A weekly half-hour program about space aliens — probably the only one in public radio (but who knows?) — has just been renewed for 26 weeks.
Starting last Halloween, SETLAB Radio (the acronym means "Study of Extra-Terrestrial Life and Answers from Beyond") has aired Sunday afternoons in south Texas — on KMBH in Harlingen and its repeater, KHID in McAllen.
Host Russell Dowden says he's gotten dozens of reports from Rio Grande Valley listeners that they, too, have seen unidentified flying objects. Then, several weeks ago, someone anonymously sent in a "very weird and very real-looking" image of a bulb-headed alien supposedly photographed aboard a U.S. Navy vessel.
"It looks a little different from the normal Gray alien type, and has funny, textured skin. The ear is kind of indented into the skull, and it's bald," says Dowden.
SETLAB Radio had already gotten attention from newspapers, Fox News Network, and independent producers pitching to the Sci-Fi Channel, but with the pictures, Dowden went on Art Bell's syndicated radio show—the New York Times of UFO reporting. Since then, he says, SETLAB's web site [www.setlab.org] has tallied 20,000 visitors.
This could take off. The producers are working on a pilot for a national TV show, but Dowden would still "really like to see NPR pick us up in syndication."
A longtime marketer and adman, Dowden has been fascinated by paranormal stories since he was 10 and has seen UFOs on three occasions. "I feel like what I'm doing with this UFO phenomenon is what I was born to do," he says. SETLAB is his day job. By night, he's a deejay—"the Cosmic Cowboy"—at the nearby country music station KTEX. The management there lets him have "a little fun" with UFOs on the air.
Public radio, as usual, gives the more serious treatment. Dowden and SETLAB partner Sonny Salas cover a range of "fringe topics," Dowden says, "from alien abduction to reincarnation."
One of the best guests so far was Edgar Fouche, author of Alien Rapture: The Chosen, who claims to have worked for the Pentagon at the famously secret Area 51 in southern Nevada. Another witness had been abducted by aliens "every four years since he was nine," and consequently was booked on both The Maury Povich Show and Unsolved Mysteries. One guest performed autopsies on the aliens at Roswell, N.M., and others formed a support group for abduction survivors.
The parade of UFO experts has satisified KMBH Program Director Chris Maley, who was concerned that the show would become a monotonous recital of sightings by ordinary folks. On the advice of his general manager, Father Pedro Briseno, Maley urged Dowden to interview knowledgeable authors and scientists.
Maley himself hadn't seen a UFO until about a week before the show started. "I was going to pick up my girlfriend," he recalls. "This was in Brownsville. It was partly cloudy, about 4:15 in the afternoon, and she works for a freight company, and the building is in back of the Brownsville airport. ... Something caught my eye up in the sky. It wasn't cylinder-shaped, it was more like a box, I'd say, more like an egg carton. Kind of grayish. Maybe right under the clouds. ... When a cloud passed, this thing was shooting ... south toward the Gulf. I lost track of it very quickly."
Dowden denies that Hollywood has infected the public mind with saucer fictions. Rather than inspiring the UFO sightings, the filmmakers have picked up on real-life events, he says. "The public tends to forget that in 1951 or '52, these UFOs flew in formation over downtown Los Angeles and flew over the White House."
The real story (like many sci-fi plot lines) is that the government is the bad guy—sharing the spacecraft technology of the Zeta Reticulans while hushing up their presence on earth. "I agree there might have been a very secure reason for keeping this information withheld from the public in 1947," Dowden reasons. "But over the last 50 years, I don't agree with their policy of outright denial of millions of Americans reporting alien abductions."
Washington has secret dealings with several alien species of the dozens that live among us, Dowden says. "The government is now on very sensitive ground with their alien friends," he warns. "There may be a conflict arising very soon."
The story will come out somehow, Dowden believes. "We feel there will be some type of event, a large UFO sighting or a staged event, perhaps orchestrated by the government. They know they cannot keep this information not available forever." David Pearson, a University of Texas sociologist whose interview program Society Under Fire follows SETLAB Radio on Sunday afternoons, says conspiracy theorists gain reknown for their outrageousness, and fame seduces them to pursue and defend their claims, no matter what the evidence indicates.
But Pearson also observes that conspiracies do actually happen, and sometimes within the government. "I can't imagine that governments would not deceive," says the professor, "if they found it politically expedient." Is that new photo of an alien the real thing? "If it's a hoax, in my opinion," says Dowden, "it's a very darned good one." A second image on SETLAB's website appears to show someone cutting open the alien's body cavity, which looks like blood sausage inside. "It looks really nasty, with the innards and stuff," Dowden comments. Also on the web site is a photo of a cow being abducted.
As a radio host, Dowden must weed out the less credible stories from the ones that are merely incredible. He gives some credence to the report that the Y2K bug originated with the aliens. On the other hand, many UFO sightings turn out to be natural phenomena such as ball lightning, he explains. "I question a lot of people's motives. Before a book comes out, I have to raise an eyebrow there."
"There are stories of people claiming to be in touch with people from the Moon or people who have a base on Venus, or people from Neptune, and certain witnesses come out with fascinating stories that sound more like science-fiction," comments Dowden. "You have to take it very delicately."
The problem is that, when you're dealing with aliens, just about any story could be true, he says. "Therefore, eliminating those that aren't is the real task at hand."