Lonely Road

On the late night radio show Coast to Coast AM, a community of loners support each other in the alternative convictions that isolate them

I am listening to Coast to Coast AM tonight the way I usually do: on a long, lonely late-night drive home. I’m tired and alone, and the radio is on to keep me awake. The monolithic openness of the highway is perforated sparsely by taillights and winking brake lights. We all keep a respectful distance at this hour. I don’t know who is drunk or sleepy, only that anybody could be. The whispered drone of my tires against the asphalt and the parallax 79-mph whooshing of trees and billboards feel almost transgressive when everything else is so quiet and so still, but the effect is somewhere between hypnotic and soporific.

Host George Noory’s sonorous voice is an anchor for my exhausted, free-floating mind. Callers phone in to discuss conspiracy theories, paranormal activity, and other alternative epistemologies with Noory and his guests, who are usually experts in these fields. Though Coast to Coast is available on satellite radio, and a handful of the 600-plus terrestrial stations that air it are on the FM band, the quality of AM fidelity seems integral to its character. Even on a clear night, an AM broadcast is still prone to interference (much more so than FM, let alone satellite or internet-hosted content). Electromagnetic waves are all around us, and each pop and sizzle is the sound of the show’s signal crossing paths with the sinusoid discharge of nearby microwaves, CFL bulbs, cell phones, wi-fi routers and other electronics. The crackling sonic patina is a reminder that you’re not alone out here — between you and the transmitter, someone, somewhere, is doing something.

It’s Christmas night. Many shows might re-air an old episode so its staff can celebrate with their families. Coast to Coast is live, though, following through on a commitment Noory made when he took over hosting duties in 2003 to never settle for reruns on holidays. Nobody has to be alone tonight.

The crackling sonic patina is a reminder that you’re not alone out here — between you and the transmitter, someone, somewhere, is doing something

Noory’s guest for the second half of the show is Karen Anderson, an animal communicator and psychic medium. As a child, she was closer with animals than with people, discovering that she could communicate with animals directly, having “silly little conversations” with pets. Anderson put this skill to use as a deputy sheriff in Colorado, using eyewitness testimony delivered telepathically from cats, dogs, and horses to solve crimes, and she continues to commune with animals to break cold cases today.

Julie, a long-time first-time from Wisconsin, calls in to talk about how she can still feel the presence of her beloved Bichon, Riley, long after he passed. Another caller — Gary from California — shares a story about a service dog he trained who died and was reincarnated; Anderson confirms the existence of “shared souls.” Another caller tells a shaggy dog story about a Lhasa Apso named Sasquatch who had been hit by a car and later died of cancer. Anderson sympathizes. “Oftentimes, George,” she tells Noory, “it was that pet that got them through some of the toughest times, when all of the other humans in their lives had let them down.”

Syndicated across the country, Coast to Coast has been the most popular overnight AM radio show practically since its debut three decades ago, with ratings in line with daytime goliaths like Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and some of NPR’s most popular programs. It remains a powerhouse in that world, but that world has gotten smaller: Its 2.75 million nightly listeners are the best in its time slot, but they’re a steep drop from the 10 million who tuned in during the show’s 1990s peak.

Even beyond its AM format, the show has been slow to keep up with trends in media technology. Despite airing four-hour shows every night, it offers only a paltry 10-minute “best of” podcast, which started only last year. It has a respectable social media following but uses the platforms modestly, generally steering clear of the modern distribution and engagement tools employed by other successful programs. The email address it lists for prospective guests to contact has an aol.com domain.

This anachronistic ambience can make the show sound like a dispatch from a once-booming industrial town that has fallen on hard times — albeit a town overrun with alien abductions and clandestine military operations. The callers who make it onto the broadcast tend to be older. The scant biographical details they volunteer suggest they have plenty of time to themselves. Lots of truckers and graveyard shifters, calling from towns I’ve never heard of. Spouses are rarely mentioned except to note they’ve died.

Coast to Coast often airs on conservative talk-radio stations: 1210 WPHT, the Philadelphia affiliate I listen in on, also carries commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity during the day, and Noory himself identifies as a libertarian. Highly engaged conservatives have been shown to be more prone to believing in conspiracy theories, according to a 2015 study by political scientists Joanne Miller, Kyle Saunders, and Christina Farhart, so this seems like a natural enough fit. The researchers stopped short of drawing hard conclusions about why this is, but it speculate that it stems from conservative distrust of government institutions and a media ecosystem incentivized to stoke the fears that distrust engenders and foment suspicion of “lamestream” non-conservative outlets.

The Facebook “fake news” bonanza during 2016 presidential campaign is illustrative. Stanford researchers found that pro-Trump stories were shared on Facebook at roughly quadruple the rate that pro-Clinton stories were shared. NPR tracked down a major purveyor of these falsehoods, who said his writers had tried to write “fake news for liberals,” but it was not nearly as effective. “It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they’re about to get served.”

