by Danny Stout
UFO’s, ghosts, ghost-hunters, Big Foot, Area 51, crop circles, and cryptzoology are some of the topics on the radio show, “Coast to Coast AM.” Airing between 1am and 5am, it’s the most popular early morning program with 2.5 million weekly listeners. Over 600 stations carry the show. The format combines live callers and expert interviews. In an age when science and religion are the dominant modes of truth, “Coast to Coast” proves that belief in the paranormal occupies the culture in a big way.
The UFO phenomenon, or ufology, dominates the show. The listener immediately senses “believer” apologetics. A guest claims to verify your alien abduction through DNA testing. Others speak of handwriting on Martian mountains; an author speaks of civilizations in the center of the earth. The host, George Noory, praises guests and callers no matter how bizarre. Pseudo-scientific experts synthesize empiricicism, mysticism, religion, and the paranormal. “Scientific,” “data,” and “confirmed” are freely used terms. It’s hybrid entertainment at its best; a virtual stew of postmodern philosophies where nothing’s ruled out. Veracity of UFO’s is a central belief, and everyone has a sighting story. “Incredible!” Noory exclaims, and assures, “I believe you.”
Clairvoyants have given way to pseudoscientists quoting studies outside the paradigms of the mainstream scientific community, making it difficult to discern valid studies from heresay and conjecture. Pseudoscience empowers believers, and gives fence-sitters confidence to participate in the UFO dialogue. Given the expanding popularity of ufology, it’s time to ask where the LDS community fits into this expanding genre of popular culture.
Mormon cosmology suggests the probability of other worlds. In Moses 1:33, 35, we read:
“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten. But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.”
More recently, Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s book, Not My Will, But Thine states, “Of these worlds we learn further that ‘the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God’ (D&C 76:24).
But, mentioning UFO’s in Priesthood Meeting or Relief Society will turn heads. Mormon discourse hasn’t emphasized other worlds for decades. In the Cold War Era, however, Mormons like other Americans, speculated about such objects in the sky. Russians and Americans were launching rockets and testing nuclear weapons. Landing men on the moon prompted speculation about life elsewhere. The UFO cottage industry included magazines, comic books, movies, and TV shows such as Lost in Space and My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby. Star Trek would soon follow.
Today, the subject is low on the Lord’s agenda, particularly in terms of General Conference instruction. Coast to Coast AM is an unlikely source for Sunday School lesson preparation. Value lies in awareness that so many of our neighbors embrace the paranormal. The second reason for listening is entertainment; many shows are over-the-top, attracting audiences for advertising revenue. With all due respect for believers, CTC is so much theater, and what a wonderful show it is.
While some of Noory’s guests are credible, so much is hilariously over-the-top. Noory’s predecessor, Art Bell, was a notorious radio entertainer with guests such as the “Three Headed Man,” Elvira, Bobo, and Walter, the latter died of an aneurism before the show, his atrophied head covered by a hoodie sweatshirt. Bell claimed a guest was spinning his coffee cup by telekinesis on the air.
Frequent UFO sightings around the world.
The circus-like program nevertheless claims a respectable position in popular culture. How can one ignore an audience of 2.5 million people? Offhandedly dismissing it impedes a chance to apply the discipline of cultural studies, particularly the significance of story and the symbolism of myth. In the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction tale, the space visitors are disappointed with eathlings’ low-level intelligence and morality. Thus they take off for another planet. As an open text, the story may have a point. Perhaps the human race hasn’t lived up to its potential. Then there’s the show on mushrooms contaminated by radioactivity near Chernobyl. Millions of contaminated agaricus bisporus are spreading throughout the world, but are they dangerous? No, for some reason they’re illuminating global warming. Ludicrous at one level, but symbolic of the belief that the world heals itself.
Don’t quote Coast to Coast in Church, but treat yourself to one of the most engrossing programs radio has to offer. Then put on your anthropologist hat: these stories tell us more about culture than the National Geographic Channel.