In the most extreme of these theories, the government acts as the pawn of a larger, more sinister and secretive organization: the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Vatican, even the Masons. In the more plausible theories, the government itself is the enemy.

These countercultural theories don't often seep into the mainstream media. But when they do, they are usually dismissed, if not ridiculed outright. Last year, when the San Jose Mercury News suggested in a series of stories that the CIA had been involved in the flow of cocaine into the U.S., the Washington Post and other papers of record spent more time discrediting the story than investigating its claims. It is worth noting, too, that the Mercury News has distanced itself from the story.

That makes conspiracy radio the perfect forum for spreading underground information--or selling paranoia. It doesn't go through gatekeepers. It doesn't get the rigorous scrutiny or the reality checks of corporate-owned news services. Much of it comes from the Internet, which provides fodder for callers and a venue for conpiracy fanatics who can, anonymously, post undocumented--even dreamed-up--stories. It operates beneath the radar of mass media, and yet it reaches millions of listeners. Those interested in knowing alternative theories about the federal government, pop culture, or world tragedies can get their fill more easily on the talking box--and with more frequency.

Art Bell is one of the pointmen of conspiracy radio. Now that WABC in New York has begun airing his weekly late-night program Coast to Coast AM and his Sunday-evening show Dreamland, Bell is carried on about 400 stations in the U.S. Conservatively, the talk show host claims 12 million listeners across the country. According to some estimates, the number may be closer to 20 million. Bell estimates that about 40 percent of what he airs on his shows deals with conspiracy, the paranormal, or otherwise outr ideas about government and the world. "There was a day in America where you believed everything the FBI and the CIA and all our government agencies said," Bell said in a telephone interview from his home in Pahrump, Nev., where he broadcasts. "That day is no more."

Bell says that recent events, including the ATF standoff in Waco, have eroded his listeners' trust in the government. "It's kind of like when somebody lies to you, your attitude changes. Occasionally, in other words, like [the movie Conspiracy Theory], something is real."

The federal government has promoted an atmosphere in which people have become cynical, says Bell, who is also a published author. His most recent book, The Quickening, offers predictions about how today's society is laying the groundwork for a different world in the future. "It's why this whole thing on the Democrats' campaign fund-raising activities is going nowhere, because everybody's concluded that everybody does it. And they're right."

Earlier this week, for example, on Bell's Sunday-night show Dreamland, he interviewed a freelance journalist who has written a book about law-enforcement officials who say they have had unexplained experiences.

"I had been in a point in my career when I was getting a little bored with my day-to-day reporting," author Sue Kovach told Bell, as she described her book, Hidden Files: Law Enforcement's True Case Studies of the Unexplained and Paranormal. Then Kovach started hearing stories like the one about two Kentucky helicopter patrolmen who were called to a crime scene several years ago, only to be chased by a bright, orange light that looked as if it were encased in a plastic covering. The light tailed the chopper for a while before zipping out of sight. But, according to the story, all the control tower's radar spotted during the incident was the manic movement of the chopper trying to get away from the strange sight. Kentucky law-enforcement officials later filed a report detailing their account.

"Interesting," Bell told Kovach. "You know, there are things going on out there for which there are no conventional explanations." He added that he and his wife had once seen a "floating" black object traveling overhead. They were in their car at the time, so they stopped, got out, and watched it traveling at an estimated speed of 30 mph.

Bell, who has been broadcasting Coast to Coast AM for about 10 years, has become a voice of authority--a leader, in fact--for a growing community of conspiracy theorists. But he says there is a limit to what he'll believe. Still, by virtue of his unusual practice of not screening callers, Bell gets an earful from all kinds.

He's one of only a few--or perhaps the only--radio talk show host "who doesn't have somebody protecting him from his listeners," says Angela Hague, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University and a co-editor of Deny All Knowledge: Reading The X-Files, a book about the successful television series.

"The result is, anyone can get to him at any time and say anything," Hague explains. "And he's got this stable of people he interviews, so that, if you listen to the show every night, or at least frequently, you get to know all these personalities."

