RM Issue #030611
Shhh! It's conspiracy talk radio
Some blame the Internet, but aliens could be behind it. MICHAEL POSNER reports on why talk shows about government plots, space invasions and other things that go bump in the night are booming on radio
By MICHAEL POSNER
Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - Page R1
If you thought the plot to bring down the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was hatched in the caves of remote Afghanistan by a bearded fanatic in a turban named Osama bin Laden, think again.
It was actually made-in-America. Made by the unseen powers who are the real Owners of the System, it was the necessary pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan and the war on Iraq. Sept. 11, then, is the contemporary equivalent of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin, which Chancellor Adolf Hitler successfully blamed on the Communist party, allowing him to arrest his political opponents and consolidate power.
Or maybe you bought that National Transportation Safety Board conclusion that a tragic engine fire was responsible for bringing down TWA flight 800 in the summer of 1996 (nope, sorry, it was a missile), or NASA's emerging conviction that a single piece of loose tile somehow caused the recent Columbia space-shuttle disaster (uh, no, downed by a laser gun) or, God help you, that Lee Harvey Oswald actually shot John F. Kennedy, or that Princess Diana was killed in a simple car accident.
If you subscribe to any of these official stories, you're in urgent need of remedial counselling.
Luckily, help is at hand.
It comes in the form of late-night/early-morning conspiracy talk radio, a once marginal outpost of the programming menu that seems to be enjoying a modest boomlet.
Toronto station Mojo ("Talk Radio for Guys," AM 640), for example, runs not one, not two, but three conspiracy-related shows, including Coast to Coast, created by the legendary and now retired Art Bell and syndicated on more than 500 stations in the United States and Canada.
The others are Cloak & Dagger, produced by Nelson Thall (Thursdays, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and hosted by him under his nom de stealth, Lenny Bloom, and A View from Space, hosted by Gary (Spaceman) Bell, (Fridays and Saturdays, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.). Thall's show comes complete with an extensive Web site (cloakanddagger.ca), featuring chat rooms, forums and lists of the top conspiracy theories -- among them that JFK Jr.'s plane crash in the summer of 1999 off Cape Cod was, of course, murder most foul, and that the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah federal building was not the work of Timothy McVeigh, executed for the crime. Thall says the site is drawing a half-million hits a day.
Over at Toronto's long-established CFRB, two shows are plowing these dark and turbulent fields. One, Strange Days . . . Indeed, hosted by Errol Bruce-Knapp, is devoted entirely to exposing the vast UFO conspiracy, which posits that various forms of advanced beings have been observing and walking among us since about 1947, and that knowing western governments are complicit in the greatest coverup story in the history of civilization (apparently, UFOs never visit Botswana, Thailand and other Third World countries because these states never seem to be involved). Strange Days runs on Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight. The other CFRB entry is Richard Syrett's Nightside (Sundays, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.), which eschews aliens but dives happily into the paranormal and conspiracy.
The pertinent question, of course, is what explains the rise of conspiracy radio?
CFRB's Syrett, whose show claimed a 13-per-cent share in the most recent audience-measurement surveys (the largest in its time slot), thinks, "the Internet has a lot to do with it. People are not satisfied with the information they're getting. They're increasingly cynical of coverage of war in Iraq and the concentration of ownership of media, so they're taking time to do a little research of their own. And they feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves."
Also the producer of CFRB's daytime John Oakley Show, Syrett says he'd like to make the conspiracy/paranormal zone his life's work.
Cloak & Dagger man Thall goes further. "As technology accelerates the pace of life, the patterns are becoming more visible," he says. "And those patterns are the conspiracies of the day. It used to be easier for the people in power to hide. But people are becoming like kids at a magic show. They know it's all an illusion, a construct, and now they want to go backstage and see how the trick is performed.
"That's what our show tries to do -- uncloak the conspiracies."
Scott Armstrong, Mojo 640's program director, says the proliferation of conspiracy shows is in part the result of media overload. "As we get hit with more and more media, we become a more skeptical society. And as we become more globally sophisticated on virtually every level, our minds are increasingly open to all the possibilities that exist."
The audience for these shows is drawn from a distinct subculture, a late-night crowd that demonstrates a reflexive suspicion -- if not paranoia -- about the major events of the day (though that doesn't mean someone's not out to get them). Armstrong says they're "like the shriners, without the hats."
Do the hosts actually believe the theories their guests espouse? "I believe they deserve to be listened to," says Syrett diplomatically. "They're serious and committed and sincere. And they're just great storytellers."
Thall says he buys 99 per cent of the theories -- the other 1 per cent, he says, are exaggerations needed to shock people out of their slumber. Among those he accepts is the notion of deliberately manufactured immune-system-ravaging diseases. These were developed, he believes, because, after the 1960s, the global powers had essentially achieved nuclear equivalency and new weapons were needed to gain military advantage.
Armstrong, who says he's always been intrigued if not convinced by the magic-bullet theory in the JFK assassination, says, "it's almost irrelevant what per cent is factual.
There's an intended honesty in exposing these conspiracies that people appreciate."
Although the established media seldom deign to cover conspiracy stories, Thall says he finds it "hard to ignore the fact that the former chairman of the U.S. Army's joint chief of staffs, retired admiral Thomas H. Moorer, and several other former senior officers took out an $85,000 full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times accusing the U.S. government of a coverup of the TWA 800 tragedy."
But as in television, radio programming tends to run in cycles. A hot show like Coast to Coast spawns a flock of imitators, first fragmenting the market for audience and advertisers, then glutting demand, leading to casualties. Only the best will survive -- although that, too, is doubtless part of the conspiracy.