Commentary on Car TalkBob Lochte
It's my understanding that Car Talk is returning to WKMS in a week or so. I'm sure that the many enthusiastic listeners who have requested Click and Clack's presence will be happy with this restoration. But frankly, I'm ambivalent.
Car Talk is one of the most popular features on NPR. In fact, it has such a large following that NPR can use it to leverage distribution deals for other programs. In order to get the Car Guys, a radio station buys a package of several shows, many of which have only marginal audience appeal. It's what the movie industry calls block booking. So far, NPR has been able to gouge stations on the package price. The network feels that the affiliates in large markets can find a fatcat underwriter to foot the bill. The affiliates in small towns, deep in the interior, have to scrape up the money somehow. In principle, I object to such "let them eat cake" behavior.
I also don't think the show represents a real breakthrough in comedy. It stands out because the rest of public radio, and public TV as well, is broadcasting for the humor impaired. Car Talk is mildly amusing at best; but in an era where David Letterman is called a comedian, that's probably as good as it gets. The Car Guys have the same routines, the same dip schtick every week. And they laugh at their own jokes. One of 'em, I can't tell whether it's Click or Clack, has an especially annoying nasal cackle, like a 10 year old boy getting his first peek at a Playboy centerfold.
What I like about Car Talk is that Tom and Ray really are Car Guys. Tom has retired, but Ray still runs a garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts and presumably still fixes cars. 22 years ago, they began doing a live call-in show on local public radio in Boston for free to drum up business for the garage. This lead to a slot on NPR's Weekend Edition, and finally to a weekly network show of their own. Now they're an institution complete with book deals, a Web Page, a syndicated newspaper column, and a merchandise catalogue. But they remain Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two grease monkeys with degrees from MIT who enjoy what they do. They continue to turn down lucrative personal appearance, product endorsement, and TV deals because they enjoy goofing off too much. Rather than choosing stardom, they had it drop in their laps. And they're content to leave it there.
Car Talk is an artifact of an earlier time when public radio was partly community radio. Regular people volunteered to do programs to keep their radio station on the air, to feel good about giving something back to the community, and of course to be a star. As NPR, PRI, and the stations themselves have raised more money, built better facilities, and become more professional, much audience participation has gone by the wayside. To be honest, many of the volunteer efforts were gosh awful radio. But some were entertaining in their amateurish but boldly experimental approach to the medium.
So I applaud Car Talk for reminding us that the heritage of public radio is public access. I just wish Click and Clack would come up with some new material.