Boyz Under the Hood; ‘Car Talk’ Hosts Mix Advice and Idle Chatter in High-Octane Show

June 8, 2012

[Editor’s note: This article originally ran in The Washington Post on August 21, 1999.]

It was 1974 and Tom Magliozzi was restless and bored. He had quit an engineering career after a dozen years. Now he was an MIT grad slacking around Harvard Square, swilling coffee. His mother was worried.

“She called me every week: ‘Do something about your brother,’ “ says Ray Magliozzi. “I’d say, ‘What can I do?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t care--he’s become a bum. Make it your mission in life.’ “

Perhaps it was a delusion caused by too much caffeine, but Tom had the idea to start a do-it-yourself car repair shop in Boston, where he and his brother would rent out repair bays for $ 2.50 an hour, offer advice and Hoover up the cash.

“I figured we could come into tons of money standing around in white lab coats fixing people’s cars,” says Tom.

It wasn’t hard to persuade Ray. He had started at MIT as an engineering student but bumped around until he graduated with a humanities degree. He had gone north to Vermont to teach school. Which he liked. Except for the actual students.

“Eighth-grade girls are the biggest pains in the [behind],” Ray says. “The boys were, too, but at least you could jam their heads against the lockers.”

That’s what it’s like when you call the “Car Talk” boys for an interview. You want to know what makes their public radio show so popular, how they got from air hoses to airwaves. Instead you get shtick. Which pretty much answers your question. On the phone--as on their one-hour Saturday show--the brothers crack wise in their Hah-vahd Yahd beaneater accents, busting chops and giggling hardest at their own jokes.

A public radio show about car repair seems an unlikely match of high- and lowbrow. But the brothers have effectively tapped their top-notch educations to hilariously, disarmingly dispense advice about car repair, a topic that intimidates many listeners. They banter with callers, read letters, tell jokes and pose “puzzlers,” the show’s cornerstone mind teasers.

“It’s alchemy,” says Kim Hodgson, general manager of WAMU-FM, one of two local stations that air the show. “You couldn’t have researched and put together a show like this and said, ‘This is exactly what public radio listeners want.’ “

Indeed, “Car Talk” and “A Prairie Home Companion” are public radio’s two biggest weekend draws, the biggest money-generators during pledge drives, both locally and nationally. They are Kilimanjaros on an otherwise flat veld of weekend programming. For years, weekend radio--commercial and public--has been a write-off, as radio listeners abandon their favorite workweek medium for TV, movies and other forms of recreation.

Consequently, weekend radio tends to be a grab bag--or dumpster--of throwaway programming and public service announcements. After it went national in 1987, “Car Talk” turned out to be tonic--something for the grown-ups to listen to while the kids watch cartoons.

“Car Talk,” produced by Boston University’s WBUR and distributed by National Public Radio, is heard by 2.9 million listeners on nearly 500 stations across the country, with new ones added each year. The attendant newspaper column, launched in 1989, is carried by about 260 papers.

Now the Magliozzi brothers--known on the air as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers”--have written their second book, a paperback in stores now. (Their first book, “Car Talk,” was a 1991 manual on how cars work.)

The new book, “A Haircut in Horse Town” (Penguin Putman, $ 15.95), assembles many of the show’s puzzlers. The title alludes to one of the better-known puzzlers: You drive into a small town in need of a haircut. There are two barbers. One has a perfect haircut and a spotless shop. The other has a butchered haircut and a shop that looks like a Superfund site. Which barber do you choose?

In radio, a measure of success is “time spent listening”--the ability to keep listeners locked on one station. The Magliozzi brothers understand and expertly play this concept. So we will borrow a page from their playbook and keep you reading by refusing to answer the puzzler until the end of this article--or maybe somewhere near the end. Or maybe not at all! Hahahaha!

We resume our story back at the do-it-yourself garage.

“It was a dismal failure,” says Ray. “We ended up doing all the work. The customers were hopeless.”

