Thursday, December 21, 2006

Radio - The Grapevine of the Spooky Paradigm

Note: I've edited to add Long John Nebel, whose name escaped me last night.

Entertainment or cultural critics and observers, who have not spent much time studying the Spooky Paradigm, often have a set of usual suspects as to what types of media push interest in the paranormal, UFOs, cryptzoology, conspiracy theory, and other elements of the Paradigm. In the 1990s but even today, the X-Files came in for a woodshedding (and it's creator Chris Carter just made Paul Kimball's list of most influential people in the UFO world), even claiming a cover story in Skeptical Inquirer. Likewise, the "woo-woo" TV of the History Channel, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and other basic cable television "documentaries" are accused of constantly and predictably presenting stock footage of the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs. The movies, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Independence Day are typically blamed for inspiring UFO and alien sightings.

The internet is also often blamed, especially when it comes to conspiracy theory. As Jodi Dean noted in her book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, decentralized media like the net encourage conspiracy thinking/skepticism by undermining hegemonic authority. Several prominent ufologists, including folk sociologist Jim Moseley, believe that the internet has led to a decline in face-to-face UFO meetings and conventions and in turn organizations.

The internet isn't off the hook, per se, but regardless of whether it is broadcast through the atmosphere or across the internet, radio is the most important information backbone for the Spooky Paradigm. History would tell me that the great pioneer in this, moving flying saucers and strange tales out of pulps and the printed word and into radio would be Long John Nebel, who started this genre in the 1950s and continued it through the 1970s. The king daddy of modern para-radio is of course Coast to Coast AM. Originally hosted by Art Bell to great success and popularity, George Norry has been able to open up the audience further to include more spiritually and religious minded topics. Binnall of America is a recent and very popular and well conducted para-radio show and website. It is clearly influenced by Coast to Coast, and at times resembles a fan-club. But Binnall is able to land well known and good guests, especially in ufology.  The Paracast is similar in format, as is radiOrbit (see comments) and in both cases shows can be downloaded and archived for listening.

UPDATE 6-2012: In the nearly six years since I wrote this post, both Binnall of America and The Paracast have continued on, but I would not endorse them today as I once did. The Paracast suffered through a major personnel change that made the show far less interesting, and then moved to a radio network with terrible ads aimed at survivalists and political extremists. This was accompanied by what many have suggested is a different approach to guests with outlandish claims, not taking them to task anywhere near as much as they once were, though others have suggested the difference is not that profound. In my opinion, it does seem that more of the guests, especially ones with previous ties to one or more hosts, do seem to have more outlandish claims. These claims are questioned by the hosts, but in a far gentler manner than they might once have been. Even so, the change in style of guests combined with the awful commercials added by the show's network, is sufficiently bad to make the show unpalatable to this former listener.

Binnall of America has in a sense continued what it has been doing (from season 1, some of its guests were ridiculous, others intriguing), and there was still the occasional episode I enjoyed in recent seasons. But in the last week, I was so appalled by the mythologization and promotion by the show of a Columbine school shooting conspiracy theorist (whose primary publicity seems to come from Binnall of America) who blames the parents of the victims as well as virtually everyone in town as part of a vast Government-Satanic conspiracy, that I cannot continue to suggest it to listeners.  

Coast to Coast can only be downloaded or available via archive through paid subscriptions, while Whitley Strieber's radio show Dreamland (covering similar topics, though more on the side of mysticism and hidden history) is available on the net in a combination of free streaming and full access by paying subscriptions. Greg Bishop's Radio Misterioso is another in this vein. More controversial is Jeff Rense's radio show, largely due to the presence of Holocaust deniers and other unpopular figures and ideas on the website.

All of them share a similar format, in which a regular host interviews a series of paranormal experiencers or experts, typically one per episode. In a number of cases, as with television talk shows, a book or new documentary may be advertised. Round tables or panels occasionally occur, but are far less common than a 2-hour interview and Q&A session with call in listeners. These shows are cable nets of the Spooky Paradigm. Coast to Coast is the paranormal CNN. It and other shows can quickly spawn and maintain stories. Not so much individual sightings of spooky phenomena, but more involved stories that in a number of cases end in hoax (such as the general consensus on the Serpo Project). Once a story appears on these shows, the blogs may soon light up, and then the real viral infection begins. This blog (Spooky Paradigm) is itself in this part of the cycle. Books will become important not because of continued discussion of them as much as their appearance on Coast to Coast or Dreamland.

This is one significant difference from academia or typically journalism. Academics will write books and articles, but with very few exceptions, do not appear on call-in radio shows. Some will look for support outside of the universities and granting agency, but there is nothing comparable to the radio system. Journalism stories may get repeated and modified ad nauseum in print television or net, but other than a small number, personal fame does not became a major part of the phenomenon. Furthermore, these interviews are in many cases quite short. A junket of special-interest radio shows, with 1-3 hour interviews, would not be as expected for journalists, though it does pass some resemblance to the conferences and colloquia presented by mainstream scholars.

I can go into speculation about why this might be (friendly host, lower costs than video), but regardless: if you want to know what's hot in the Spooky Paradigm, turn on the radio.

Update 3/15/07 - Greg Bishop gives an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about

Edit: Tons more paranormal radio

Scads of channels at Planet Paranormal

Awesome Update: The Masked Downloader has made a mega-list of Paranormal and Conspiracy podcasts and mp3 downloads


mike hagan said... left out the best fringe radio on the net...radiOrbit...

take a look/listen...



ahtzib said...

Looking at the guest list, I am surprised I hadn't heard of the show before. I'm listening to the Lewis Greenberg interview now (well I will be after the initial music).

I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I also thank you for being the first to leave a comment here!

ahtzib said...

Oh, and I went and edited the post to include radiOrbit

mike hagan said...

wow...thanks for adding my show to your story...i hope you have a chance to dig a little more deeply...i think we go quite a bit beyond what most of those you mention do...

regardless...i'm honored that you included orbit and i'm glad to meet you...

take care...