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Sunday, February 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Art Bell circling airwaves again

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For the record, Art Bell was not abducted by extraterrestrials.

But after disappearing for months, the cultishly popular talk-show host returns tomorrow to preside over radio's insomniac foray into all things paranormal.

UFOs. Area 51. The Chupacabra. Crop circles. Ghostly apparitions.

Bell's bizarre subject matter - along with his earnest, irony-free manner and classic broadcaster baritone - had propelled him to the top of the nation's late-night-talk heap before he resigned last April. It was no government conspiracy, but "family and legal matters that required his full attention," according to a statement on the show's Web site - www.coasttocoastam.com.

Bell's "Coast to Coast AM" goes out over more than 430 stations and airs on Seattle's KOMO-AM from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Before Bell's departure, the show was Seattle's top-rated late-night talkfest and earned the fanatical devotion of a legion of hardcore fans. Former Seattle radio personality Mike Siegel had taken the chariots of the gods' reins in Bell's absence, but ratings sagged, and some affiliates had dropped the show.

"We've gotten a lot of calls saying, `We're excited you're bringing him back,' and others wondering what's going on with Mike Siegel," said Darren Reynolds, KOMO's assistant program director. In a recorded interview on the show's Web site, Bell said his resignation was no publicity stunt. And he didn't hold out for more money but for fewer commercials and more live time on the air.

Running a one-man operation from a trailer in the Nevada desert, Bell also distinguished himself from other hosts by working without a call screener. The result was an unpredictable assortment of fascinating or nutty or obviously loaded night-owl callers, mixed with absorbing guests such as Peter Davenport of Seattle.

Davenport is the scheduled guest on Bell's show tomorrow and had been a regular before, logging 50 or more appearances. He runs his own one-man operation out of a University District apartment: the National UFO Reporting Center.

If "Coast to Coast" is radio's equivalent of "The X-Files," then Davenport acknowledges his similarity to the "Lone Gunmen" characters on the Fox show.

"I deal in very exotic, interesting information," he said.

For the record, Davenport believes in extraterrestrials.

He'll fill in Bell and his listeners on UFO sightings that have been reported to his hotline in recent months. (The number is 206-722-3000, and the NUFORC Web site is at www.ufocenter.com). But Davenport claims that many unexplained phenomena are interconnected ("Everything is related to everything else.") and holds forth on subjects ranging from government conspiracies to "mad-cow" disease.

"If I have one objective mission, it is to get information out to the American people so that they cannot be deceived by their government," Davenport said.

And that's getting at the core of Bell's appeal: he gives a respectful, enthusiastic forum to the kind of fringe material that mainstream media tend to ignore or mock.

"My impression is that he is extremely popular here," Davenport said. "There are a lot of people here who are genuinely interested in the UFO phenomenon, who know me and who like to listen to the information and evidence I bring to that program."

Charlette LeFevre put it another way: "If there was a huge fireball seen over Dallas, you're not going to see it on the CBS news. You're going to hear about it on the Art Bell show."

Three years ago, LeFevre, 36, of Kent, started the Seattle Art Bell Chat Club (Web site: seattleartbellchatclub.com). A couple of dozen members convene on Sunday evenings to talk about Bell at the Seattle Metaphysical Library, 1000 E. Madison St. At 8 tomorrow, they'll have a listener party and potluck there for Bell's return broadcast. The public is welcome.

"We anticipate it to be one of the largest listened-to radio shows in broadcast history," LeFevre predicted.

KOMO's Reynolds said of the club: "They put the fan in fanatic. They... hang on to his every word."

But a somewhat annoyed LeFevre said the meetings aren't fan groups: "They're lecture groups that are public and open." Davenport, in fact, is a frequent lecturer.

Still, hearing Bell's signature music is a thrill for members, LeFevre said.

LeFevre claims she's had three UFO sightings.

But, she maintains, "I have yet to run into anyone who is even remotely crazy or weird. We're really grounded."

For listeners like LeFevre, at least one phenomenon doesn't go unexplained.

"Art Bell's shows are ones that you kind of sink into. You cannot turn the radio off. People lose sleep."

Mark Rahner can be reached at 206-464-8259, or at mrahner@seattletimes.com.

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