One recent guest on Bell's show was Stan Deyo, who, with his wife Holly, has been trying to educate people on preparing for disaster. "Number 1, you have to have ways to get fresh water," Deyo recently told Bell's listeners. "Let me tell you, you have to be mobile. If gasoline or petrol fails, you've got to have walking boots, because you're going to have to get out and hoof it after awhile, because bikes and other things have flat tires. So, in the end, you've got to get fit. Take walks every day."

For someone not used to listening to strange conversations, tuning in to the show can be an alienating experience. But Hague, who recently wrote a paper about Bell, says listeners can "hear everything on that show from very respected theoretical physicists to people who are really stark, raving mad." Bell's broadcasts provide the "widest spectrum of countercultural information--and madness at the same time," she says.

Bell answers affirmatively when asked if the madness often surfaces when people lose something in their lives--when they go bankrupt or when they get divorced, for example. "There are a lot of people who, once their faith is broken, tend to go off the deep end," he says. "Americans do that with everything. We go too far. There are a lot of people getting wrapped up in things, and they go from believing everything to believing nothing in one quick second. But it's kind of a shame to have your innocence destroyed the way it has been in this country."

Bell characterizes himself as "not over the edge" and detached in some ways from the callers and listeners who adore him and his programs, which air locally on WWTN-FM (99.7). "Even though I get pigeonholed in terms of reputation as 'Mr. UFO' or whatever, probably 60 percent of what I do has nothing to do with that."

But Bell speaks with some authority when it comes to subjects such as an oppressive federal government. He says he even paid his wife Ramona's late ex-husband's taxes because the IRS was breathing down her neck.

Bell says IRS officials are "arrogant bastards" who will go to virtually any means to harass taxpayers. "If you've had the IRS come after you, they are the most arrogant, unreasonable people in the world," he says. "They will tell you right on the phone, 'We only answer to the Supreme Court, so if you want to fight it go ahead. You don't like our judgment, fight it, but you don't have a chance.' They'll tell you that to your face.

"That's not the spirit of America that I thought I knew."

When it comes to Christian programming, television's evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network, which owns a tourist complex in Hendersonville, seems to get all the attention. Despite some local and national press coverage, however, few people in this Bible Belt town know that Nashville is also the international headquarters for a controversial radio broadcasting network called Worldwide Christian Radio (WWCR). Distributing approximately 400 programs internationally--most of them by short-wave but some on AM radio--WWCR offers mostly religious subject matter to its European, Middle Eastern, African, and North American markets. But about 10 percent of the programs WWCR transmits, both domestically and overseas, attract an audience that could be characterized as "patriots." These shows cater to many people who fall into the category of conspiracy buffs.

Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, WWCR talk show host Mark Koernke, broadcasting as "Mark of Michigan," warned his listeners that the U.S. government may have been responsible for the worst act of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil. Responding to a flood of criticism, particularly from listeners whom station general manager George McClintock describes as "mothers with small children," WWCR took Koernke off the air, although his radio colleagues also peddled the idea that the federal government might have murdered its own citizens. The "government has the expertise and power to pull off such a precision bombing," another WWCR talk show host was reported to have said.

Finally, a South Carolina preacher being broadcast on the station said the bombing may have been an act of God against non-believers. Such theorizing, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, made WWCR the target for criticism from many national media outlets.

George McClintock, who founded the station eight years ago, says that while his station's listeners include conservative militants and conspiracy buffs, he doesn't necessarily condone what they say. More important, he says, is the fact that his station has a right to make money, while talk show hosts have a right to say whatever they believe, assuming they don't threaten people or expressly encourage illegal activity.

"There are a few people who have stepped over the line," says McClintock, a former television news photographer whose station broadcasts from a hard-to-find studio off Ashland City Highway.

However objectionable the message of some hosts might be, McClintock says, "We cannot crimp the style of these people who have conspiracies or anybody else who is of another persuasion who believes there aren't any conspiracies." In fact, after surviving the storm of controversy that followed Koernke's comments about Oklahoma City, WWCR has allowed the controversial host to go back on the air.

McClintock, who says he "takes a little from the left and a little from the right," claims that he's stopped judging conspiracy theorists because he's seen at least a few of their theories proven as fact. "I've kind of shut up on challenging conspiracy people because a lot of it actually takes place," he says. "I mean, it's proven every day."

