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Art Bell, Talk Show Host and Conspiracy Buff, Calls It Quits

Radio * The syndicated overnight-show personality, heard locally on KABC-AM, cites personal upheaval in his decision to retire.

April 03, 2000|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was no April Fool's joke when popular overnight radio host Art Bell told his "Coast to Coast AM" audience around midnight Friday: "I am going to retire, and it is going to be a permanent retirement."

He told listeners on the 460 stations around the country that carry his show, including those tuned into KABC-AM (790), that with the ongoing torment he and his family have been suffering because of personal events, leaving the program was necessary. His final broadcast will be April 26.

Kraig T. Kitchin, president and chief operating officer of Sherman Oaks-based Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates Bell's show, said this weekend he is "very close" to naming a successor and has winnowed the field to a handful of candidates. Kitchin indicated that he has a top choice, with details of logistics, money and the show's content still to be ironed out. But, he added, Bell's format of "explaining and exploring the unexplainable" will continue.

Kitchin said the decision for Bell to leave was "mutual" and that Bell, who came to Premiere 2 1/2 years ago, had nearly five years to go on a seven-year contract. Bell was unavailable for comment.

Kitchin said the list of those being considered to replace Bell includes: Mike Siegel of Seattle, who regularly fills in for other hosts; Peter Weissbach, who does afternoon drive on KOMO-AM in Seattle; Ian Punnett, an evening host on WGST-AM in Atlanta, a Presbyterian seminarian who also talks politics as a moderate; Rolle James--years ago, she was on the old KMPC here and until recently was heard in Philadelphia; Hilly Rose of San Francisco; and Philip Clarke of Northridge.

Kitchin intends to restructure the time left open by Bell's departure into three slots--the main Monday-through-Friday host, a secondary host for Saturday and another for Sunday nights. The show's time will be cut back an hour, and will be heard from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The plan is to have Bell introduce a successor during his April 13 show.

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Stations were informed of Bell's resignation on Friday. At KABC, program director Drew Hayes said he is waiting to see whom Premiere selects: "There is only one Art Bell, and we will miss him."

With a show built on conspiracy theories and phenomena such as global super-storms, Bell, who broadcasts from his home base in the Nevada desert, averages 2 million listeners per quarter-hour. But his numbers have been slipping. "The program has seen a decline of maybe 5% to 7% nationally since last year," when Bell cut back to a Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule, said Kitchin.

This is not Bell's first resignation. In October 1998, he left the show because of "a threatening, terrible event" that he said endangered his family. But he returned to the air two weeks later.

In his Friday broadcast, Bell repeated what he said in June: that in May 1997, his son, then 16, was kidnapped and raped by an HIV-positive substitute teacher, and that in December 1997, he himself was falsely accused of being a child molester. Both he and his son have been "sent into a psychological tailspin," he said. The family has filed lawsuits against the alleged rapist and the alleged slanderers.

"It would be unfair to all of you not to give you my full-time best," Bell told listeners. "I can no longer do that."

"It has become more and more apparent to us," Kitchin said, "that [Art] is just very tortured by the events in his personal life, and it prohibits him from making a full commitment to the program. We also have a business to run."

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