The Truth That Was Out There: Long John Nebel’s Fight Against the Censorship of Flying Saucer Reports, Part I
By Raymond Keller, a.k.a. “Cosmic Ray,” the author of the international awards-winning Venus Rising trilogy of books
“Information is the currency of democracy.” –Thomas Jefferson
Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the American people came to know the truth that was out there, the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of the flying saucers that traversed our skies on a continual basis. They learned about this great truth from the “contactees,” those select individuals privileged enough to encounter and converse with the flying saucer occupants. The platform the contactees enjoyed in broadcasting their message from the extraterrestrials was Long John Nebel’s late night radio talk program, Party Line, initially transmitted to a geographic listening area covering 25 contiguous states over station WOR in New York City, beginning in 1954.
Born John Zimmerman in 1911, the controversial late night talk show host did not start his career in radio until he was 43 years old. Up until 1954, he held various jobs in sales; and through his running of a successful auction house in New Jersey came into frequent contact with various East Coast radio station advertising sales representatives from whom he purchased air time for advertisements. 1954 was a crucial year for radio. It was receiving a lot of competition from the new and burgeoning television industry. Hence, network radio executives were looking for a new format that would help distinguish their media from television broadcasting. As Nebel proposed a talk show format where listeners could actually call in to the program, and live at that, the radio moguls decided to let Nebel take a hand at implementing his own idea. Nebel’s proposal had potential, they reasoned. They had nothing to lose by trying it out, and the world to gain.
Success of the Party Line
The program was a great success. It was heartily received by a vast listening audience. After three years on the air, the ufology community could not do without it. Mrs. Walton Colcord John of 4811 Illinois Avenue, N.W., in Washington DC, was the editor and publisher of the famous Little Listening Post newsletter, a very important but irregularly published periodical coming out, on average, about every two to three weeks. Mrs. John, however and for the most part, kept her name off of the newsletter. She probably feared government reprisals for her efforts at uncovering the truth about the elusive flying saucers. But she constantly kept her ears open for any breaking news about investigations of saucer reports or related areas of research; and most of all, she was an avid listener of Long John Nebel’s Party Line broadcasts. In a special bulletin issued by the Little Listening Post on 8 February 1957, Mrs. John opined of Long John Nebel that he was “the UFO’s best friend in the United States today.”
“Long John,” she further added, “conducts a unique radio forum from 1:00 a.m. to 5:30 a.m., seven days a week, on Mutual’s station WOR in New York. In a few months time a miracle has happened for UFO. Long John’s program has metamorphosed from a disc-jockey program into the world’s most broad-minded public forum on what Long John calls ‘off-beat’ subjects: flying saucers, UFO, reincarnation, occultism, extra-sensory perception, psycho-kinesis— in short: the ‘borderland sciences.’”
Mrs. John provides an excellent summary of what the Party Line program was for the readers of her Little Listening Post newsletter: “Long John calls his program the ‘Party Line;’ and it is in reality almost that very thing. Guests of the Party Line sit in informal groups, munch crackers and drink coffee, around a big table loaded with microphones, in a building full of glowing transmitter tubes, flickering lights, fluctuating meters and big copper coils. They hold completely uninhibited bull-sessions on topics not usually given time on air. Red neon lights flutter and blink on the phones. Long John answers and Party Liners as far away as Canada, Florida and Illinois join in the lively discussions. Within the bounds of propriety, no holds or topics are barred. There are now an estimated 1,500,000 UFO Party Liners, and fan mail often runs to several hundred letters a day. Pillow coddlers are staying awake until dawn, maintaining the ‘High Watch’ and hearing their pet subjects propounded…. and ufology has come into its own.”
While local reports of flying saucers and the opinions of regional flying saucer investigators were plentiful in the great variety of independent newspapers being published throughout the United States and the world at the outset of 1957, radio network administrators were hesitant to go out on a limb in broadcasting such information to the public at large. The charismatic “Long John,” so called because of his lanky, thin 6’4” frame, had other opinions on the matter. While he did not necessarily “buy into” every reported UFO or alleged encounter with flying saucer occupants that would pass over his desk, he was more than willing to concede that some of the sightings and incidents may very well be real. Our ignoring of such would accomplish little; and it might even be something that we were thoughtlessly doing at our own peril.
