Car Talk is certainly one of the most popular, in addition to long-running, syndicated public radio programs in the US. Last week the hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, announced that they will retire from the show in the fall, although the program will continue on by reairing segments combined from the 1200 episodes in the archive.
With this news has come the predictable plaudits for the program. In particular, many commentators have praised the program for loosening up NPR and public radio, which at the time of Car Talk’s national debut in 1988 had a reputation for being high-brow, intellectual and stuffy. The Tappet brothers’ thick Boston accents and propensity for corny jokes sounded more like a mashup of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges than All Things Considered.
With all of this praise in the background, I wish to tell a different story which places Car Talk at the vanguard of the nationalization, homogenization and delocalization of public radio.
I first heard Car Talk driving across Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 in the summer of 1993, moving to Central Illinois from New Jersey, for graduate school at the University of Illinois. Indeed, I had never heard anything quite like it on public radio before, and I was genuinely amused by Tom and Ray’s self-deprecating banter. At that time the program had not yet expanded to 600+ stations, and it was not aired on the public station where I settled.
As I got more involved in community and public radio I learned that one of the reasons that Car Talk wasn’t heard in Central Illinois was because even then it was one of the more expensive programs offered by NPR. Every six months or so the local public station aired a “talk to the station manager” program where listeners called in to ask their pressing questions. Almost every time someone called in to ask why Car Talk was absent from their airwaves, only to be answered that buying the program would require austerity and possibly dropping other programs.
Eventually, years later, that station started airing Car Talk, and I started listening to the program again. But I quickly grew tired of the formula. I guess I can understand that the very thing that bores me–hearing the same format, tired jokes and formulaic program every week–is the same thing that millions of other listeners find endearing. But I could never shake the sense that this is not the kind of programming that public radio is actually there for.
In fact, Car Talk is the exemplar for consolidation and homogenization on the noncommercial end of the dial. I’m certain many Radio Survivor readers are familiar with the critique of consolidation in commercial radio ownership over the last sixteen years. Yet, while there hasn’t been the same level of ownership consolidation in non-commerical radio, there has been a steady consolidation in programming across the country.
Of course, in many ways that consolidation is desired by listeners, who want to be able to find Morning Edition or All Things Considered on their radio dial, whether they’re in New York, North Dakota or Texas. But as syndicated programming has taken over the programming schedule of public stations, local news, information and culture is pushed off.
Car Talk is a program which pushed the frontier of this movement. On its face, this movement seem innocuous enough. The program built a loyal audience in the markets where it aired, and so when listeners moved to new cities they wanted to hear Car Talk there, too. Seems like a classic case of supply and demand. But is it?
Back in the 1990s Wisconsin Public Radio had its own automotive program called “About Cars,” which aired on Saturday morning. Then, in 1996, the state network decided it was time to move “About Cars” to a different time slot, putting on Car Talk in its place. The new time slot was unacceptable to “About Cars” host Matt Joseph, so then WPR cancelled the program altogether.
In the aftermath of the decision WPR received 1500 calls and letter of protest, and the Wisconsin legislature even commissioned an investigation and held a committee hearing on the issue. Listeners and legislators couldn’t figure out why WPR would cancel the network’s 2nd highest rated Saturday program, which was also a strong pledge drive fundraiser.
As it turns out, WPR’s motivation was simple: it received a grant to get Car Talk for free in exchange for continuing a contract to distribute its own syndicated program, “Whad’Ya Know?”. In that case, the equation is hard to beat. WPR could replace a program it had to finance to produce, even if popular, with a popular national program it received for free.
In fact, this strategy sounds a lot like the “barter deals” Premiere Radio Networks used to get the Rush Limbaugh program onto AM stations across the country in the early 90s. A great many stations got to air the Limbaugh show for free, in exchange for providing a percentage of ad time to the network. While public stations don’t barter air time, this type of quid pro quo sure looks to be in the same ballpark as the WPR-Car Talk deal.
Now, I’m not trying to make the case that NPR, PRI and Car Talk are in the same league as Clear Channel, Premiere and Rush Limbaugh. However, it is no accident that Car Talk is one of the most widely distributed non-news programs in public radio. And, as the Wisconsin Public Radio case demonstrates, the spread of a program like Car Talk is not necessarily due to popularity and listener demand.
I realize that there’s really no arguing with fans of Car Talk. To some extent, either you like the program or not. But in many ways Click and Clack are the Larry the Cable Guy of public radio: homespun on the surface, but contrived and cunning underneath. At this point the argument may be moot, but I won’t join in tossing laurels upon the Tappet brothers’ heads.