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Car Talk led the vanguard of consolidation and homogenization in public radio

Car Talk is certainly one of the most popular, in addition to long-running, syndicated public radio programs in the US. Last week the hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, announced that they will retire from the show in the fall, although the program will continue on by reairing segments combined from the 1200 episodes in the archive.

With this news has come the predictable plaudits for the program. In particular, many commentators have praised the program for loosening up NPR and public radio, which at the time of Car Talk’s national debut in 1988 had a reputation for being high-brow, intellectual and stuffy. The Tappet brothers’ thick Boston accents and propensity for corny jokes sounded more like a mashup of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges than All Things Considered.

With all of this praise in the background, I wish to tell a different story which places Car Talk at the vanguard of the nationalization, homogenization and delocalization of public radio.

I first heard Car Talk driving across Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 in the summer of 1993, moving to Central Illinois from New Jersey, for graduate school at the University of Illinois. Indeed, I had never heard anything quite like it on public radio before, and I was genuinely amused by Tom and Ray’s self-deprecating banter. At that time the program had not yet expanded to 600+ stations, and it was not aired on the public station where I settled.

As I got more involved in community and public radio I learned that one of the reasons that Car Talk wasn’t heard in Central Illinois was because even then it was one of the more expensive programs offered by NPR. Every six months or so the local public station aired a “talk to the station manager” program where listeners called in to ask their pressing questions. Almost every time someone called in to ask why Car Talk was absent from their airwaves, only to be answered that buying the program would require austerity and possibly dropping other programs.

Eventually, years later, that station started airing Car Talk, and I started listening to the program again. But I quickly grew tired of the formula. I guess I can understand that the very thing that bores me–hearing the same format, tired jokes and formulaic program every week–is the same thing that millions of other listeners find endearing. But I could never shake the sense that this is not the kind of programming that public radio is actually there for.

In fact, Car Talk is the exemplar for consolidation and homogenization on the noncommercial end of the dial. I’m certain many Radio Survivor readers are familiar with the critique of consolidation in commercial radio ownership over the last sixteen years. Yet, while there hasn’t been the same level of ownership consolidation in non-commerical radio, there has been a steady consolidation in programming across the country.

Of course, in many ways that consolidation is desired by listeners, who want to be able to find Morning Edition or All Things Considered on their radio dial, whether they’re in New York, North Dakota or Texas. But as syndicated programming has taken over the programming schedule of public stations, local news, information and culture is pushed off.

Car Talk is a program which pushed the frontier of this movement. On its face, this movement seem innocuous enough. The program built a loyal audience in the markets where it aired, and so when listeners moved to new cities they wanted to hear Car Talk there, too. Seems like a classic case of supply and demand. But is it?

Back in the 1990s Wisconsin Public Radio had its own automotive program called “About Cars,” which aired on Saturday morning. Then, in 1996, the state network decided it was time to move “About Cars” to a different time slot, putting on Car Talk in its place. The new time slot was unacceptable to “About Cars” host Matt Joseph, so then WPR cancelled the program altogether.

In the aftermath of the decision WPR received 1500 calls and letter of protest, and the Wisconsin legislature even commissioned an investigation and held a committee hearing on the issue. Listeners and legislators couldn’t figure out why WPR would cancel the network’s 2nd highest rated Saturday program, which was also a strong pledge drive fundraiser.

As it turns out, WPR’s motivation was simple: it received a grant to get Car Talk for free in exchange for continuing a contract to distribute its own syndicated program, “Whad’Ya Know?”. In that case, the equation is hard to beat. WPR could replace a program it had to finance to produce, even if popular, with a popular national program it received for free.

In fact, this strategy sounds a lot like the “barter deals” Premiere Radio Networks used to get the Rush Limbaugh program onto AM stations across the country in the early 90s. A great many stations got to air the Limbaugh show for free, in exchange for providing a percentage of ad time to the network. While public stations don’t barter air time, this type of quid pro quo sure looks to be in the same ballpark as the WPR-Car Talk deal.

