Cocktail Crossfire: Should We Mourn 'Car Talk'?

On Friday WBUR broadcasters Tom and Ray Magliozzi announced that they would stop making new episodes of their 35-year-old car advice phone-in program Car Talk. This is very sad. Or is it? 

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On Friday WBUR broadcasters Tom and Ray Magliozzi announced that they would stop making new episodes of their 35-year-old car advice phone-in program Car Talk. This is very sad. Or is it?

Good Riddance, Car Talk

NPR is in a very competitive business. Sure, it's a non-profit, but a significant chunk of its funding is constantly under threat from congressional Republicans, so it counts on donors who might be less inclined to make a call during a pledge drive in a not-so-great economy. Therefore, NPR must make unsentimental decisions about its programming. It must give the people what they want, and what they need. In the case of Car Talk, here are two relevant questions:  Where do public radio listeners live? And how do they get to work?

Who NPR listeners are. Here's a map of NPR stations around the country. Note where they're concentrated: in the cities, and on the coasts.
Perhaps you can see a pattern here. There is more radio in places where there are more subways. Likewise, the bigger the sky, the less money for public radio. The major public radio station in New York City, WNYC, pulled in $54.9 million in donations in fiscal year 2010. For a sense of how huge that is, NPR itself -- the big national organization with foreign correspondents and everything -- brought in $181.9 million in fiscal year 2010. Compare that to the size of inland public radio. There's poor old Cincinnati Public Radio, which raised almost $6 million. Public radio station KRCL in Salt Lake City raised less than $1 million. Texas Public Radio, based in San Antonio, raised less than $3 million. Alaska Public Radio Network, based in Anchorage, raised $1.3 million in fiscal year 2004.
How those people get to work. Coastal elites ride public transportation to work or they bike. They do not drive cars. When they do ride in cars, they ride in the back seat, because it is a taxi. Public radio is popular with these people. It is less popular with people who drive to work. When coastal folks drive through the heartland, they encounter the frustrating experience of being unable to find a public radio station. This problem is so exasperating that many people have created detailed public radio maps to help those stranded in conservative talk radio land. Take this NPR map, for example. The happy customer quote fits the stereotype perfectly:

I wanted to THANK YOU! I have wanted something like this for so long and have on more than one occasion said, while driving through country roads and almost swerving off to my certain death, “I wish I had a map of all NPR stations so I wouldn’t have to search for them like this.”—Sarah Kelly, Boston, Massachusetts

That's right: Boston, the capital of the People's Republic of Massachusetts, also known as Taxachusetts. A place where cars matter less, and public transportation matters more.
Why this matters: A WHOLE BUNCH OF THE PEOPLE WHO LISTEN TO PUBLIC RADIO ON THE WEEKENDS DON'T DRIVE CARS. Sure, Click and Clack are charming, but they're funniest when they're giving relationship advice, when car disputes are a proxy war for other marital troubles. NPR can address this need without forcing us to listen to discussions of transmissions.
-- Elspeth Reeve

No, Car Talk Should Be Mourned Deeply

This is one of those classics of radio that we know can't stick around forever, but which deserves a sentimental farewell from the wide and diverse population that enjoys it. My colleague Elspeth Reeve argues above that "there is more public radio in places where there are more subways," and so it's pointless to target non-car owners with a show about cars. But that's only part of the picture. In fact, there is more public radio in places where there are more people. Note the similarity between her map of public radio stations and this map of population density. There are four main reasons why the show has such a wide appeal.

You don’t have to be a gear head or even have a car to enjoy Car Talk. Tom and Ray Magliozzi are funny guys. Their whole schtick is that they're "approachable" mechanics, which means they talk like normal people, not gearheads, about things most of us can relate to. A lot of it is about cars, yes, but the show is just as much about the lame jokes, the puzzlers, the funny names in the staff credits, and generally sitting around ripping on each other and the callers. I haven't owned a car in years and I'm still a fan. Plus, the fact that the whole thing consists of little 5-minute riffs instead of half-hour-long sagas makes it good background listening for pancakes or errands on a late Saturday morning.

If you do have a car, it’s actually a useful service: These guys are really smart about cars. They both went to MIT, and they used to run a DIY garage in Cambridge. Ask any mechanic: It's pretty amazing that they can do useful diagnostic work just by having listeners describe the funny noises and quirks of their own cars. And as cars get more complex, the fact that Tom and Ray are ever right in their diagnoses at all, let alone nearly 80 percent of the time (by their own accounting anyway), is amazing.

Parents like it because it’s really about parenting and relationships: Car Talk is about cars, yes, but so are lots of programs and magazines. The reason this particular show holds a special attraction is because it's largely about family relationships parenting. That's clearly on purpose because they sell CDs of their parenting advice. To further understand the attraction, I asked my father, John Martin, why he likes it. "It’s like listening to people you know talk except that they are smarter and funnier than most of the people you know," he said. "They, too, are parents, so we can identify with them. They have the same problems as we do. Their kids borrow the car and it comes back different than when you loaned it to them, like sudden modifications to the body, or the seats are misadjusted, or the tank is empty when you could have sworn it was full. You may have some direct experience of this." (Whatever, Dad.)

Kids like it for the same reason: If actual children like Car Talk at all, it's probably for the lame jokes. But grown-up fans who don't have children now realize that the show was a channel through which a lot of their own family issues got worked out by proxy, through lighthearted talk about machines. And that's a hell of a lot better than with raised voices over tense dinners.

-- Adam Martin

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.