Good Time Slot: Every Ufologist’s Dream
Up until the mid-1950s, most radio stations, if they weren’t signing off at midnight or an hour or two thereafter, were playing classical music into the wee hours of the morning. With the arrival of the smaller hours of the a.m., most of the turmoil of the city had subsided. The cosmos was lending itself to contemplation by introspective minds. The executives at WOR Radio wisely surmise that such pensive individuals might well be attracted to the kind of thinking person’s programming then being proposed by Nebel.
In lieu of this, Mrs. John at the Little Listening Post noted that the hours of 1:00 to 5:30 a.m. “are ideally suited to study and investigation and discussion of UFO and all the cosmic subjects which have been crowded off the air by commercials. So—” she added by way of explanation, “Long John converted the psychic hours into a great gift to ufology, contributing much to the great resurgence of UFO interest in the winter of 1956-57. Here, at last, is what every ufologist has dreamed about: frank, public and informative discussion…. for the millions.”
With Missionary Zeal
Word of Long John Nebel’s intriguing UFO programs had reached the West Coast and wonderful guests like George Adamski of Palomar Gardens and George Van Tassel of the Giant Rock Airport, both situated in California, would make regular stops to the WOR studios when they were on tour in the Eastern states. Visitors from California and other Western states to locations back East situated in the reception area of the Party Line broadcast, after hearing a broadcast or two, started to ponder what could be done to provide national coverage for the program. Since the Little Listening Post was the most widely distributed newsletter in the American ufology community, editor and publisher Mrs. John made the unilateral decision that everyone on her subscription list, or even anyone with an interest in paranormal phenomena or UFOs should write to the Mutual Broadcasting Company at 1440 Broadway, New York City 18, New York, and “insist that the Party Line be put on the Mutual Network, so that all of us can hear it.” This was carried out with as true missionary zeal.
Fans of the flying saucers at the time were quick to point out that Mutual Broadcasting Company’s radio correspondent Frank Edwards (1908-1967) had been discussing UFOs and interviewing various investigators of the phenomenon since the first appearance of the objects over Mt. Rainier in Washington state on 24 June 1947, as reported by the civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold who was flying his Call-Air plane in the vicinity of the Cascade Range on the afternoon of that fateful day. While Edwards was not on the air for four and a half hours every night and aired in the daytime, the subject of flying saucers proved to be both a profitable one for the Mutual Network and a captivating as well as a serious topic for an estimated 10,000,000 listeners. Edwards’ program was sponsored by the prestigious American Federation of Labor and had a strong base in the working class.
Mrs. John’s advice was followed by the ufology community. They even exceeded the suggestions of the Little Listening Post’s editor and publisher. Each reader contacted at least three friends in the United States, and even in Canada and Mexico, if they had any dear ones resident in those countries. “OK,” said Mrs. John, “continue to urge foreign correspondents to start a Party Line in their own countries. It will require thousands of letters to do this. But this is the opportunity that all saucer fans have been awaiting.” In ever increasing numbers, people began to listen to Long John Nebel’s program to learn about every phase of ufology, in addition to other interesting, but “off-beat” topics. As more were tuning in, they, in turn, would phone their friends and ask them to tune in on the Party Line, WOR at 710 on the AM dial, every night from 1:00 to 5:30 a.m., without fail.
“And jam those phone lines,” exhorted Mrs. John. “Please phone WOR and participate in Long John’s Party Line.
“But most important of all,” she emphasized, “write to Long John, care of Radio WOR; and tell him you are grateful for the helpful program. Make suggestions and ask questions.”
The result was that Long John Nebel’s Party Line became the first truly North American network program.
Venus Is a Hot Topic
No matter your age, you’ll want to find out what the UFO community was up to back in the early and formative years of the contactees and the Venusians they communed and consorted with. In the next installment the magic realist, mythologist and ufologist, Dr. Raymond Keller, looks at the ascension of Venus as a “hot topic” in the annals of Long John Nebel’s programming history. Specifically, the doctor examines the controversial claims of the enigmatic New Jersey sign painter Howard Menger, whose appearances on Nebel’s Party Line pushed up the show’s ratings to all-time highs, but at the same time sparked a furor and moral indignation that almost forced the program off the air. Pressured by religious fanatics and censors, the Mutual Broadcasting Company’s executives found themselves in a monumental quandary. You won’t want to miss out on any of this classic three-part series. – Cosmic Ray