Now, I’m not trying to make the case that NPR, PRI and Car Talk are in the same league as Clear Channel, Premiere and Rush Limbaugh. However, it is no accident that Car Talk is one of the most widely distributed non-news programs in public radio. And, as the Wisconsin Public Radio case demonstrates, the spread of a program like Car Talk is not necessarily due to popularity and listener demand.

I realize that there’s really no arguing with fans of Car Talk. To some extent, either you like the program or not. But in many ways Click and Clack are the Larry the Cable Guy of public radio: homespun on the surface, but contrived and cunning underneath. At this point the argument may be moot, but I won’t join in tossing laurels upon the Tappet brothers’ heads.

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4 Responses to Car Talk led the vanguard of consolidation and homogenization in public radio

  1. Hunter King June 14, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    If you don’t like Car Talk, that’s your opinion, fine.

    But your headline is a bit sensationalized. You cite a single case and complain about its cost; both more a complaint towards NPR than the program itself. “Led the Vanguard”? Could you really point to a single instance? Surely the very invention of nationally syndicated public radio is homogenized in definition. If anything, I would argue that an hour of gearhead chatter is a rare spattering of niche interest on the radio dial.

    This would have been an interesting enough article with the WPR story, but let us make our own conclusions about the program content, rather than twisting the story with your dislike.

  2. Rick Lewis June 14, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I’m afraid that I clearly remember the days, before NPR and the “public” label, when university and other noncommercial radio stations were charged with broadcasting educational and cultural content. Luckily, they weren’t actually required to REACH anyone, because most of them barely did. People won’t listen to obscure, unprofessional programming, and that was our specialty. We radiated a lot of Midwesterners who were utterly unaware of our work.

    Some tough years followed. I produced “All Things Considered” at a time when we barely had the resources to make the show long enough each evening. Today, good content duels with great content for minutes on the air…as it should be.

    “Car Talk” is among a number of creations that I would argue helped to professionalize, not homogenize public radio in this country. Along with “All Things Considered,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Marketplace” and many others, the bar was raised for local production too, and today many stations produce quality programming they couldn’t have imagined doing thirty years ago. The local-national combination reaches millions of people with high impact, as opposed to no people and no impact, no matter how virtuous community programming is imagined to be. And it CAN be, but not only because it is community based. It also has to be good. Some community stations produce excellent content, while others are just having fun.

    Programs like “Car Talk” have also made it possible for stations to raise local membership and underwriting money that makes local program development possible. No syndicated programming can long survive if it doesn’t more than pay for its cost to the station.

    And finally, although I don’t recall anything about the “About Cars” episode in Wisconsin, it hints at the common misapprehension that “Car Talk” is a program about cars. It is anything but. Cars are just a vehicle (sorry) for a program that offers wisdom and insight into the human condition…with good humor and enormous success. I would never condemn community radio for having a tiny audience, any more than I would criticize “Car Talk” for having a huge one.

  3. Matthew Lasar June 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    What I find striking about both Hunter King and Rick Lewis’s objections to Paul’s piece is that neither responder argues with the gist of his narrative, that at WPR a quality local show about cars was thrown under a bus (sorry) to get in on a syndication deal. Everybody knows that this happened at the same time that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting began tethering support to Arbitron ratings and questioning the value of local programming at public and community radio stations. Today, study after study conclude that many public radio outlets provide very little local news and information for their communities.

    Instead of acknowledging the connection of Paul’s anecdote to this larger narrative, King and Lewis sputter a lot (sorry again), accusing Paul of "twisting the story" or meandering on about

    "obscure, unprofessional programming"—which misses the article’s point. "About Cars" wasn’t an obscure, unprofessional program, yet it was abandoned anyway.

    Full disclosure: I groaned whenever Car Talk came on the air. Ditto for Prairie Home Companion and the rest of the Great Wave of Middlebrow that invaded public broadcasting in the 1980s. But lots of smart folks I know love it, so phooey on me. Bottom line is that public broadcasting never came up with a coherent strategy for supporting quality local programming like it did for developing national programming. The assumption was always that somehow the latter would encourage the former. King and Lewis’s responses are disappointing, because you can’t fix a problem if you won’t admit it isn’t there.

  4. jenny June 15, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    did you just scoop your own podcast?

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