For more than 20 years, the only media outlet consistently covering alien abductions, werewolf sightings, and the latest on Bat Boy has been the Weekly World News. Faced with a dwindling readership, the venerable paper is packing up its presses and publishing strictly online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After 28 years of serving up desperately needed distraction to restless Americans on supermarket checkout lines, the Weekly World News is powering down its presses this month. Maybe we should have actually bought it once in a while. It served all kinds of people, in all sorts of ways. BOB GREENBERGER: They contact us because they know they can get a straight answer from us or have us do the investigation. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was managing editor Bob Greenberger. Here’s executive editor Paul Kupperberg on the phone. PAUL KUPPERBERG: Telepathic marketers? All right. MAN: I just want to know, do you have any advice on how to make them stop? PAUL KUPPERBERG: The easiest way is a spaghetti strainer and tin foil. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We took that sound off The Weekly World News’s website, because their bosses in Florida wouldn’t let them talk to us. And now that’s really the only way readers can get access to the Weekly World News. It’s moved exclusively online.
Of course, we don’t know if that call was from an authentic reader. We strongly doubt it, but what does authentic really mean when it comes to the Weekly World News, or its readers? BILL SLOAN: First of all, there were the lunatic fringe readers who believed those stories. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, I Had an Alien’s Baby, that kind of thing? BILL SLOAN: Yeah, that type of thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Sloan is the author of I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby, a Colorful History of the Tabloids. Once he was an editor at the National Enquirer. Can you describe who the typical true believer was, what he or she looked like? BILL SLOAN: Probably a woman in her sixties who thought that there were a lot of plots and subplots around, suspicious of most things and people, and not well educated. And then there were a lot of young people, college students, high school students, that bought the paper and read it strictly for kicks. BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the headlines, as in a recent one declaring that Mother Nature had endorsed Al Gore, or an earlier one claiming that George W. Bush was openly running for Pope, or that Hillary Clinton had adopted an alien baby. LESKIE PINSON: You know, we’re a little different than some news organizations. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2001, we spoke to then Weekly World News managing editor Leskie Pinson. LESKIE PINSON: They say they never pay for their stories. We would never pay for a story, some of them say. We know but hey, when there’s a big picture like the space alien shaking hands with the presidential candidate or the Bat Boy’s Al Gore, we’re not afraid to go sometimes six figures, maybe eight figures, if you count both sides of the decimal point for a photograph like that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe that’s why they had to stop the presses - all those pricy photos. But again, we strongly doubt it. It’s probably because everything the Weekly World News does, others do more profitably, like conspiracy theories.
True believers can find entire websites devoted to proving humans never walked on the moon, or the government is harboring extraterrestrial secrets in Area 51.
Or how about political satire masquerading as news reports? Look no further than The Onion, or The Daily Show. You want angry white men? the Weekly World News had one, the pseudonymous Ed Anger who was quote, “angrier than a smoker in a submarine, a beaver in the desert, a kid stuck in summer school, a porcupine in a thorn bush, a tea drinker named Joe,” A tea drinker named Joe? About virtually everything in modern life.
But Stephen Colbert is funnier, and true believers can find all the ire they desire in Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the Weekly World News did have something no one else had – a character first featured in the summer of ’92 whose tales of recklessness and occasional heroism graced cover after cover ever since. MAN SINGS: In a cave many miles to the south/ Lives a boy born with fangs in his mouth/ Sleeping until the fading light/ Flying through bloody trees/ When he awakes the summer night/ Is filled with screams/ [CHORUS, SONG CONTINUES] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Weekly World News covered Bat Boy like a 50- cent deodorant, with headlines like “Bat Boy Attacks Girl, 10,” “Bat Boy Endorses Gore,” “Bat Boy Announces Run for California Governorship,” “Bat Boy Leads Cops on Three-State Chase,” “Kid, Saving Up for Plastic Surgery to Look Like Bat Boy.”
The original front page photo of Bat Boy, with the headline “Bat Child Found in Cave,” was the second bestselling issue in the tabloid’s history, according to Wikipedia. Can’t imagine what the bestseller was.
And it spawned a popular off-Broadway musical, as you can hear. Bat Boy is a tabloid reader’s hero, a freak who acts out. In the musical he longs for conformity and achieves it by becoming – what else – a certified public accountant. [SONG FROM MUSICAL] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who among us doesn’t harbor a tabloid reader, not to mention a freak yearning to act out? We can’t get that from Stewart or a Colbert or even O’Reilly. They’re either too smart or too smug. Bat Boy was a mess of a human being. Bat Boy was humanity with all the rationality stripped away and all the innocence.
The time for that kind of tabloid is over. Now when we want irrational freaks, we have to settle for celebrities. [SONG FROM BAT BOY] CHRIS BANNON: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Michael Vuolo, Mark Philips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited by — Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Andrya Ambro and Madeleine Elish. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
CHRIS BANNON: And I’m Chris Bannon. Bob, never fear, will be back next week. [MUSIC TAG]