McClintock points out that his network is a distributor, not a programmer, and that many of the hosts of conspiracy-oriented shows are ex-military personnel who seem to know so many details that they couldn't be making their stories up. "The general public puts these individuals who are talking about conspiracies in a kook category," McClintock says. "Some of these guys are definitely not kooks."

What's more, WWCR itself can't be easily characterized as a network of fanatics. McClintock points out that he broadcasts the weekly radio addresses of President Bill Clinton, who otherwise is a popular target for the network. "The baby killers are airing the president of the United States," McClintock says with a smile.

Those who subscribe to alternative views praise WWCR, in the same way they praise Art Bell, for offering a message they can't get elsewhere. "They have been called many names by liberals," says Dean Stonier, a Colorado resident who, in 1980, founded a group called Global Sciences. Now his organization holds two conferences every year focusing on wide-ranging conspiratorial topics.

"[WWCR] have been called right-wing extremists, I guess you could say, because they make no apologies for what they do or what they broadcast," Stonier says. "Liberals try to say they present balanced broadcasts. We do not. We present our point of view," he says. "There's a lot of extremely good stuff that comes over [WWCR]. And they bring up people that you're not likely to know."

Stonier, who says he founded Global Sciences to explore alternative health treatments, says he believes the federal government knows about treatments, or even cures, for cancer that it systematically refuses to reveal. "The health field is involved with conspiratorial areas, where people are not allowed to treat certain degenerative conditions," he charges. As his organization grew, however, it began to attract people interested in other topics.

"Of course, the idea is to try to expose the truth and what really has happened in many, many areas--the areas of all the unexplained deaths that surround the Clinton administration and so forth. There are so many areas that it's just incredible what is being controlled by the controlled press," Stonier says.

At its "Congress" last August, Global Sciences presented speeches on topics ranging from "The Healing Power of Humor" to "Ritual Abuse as the Basis for Mind Control" to "The Hollow Earth: Fact or Fiction."

Groups such as Stonier's tend to create cottage industries with their conferences and newsletters. Close to home, Janice Russell, of Madison, Tenn., transcribes and sells speeches from Global Sciences' various meetings.

In an odd turn of events, some people who once figured prominently in the conspiracy theories of others are now helping to bring the conspiracy message to the masses. A decade ago, Oliver North was an Army colonel accused in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. The affair sounded as crazy and convoluted as anything on Art Bell's shows or on WWCR. After an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate, North became a talk-radio host. Twenty-five years ago, G. Gordon Liddy was convicted because of his role in the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex. His actions, and those of others, led to the collapse of the Nixon administration, the exposure of vast abuses of power, and the only resignation in history of a U.S. president. The Watergate scandal was at least one occasion in which the conspiracy theorists turned out to be correct. Liddy, too, has found his niche. On his nationally syndicated radio show (which airs on WWTN-FM), he has advocated the shooting of federal agents and using the Clintons for target practice.

As the Washington Post pointed out last year, Liddy's controversial style didn't prevent him from receiving a Freedom of Speech award from the Boston-based National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts a few years ago. Just as other media have their divided hierarchies--network TV and public access, Hollywood and indie films, dailies and alternative newsweeklies--conspiracy radio has its caste system. Mainstream personalities such as Liddy and North function on one tier, while the faceless faithful exist on a far less exalted level. All across America, the small-time doomsayers continue to spread their theories, some of them broadcast by the WWCRs of the world, others from basements, if necessary, using ham-radio sets and the weakest of backwater AM signals. Many of them may be loonies, or demagogues, others may simply be lonely people linking themselves to vast international conspiracies--and thereby to the outside world.

Then again, there may be that one in a million who has the guts--and the knowledge--to expose our darkest secrets. Reed Irvine, chairman of the media watchdog group Accuracy in Media, says that "secrecy is the enemy of the truth." He could be echoing the twin mottos of Fox Mulder on The X-Files, the mantras of conspiracy theorists everywhere: "Trust no one" and "The truth is out there." Maybe all those people were right to panic when they heard The War of the Worlds. Maybe the aliens really have landed, and they're set to launch their biggest invasion yet. If that's true, on conspiracy radio you'll hear about it first.

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