Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi was ‘real voice, real person’ on NPR’

Nov 4, 2014

Editors: Here’s a special edition of “Inside the First Amendment” noting the death of Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi, one of National Public Radio’s most popular personalities, credited by a colleague with bringing “real people, real voices” to public radio. The weekly IFA column, also by Gene Policinski, will be sent Thursday, the regular distribution day. It will focus on reports that police set up a 37-square mile “no-fly” zone around Ferguson, Mo., in August to keep the news media out.

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendement

If you notice your car’s headlights dimming soon for just a second, here’s why: The news is getting around that Tom Magliozzi, one of National Public Radio’s most popular personalities, died Nov. 3 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Tom, 77, was one half of the renowned “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers,” along with his 12-year younger brother, Ray. They perpetually — and with an audio version of a smirk — apologized at the end of their programs for the damage they were doing to NPR’s reputation.

But longtime producer Doug Berman, in breaking news of the death to the NPR family in a brief note, was closer to the truth: “Tom and his brother came to public radio when it was stiff, academic and formal — and, not coincidentally, largely irrelevant to most Americans. And by being entirely and unselfconsciously themselves, they broke our medium open for real voices and real people, who turned out to be much more interesting, informative, and entertaining than the canned radio people we thought our listeners wanted.”

Beginning in 1987 on Boston’s WBUR public radio station, the brothers offered advice on car repairs (a little) with good humor (more than a little) and laughs (nearly all the time) on NPR’s “Car Talk.” About two years ago, they ended their live run, with an estimated audience of more than three million each week on more than 600 stations.

Tom and Ray made little mention of their formal education, portraying themselves as auto mechanics — which in fact they were. Not often mentioned was that they both graduated from MIT before going into the car repair business.

The format, for those not familiar with the program, was built around taking phone calls from various folks around the nation who had a mechanical problem with their car. The idea was the brothers would offer advice, and the caller and listeners in general — particularly those with the same year and model of auto — would be the wiser.

But that’s like calling a Bentley a “car.” True, but way short of enough.

The advice the pair dispensed came with a fair amount of brotherly joshing, and weekly features like a mind-challenging riddle called “The Puzzler,” all delivered in an accent that a Midwesterner like me would call Basic Boston, as in “Cahr Talk.”

Combined with a wickedly sharp sense of gentle humor and a lifetime pledge never to take themselves seriously, the show went to top-rated status at NPR — and stayed there for a 37-year run.

How humorous and how self-effacing? In announcing his brother’s passing and its cause, Ray couldn’t resist noting: “Turns out he wasn’t kidding. He really couldn’t remember last week’s puzzler.”

Even the end of each program was a joy. Real and imagined staffers were credited with a mixture of puns and word play, such as the program’s perpetual driver, Russian chauffer Pikov Andropov (“pick up and drop off”). There was the show’s supposed law firm of Dewey, Cheetham & Howe (“Do we cheat ‘em ... and how?”). And there was weekly mention of long-suffering staffer Erasmus B. Dragon (just say that one out loud), often said to be the leader of the working mother’s support group at “Car Talk.”

News and information can be serious business — and the actual advice dispensed by Tom and Ray was just that, mostly. They even had an occasional segment to delight a media critic’s heart: Revisiting past callers to see if their programs helped or not, something that regular news programs might do well to adopt.

Ray and NPR say “Car Talk” will continue to air regularly in reruns, as it has since they retired.

That’s good news for those in need of not just repairs for a worn-out car, but a little tune-up each Saturday morning for a world-weary psyche.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and host of the Newseum’s audio program “Journalism/Works.” He can be reached