But while they were managing the enterprise down the toilet in 1977, they got a phone call from WBUR. The station was assembling a panel of car mechanics to staff a call-in show. The brothers were invited. Only Tom made it to the show--he still needles Ray about sleeping through it. More importantly, though, none of the other mechanics showed up, either. So Tom had the entire show to himself, giving “incorrect but soothing answers,” ribs Ray. The following week, Ray came along. They worked so well together that the station gave them a regular gig. (Also, the garage finally took off; it is prosperous today as the Good News Garage, which Ray runs.)

For the next decade, they did their car show on Friday nights at WBUR, mainly as volunteer labor. (Their Web site claims they split a weekly income of $ 20 but, with these guys, you never know.) Along the way, the show evolved from a how-to show to an hour-long philosophical, humorous meandering on life’s many mysteries. In 1987 NPR picked up the program and took it national. In Washington it can be heard Saturdays on WAMU (88.5) from 8 to 9 a.m. and on WETA-FM (90.9) from 10 to 11 a.m.

For WETA and WAMU, the show offers a welcome relief from the sobriety of their news and, in the case of the former, classical music programming during the week.

“It speaks to the desire to have a break and a different mind-set on the weekend,” says Arthur Cohen, vice president of radio at WETA. “At the bottom, it is an observation on life, not a show about cars.”

Or, as WAMU’s Hodgson says: “If this were a show about how to fix the carburetor on a ‘55 Chevy, I’m sure it wouldn’t be so popular.”

And it is popular: It is the most listened-to weekend show on both stations here, outperforming even “A Prairie Home Companion” on WETA. At WAMU, the show gets about 60,000 listeners each Saturday; an additional 30,000 tune in on WETA. As a rough comparison, “Morning Edition”--WAMU’s most popular show, overall--averages 52,000 listeners per day across its five-hour broadcast.

Hodgson and Cohen agree that part of the “Car Talk” appeal has to do with the topic: The automobile is an American icon and birthright. Though neither brother romanticizes the car.

“In my opinion, people no longer have a strong association with cars,” says Tom. “Cars have become anonymous; they have become very commonplace. Used to be, it was rare that someone bought a new car. It’s like going from a society where everyone is unique and has some kind of characteristic worth, to a society where everyone is a moron and looks the same.”

Ray joins the riff.

“Yeah, it’s like when shoes first came on the scene,” he says.

Huh?

“Sure. Nobody wore shoes until the 1700s, and they were all different--having a pair was certainly a cause for celebration. You’d go, ‘Hey, nice shoes,’ and ‘What do you get for mileage on those?’ Now, cars are as commonplace as shoes.”

For the record, Tom recently bought his “dream car,” a 1952 MG-TD. Pieces of the car, he reports, are constantly falling off.

“I belong to an MG club, but it’s more like a support group,” he says.

Ray drives a 1987 Dodge Colt Vista. Not one of Detroit’s finer moments.

“The liberating thing about this car is that it’s already dented and scratched,” Ray says. “It has freed me up to worry about other things, such as the standings of the American League.” Both brothers, natch, are big Boston Red Sox fans. Tom is 62; Ray is 50.

As popular as “Car Talk” is, however, it is not universally loved. Some listeners find the brothers abrasive to their callers, extra-loud, indecorous and, well, not quite cricket for public radio, says Cohen. On WAMU, for instance, “Car Talk” is sandwiched between a documentary program and a news magazine. Even within the public radio industry, Hodgson adds, some folks just don’t get “Car Talk.” He recalls one station being surprised to learn that listeners who like classical music are also interested in cars.

“It is a powerful splitting show,” Cohen says. “People either love it or hate it.”

The punch line, which the “Car Talk” boys would no doubt love, is that they--with their degrees from MIT--are probably better educated and more erudite than a significant portion of the public radio audience. (Tom also has a PhD.)

Speaking of erudition, the answer to the puzzler is: In a horse town, you should choose the barber with the bad haircut and the sloppy shop. If there are only two barbers in town, they cut each other’s hair, which means that the barber with the perfect haircut got it from the barber with the bad one, and vice versa.

Which could be a helpful story to remember if you’re buying your next car in a town with only two auto dealers.

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