[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.