On Coast to Coast, though, Noory usually steers clear of at least the most straightforwardly political content (as opposed to, say, his colleague Alex Jones, whose InfoWars is basically Breitbart with a chemtrails vertical). This allows Coast to Coast to feel more broadly inclusive. On conservative talk radio shows, ressentiment generally holds together the animating epistemology hosts and callers share — what is accepted as “true” is whatever seems likely to demonize or antagonize liberals (or any supposed Other). The villains are understood, and any accusation directed toward them may be aired without fear of contradiction. For listeners, this sustains a sense of belonging: If you share the same enemies, you can share the same set of “truths” among people who “get it.”

But on Coast to Coast, the foil is not immigrants or feminists or any concrete adversary at all, but something broader and more abstract. The show offers what conservative talk radio shows offer, in part — unqualified belief in an alternative to the elite opinion-makers and their so-called “facts” — but it modulates reactionary animus into something with looser, and possibly larger, stakes. On Coast to Coast, the wildest accusations aren’t received as confrontational rallying cries but as muted pleas for understanding.

On Coast to Coast AM, confirmation is less a bias than a house rule. If you share the same enemies, you can share the same set of “truths” among people who “get it”

In 2010, Coast to Coast producer Tom Danheiser offered this explanation of Noory’s appeal: listeners trust him. “And there’s not a lot of people on the air that you can really tune in to and not think you’re being fed a line of whatever,” he told the Atlantic. “These guys out there, these other dudes, they’re on there yelling and screaming, and they’re cutting off callers. And the listeners have a sense of trust with George, they know they can speak what’s on their minds and he’s not going to berate them or make them feel little — like a little person.”

But Noory’s gift may be less about listeners trusting him than about how much he trusts them. While he questions his guests and callers, it is always with the tacit sympathy of agreement. There are no rebuttals or debates, no implied critiques. Instead, he eggs on his interlocutors with whys and yes, ands. On Coast to Coast AM, confirmation is less a bias than a house rule.

Early in his segment with Karen Anderson, Noory takes a call from Dove in Toronto. She has been trying for over an hour to get through, and she interprets her success as “a sign from my little doggy,” a deaf five-pound rescue she had been able to communicate with mentally. A few years ago, after the dog died, Dove tried out an online dating site but found no companionship there, only people “harassing the heck out of me, targeting me. I became infamous, but I didn’t know how to stop it because I didn’t know much about technology, and I still don’t.” The dog came to her in a dream, bolting ahead of a “marauding band of minstrel gypsy ghosts.” They resembled beings Dove had seen in Casper the Friendly Ghost but dressed like Shriners, and they were beating drums and blowing horns and making a menacing racket. “She was warning me that people were coming for me,” Dove says.

“That’s a cool story,” Noory says. She then wishes him a Merry Christmas, and he reciprocates, saying he hopes she has a great one.

Dove replies cryptically, “Well, maybe. Very solitude.” Then, after wishing Anderson a Merry Christmas also, she adds, “George, you’re the only person I ever go to bed with these days.”

Loneliness is, by virtually any metric, very bad for you. Even the most introverted among us have a lot at stake if we don’t get the social connection we desire. Jane E. Brody compiled many of the negative effects of social isolation in this New York Times piece: Feeling lonely can increase stress hormones and inflammation, increasing the risk of “heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts.” It can disrupt everything from sleep patterns and immune systems to a person’s ability to perform basic daily tasks, like bathing or making dinner.

But the dangers obviously go beyond physical ailments. Social isolation has emotional and cognitive effects, including the susceptibility to paranoia and a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena and conspiracies. A recent study found that “when people feel socially excluded they are more likely to endorse superstitious beliefs” and proposed that “social inclusion could be used to diminish the dissemination of superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories.” These findings suggest being ostracized may lead to a more generalized suspicion of the broadly shared beliefs that allow society to function, producing further alienation.

A dark fact of personal isolation is that not only is there an absense of affirming companionship but there’s also no one to tell you that you’re wrong. If you stick a fork in an electrical socket or press your hand to a hot stove, you’ll learn quickly that those are harmful ideas. Depending on your circumstances, though, you may get no such lesson from believing the federal government is operating a secret Martian colony or that the knockout game is a popular teen after-school activity. In some social contexts, you’ll be disabused of those beliefs, maybe even excluded. But the threat of social exclusion is only as powerful as the extent to which you are not already alone.

In fact, the belief in such conspiracies may be compensatory. Some recent research, described by Katie Heaney in this piece for the Cut, suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories because they reinforce their sense of personal uniqueness and privileged insight into the world. Paranoia does not resolve loneliness or alienation, but when it is construed as a sign of one’s special insight, it at least offers a palatable explanation for it.

Social media platforms, at least in how they market themselves, would seem to militate or correct against this sort of isolation. Platforms tantalize with the promise of unlimited connectivity. Yet a series of studies have suggested that the more one uses these platforms, the lonelier one tends to feel. (To be clear, social media does not seem to make people less social in any tangible sense, but in this context, feelings of isolation may be more important than any objective social shortcomings.) When one consumes social media, it may appear to be full of connectivity and engagements, posts and comments and interaction. Invisible are the lonely, the quiet, the lurking. Lurkers may mainly see the activity of networks that don’t really include them, and a future unfolding without their input.

