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Object to reruns of Car Talk? Then what about Firesign Theater and Alan Watts?

We briefly return to the Great Car Talk Debate in this post. I lean towards the argument that public radio stations shouldn’t recycle old editions of the popular show, now that it has ceased new broadcasts. Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel put it very well in his commentary supporting Ira Glass’s objection to the idea.

“I realize too well that public radio program directors will be seiged with flak from listeners if they cancel Car Talk, even the all-recycled version,” Paul wrote on June 28. “But public radio will forever be stuck in the cycle of chasing an aging and calcifying listenership if listener flak is permitted to stunt the growth of local innovation. There must be a middle-ground between being responsive to listeners and being meekly reactionary to any surfeit of complaint.”

“A show that’s 100 percent reruns doesn’t fit with our mission as public broadcasters,” Glass declared three days earlier. “We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas.”

Peter Bergman and Phil Austin

Firesign Theater's Phil Austin and Peter Bergman back in the day; source:

Ditto, I thought, and waved that flag around in my head for a week or so. Then I looked at my radio related RSS feed and noticed reruns of other hallowed public and community radio shows.

KBOO in Portland, for example, runs the Firesign Theater Radio Hour. The legendary show started at Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles as Radio Free Oz. One night in 1966 its progenitor Peter Bergman invited some friends to join: Phil Austin, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor. Their wonderful humor and chemistry got them a contract with Columbia records and global renown.

KBOO runs Firesign shows on Mondays from 10 through 11 PM. Spokane, Washington’s KYRS airs its version of The Hour on Sundays at 4 PM. I’m sure there are other stations that do their own rebroadcasts as well.

And speaking of KPFK in LA, to this day the station broadcasts the commentaries of long departed Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts, much of which come from the Pacifica Radio Archives. Watts started doing radio talks at KPFA in Berkeley, California in the early 1950s. He died in 1973. The KPFK show airs on Sundays at 8 AM.

So if I’m all fired up against Car Talk reruns, can I defend Firesign and Watts rebroadcasts? Only subjectively. Speaking personally, I thought that Car Talk was a vacuous and annoying program. On the other hand, I think Firesign Theater and Alan Watts shows are brilliant and fun.

But that’s no fair; it’s an evasion of the central question: should public radio stations—and that includes community stations—avoid rerun shows and constantly strive towards the promotion and production of new content?

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5 Responses to Object to reruns of Car Talk? Then what about Firesign Theater and Alan Watts?

  1. Paul Riismandel July 25, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    I’m not necessarily arguing that public stations shouldn’t air reruns of Car Talk at all. Rather, I agree with Ira Glass who argues that such reruns shouldn’t take up valuable prime time on Saturday mornings. I wouldn’t have a problem with pushing Car Talk reruns to midnight, displacing an hour of overnight BBC or a different rerun.

    Similarly, I think it’s fine for community stations to air Firesign and Alan Watts during off-peak hours, when maybe there’s fewer (or no) volunteers interested in producing a live program. That’s just as long as prime time is reserved for new, fresh programming.

  2. Lucas McCallister July 25, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    Car Talk was okay, in moderation.

    I do agree with Ira Glass’s perspective, and you raise a good point about reruns of shows like Firesign Theater. Paul makes a good point about keeping reruns to off-peak hours.

    But I think the issue goes beyond simply the issue of reruns on stations in general. I think it comes from the division in kinds of “public radio” that there are. Car Talk was syndicated through NPR, and in my limited experience, stations that are NPR affiliated have the vast majority of their content syndicated from outside sources, with few locally produced shows. WSIU (which is also repeated on two other bands around Southern Illinois) had I think at max 4 shows that were locally run. WPLN and it’s affiliates here in Nashville are very similar.

    These kinds of stations now have an open space to put something new – if they have to syndicate, they could pick up a new program that they don’t carry. Or, they could run something locally produced – fresh and new(oh my!). But re-running a show just for those who fear change is a step backward.

    I think there’s a big difference of context between what we see here, and KBOO rerunning Firesign theatre. NPR, while it’s been great public radio, also has it’s downsides.

  3. Jeff Rosenberg July 27, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Specious comparison. Qualitatively different, not just a matter of preference. Those other broadcasts are historical in nature, not mere reruns, and they were not forced on the air by popular demand or desperation for ratings.

  4. Matthew Lasar July 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    All good points, especially about the historical nature of the Watts and Firesign shows. Thanks.

  5. richxxiii June 9, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    I was the guy who had the fun job of editing, assembling, and running the Firesign shows for KBOO. Often, I was simply truncating them for an hour slot, carefully snipping here and there, aided largely by Firesign archivist Taylor Jessen’s bullseye accurate run-sheets.
    The use of older material – albeit deemed historical within the larger noncom radio community – versus new, original station content was hotly debated in Programming, and reservations weren’t taken lightly, which was one reason the program proposal contained a proviso that we end it when the archive was run in its entirety, with the blessings of the four members of Firesign themselves.
    We hope to repeat them again in some form sometime in the future.

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