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.