So even as social media present an obvious cure to feelings of isolation, their structure also serves to reinforce a unilateral, on-demand approach to sociality. One enters such a space at their convenience, and they can ignore or disengage from any interaction they find uncomfortable or challenging. Social media can provide an apparent community of like-minded people that can rationalize one’s prejudices without posing any demands that one defend, justify, clarify, or own up to the implications of their beliefs. Many social media by design filter the unfiltered thoughts of peers into a chorus of likes, agreement, and uniformity. But this may militate against a more intensive kind of attention and concern that could engage with the alternative belief systems that alienate others.

Paranoia does not resolve loneliness or alienation, but when it is construed as a sign of one’s special insight, it at least offers a palatable explanation for it

Similarly, Coast to Coast offers a sense of community without the explicit imposition of conformity. Regardless of topic, the calls into Coast to Coast tend to be more chatty than interrogative, coalescing into a kind of congenial conversation. For the January 11 episode, Noory welcomed George Haas and William Saunders, director and associate director of the Cydonia Institute, which the Coast to Coast website describes as a Mars research group. They are on to discuss the apparent pyramid discovered on the surface of the Red Planet. Jeff from Santa Rosa calls in to talk about his own research on the famous “Face on Mars” and his belief that the Martians were wiped out in a nuclear attack. Duane from Tacoma counters with a theory that a solar superflare destroyed all life on Mars (and perhaps Mercury and Venus too) but narrowly missed the Earth in its path. Cassie, “truck-driving in California somewhere,” talks about a dream she had about pyramids and suggests the Martian structure could be a “communications circuit board” of some kind.

Saunders says, “there could be something to it.”

There is no disagreement, because those who disagree are off agreeing somewhere else. As such, there is no reciprocal responsibility to keep one another in line, and an illusion of natural harmony arises. By offering a kind of accepting community for listeners, Coast to Coast caters to an audience of lurkers and outsiders while reinforcing beliefs that intensify the feelings of isolation that brought them there in the first place.

Conspiracy theories are often associated with the cognitive desire for order in the face of the unmanageable and incomprehensible chaos of the world. In “Conspiracy Theories in a Networked Society,” David Singh Grewal argues that a rise in paranoid thinking comes from the increased presence of systems of networked governance, which rely on informal structures of power rather than formal ones: “A formal hierarchy may be resented, but it is understood by those affected by it; in network systems, by contrast, it is often hard to determine who is in charge, even though such systems can heavily influence or even determine important social outcomes.” Grewal suggests that “some allegations of conspiracy may even function as cognitive shortcuts — ‘as-if’ conspiracies — which apply a cui bono style of reasoning to make sense of otherwise opaque modes of social control.”

That is, the conspiracy theories conform to their existing, antiquated notions of hierarchical governance. The fundamental premise is that some intentional power dictates the order of the world, the subtext of which is that any one person is powerless to resist it. Isolation is thus an excuse for resignation. Conspiracy theorizing “solves” feelings of powerlessness by enhancing them, just as social media can sometimes seem to solve loneliness by increasing feelings of isolation. The isolated come together to consume their collective helplessness as nourishment — and to experience their helplessness at the level of practice as a kind of omniscience at the level of theorizing.

Coast to Coast covers a wide range of supernatural and conspiratorial subjects — recent episode themes include alternative healing, giants, and the moon landing hoax — but what unites these topics is their abstraction from their actual lived social implications for participants. Neither Noory nor his guests and callers talk much about the stakes or ramifications of the beliefs they assert. They don’t frame their discussions in terms of what should be done — they are not, for example, seeking a plan to expose NASA for hiding signs of life on a nearby planet. Coast to Coast doesn’t try to synthesize information into strategy or debate tactics — these would threaten the possibility of theories being debunked. Calls play out instead as celebrations of the futility of knowledge, the ineffectuality of knowing what they perceive to be the truth. Understanding comes only at the expense of agency. What’s “really going on” is always precisely that which is beyond intervention — which would seem to rationalize further social isolation, since this means consensus and collective action can’t help anyway. But the show accommodates these rehearsals of impotence, offering a space for callers to articulate their views as both certain and useless. This gives listeners a path toward solace and companionship not necessarily in shared beliefs or shared visions of reality, but in a shared sense of incapacity. No one has to do anything but listen.

Belief is deeply social, whether it is derived from a radio show or a news feed or any other source. It has less to do with objective, verifiable reality than it does our ambitions toward community and identity. As the world becomes more connected, we are all increasingly vulnerable to the feeling that we are not connected enough. Coast to Coast offers a vision of an alternative world, one with infinite connectivity and possibility but which somehow remains infinitesimally mappable, comprehensible. It’s a world where belief costs nothing — where belief itself can sustain. It always leans toward more, toward those as-yet-still-coiled and uncoded forces in a universe where bigfoots and remote viewing and spontaneous human combustion are all real — but loneliness is not.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of ALTERNATIVE. Also from this week, Gavin Mueller on the trajectory of 1990s alternative culture

Adam Clair is a writer currently based in Philadelphia. He tweets infrequently at @awaytobuildit.