Sometimes we encounter new swaths of life that are surprising and unexpected. That's how I felt when I read "The Listener," an article about nighttime radio host, George Noory, in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. According to author Timothy Lavin, Noory's show, Coast to Coast AM is by far the most popular nighttime radio show. The syndicated show is carried on 525 affiliate stations across the US and is aired live from LA between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Apparently, as many as 30% of the US (Canada likely the same) stays awake at night due to work, insomnia, or a preference for nocturnal aesthetics. These are the people who are in conversation with Noory.
Radio at night navigates topics from UFOs to international conspiracy and seems to have a strange power to illicit confessions and reflections from people who might otherwise be less inclined to entertain the risky thoughts that arise in the small hours of the night. This space has traditionally been seen as a broadcasting wasteland where recycling and marginality reigned. That has changed with Noory's show.
The non-confrontational style Noory employs and the open edge that is inherent in the format, time and style, has created a significant audience.
"It has definitely tapped into the American psyche," says radio consultant Allen Corbeth. "I think people are looking for answers. And they're looking for them anywhere they can find them. They see a world which is very, very troubled, and getting scarier by the day, and I think they're looking for some escape. Listen to Coast to Coast at night and you'll hear the sound of millions of people trying to come to terms with what Yeats called the 'uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.'"
If we believe that the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful is somehow wound into all of us (though often well disguised), we should not be surprised by this. Many will dismiss these nighttime listeners as the bizarre fringe. There are twilight fringes here, no doubt. After all, this is where the skeptical discipline of sober daytime demeanour is given a chance to stretch out a bit and take a walk (in some cases, perhaps a flat-out run).
But human searching can't be quelled. People desperately search for the "monstrous truths" that can coordinate all the pieces. We search for meaning and purpose, trying to make sense of a fizzing, whirring, clamouring existence that the digital revolution has only increased. People who claim to know the truth are often less charitable and open to listen than Noory. Perhaps that's why in some cases their audiences are correspondingly much smaller and more insular.
Whatever you make of Noory, the question remains, "Why are so many people listening to him? What is it about his style or format or time zone that engenders trust in people?"