The History of Car Talk
Including the tale of a tragic mistake by NPR and, for the first time ever, the true story about what happened to that radio trophy that George Peabody gave us.
A lot of folks want to know how we got started.
To answer this, we need to quickly review some basics of biology: in the beginning there was our magnificent mother, Elizabeth Magliozzi, and our esteemed pere, Louis Magliozzi.
Okay, okay, we know - you couldn't care less about our formative years, when Tommy took apart and rebuilt our dad's heap over and over again - each time having a few extra parts, until eventually there was nothing left to disassemble.
You want to know about "Car Talk." You're probably wondering how two low-life bums like us could end up having a weekly radio show on a prestigious network like NPR. We're wondering too. We've been wondering for years - but it doesn't stop us from cashing that paycheck that shows up every month.
The truth is, we got a call one day back in 1977, from Vic Wheatman, the Program Director at Boston's WBUR Radio. Now, this was at the time when WBUR was a tiny little college radio station, with a signal that would get staticy whenever the wind blew.
Anyway, Vic called, asking if Tom and Ray would sit in with four other grease monkeys on a call in talk show about car mechanics. After a few milliseconds of thinking about it, Tom realized he had nothing more meaningful to do with his life, and said, "sure." (Ray claims he had a hair dressers appointment that day. This is unlikely but plausible, since Ray had hair in those days.) It turned out, Tom was the only one who showed up - all the other mechanics decided not to show their faces - wisely assuming that this "radio show" was probably some kind of Department of Consumer Affairs sting operation. So the panel of five turned out to be a panel of one: Tom. Things went surprisingly well, though: Tom gave out many wrong answers, and misled many callers - but did so with such finesse that he was invited back the following week.
And when Thomas showed up that next time the studio was empty. Vic Wheatman had been fired! There was a letter saying, "You're on your own, have a good time, and try to watch your language."
This was an historic moment in Car Talk history, for it was the only time a Program Director was fired before he or she put "Car Talk" on the air!
And the next week, Tom made The Biggest Mistake in the History of Car Talk: he brought along his brother, Ray.
The early days of Car Talk was a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people actually worked on their own cars. We answered a lot of questions like, "I'm stuck with my left arm in the transmission, how do I get it out?" and, "I lost a three-eighths hex wrench taking off the cylinder head, but I can't bend down to pick it up because I have the timing chain in my right hand - could you send your brother over to help me?
We were crammed into a tiny studio. It was the two of us, and an engineer who ran the control board - he had to be damn quiet, or you'd hear him on the air. We'd walked in five minutes before air time, and we always started the show with "Are we on yet? Are we on yet?" Because, the fact was, we never knew for sure when we were on the air.
The show went on in a much more leisurely pace in those days. We were on for an hour and a half, during which time we'd answer approximately three questions. It's painful to listen to those shows, now. These days, of course, we have a producer and all that stuff. Dougie Berman is always saying things like, "answer the question! answer the damn question!"
After several years of doing "Car Talk" pro bono, as they say, we finally steeled up our nerve and asked WBUR for twenty bucks a week. To our shock and amazement, they agreed to it on the spot. At that moment, we realized that we had obviously asked for too little. We kicked ourselves all the way home. This did, however, mean that we could buy donuts and coffee each week. In 1980, we asked for a five dollar a week raise and they told us to take a long walk off a short plank. We didn't argue, since a case easily could have been made that twenty bucks a week was twenty bucks too much already.
Despite our complete lack of preparation and our consumate unprofessionalism that set new lows in radio, the show somehow managed to not only survive, but to thrive. The now notorious Car Talk puzzler effectively doubled our listener base, as three more relatives (okay, okay, uncle Nunzio and cousin Vinny were both in the slammer, so they were sort of a "captive" audience) began listening to the show.
How we ended up going national is somewhat a matter of contention. We're not even sure how it happened. Robert Seigel, one of NPR's hosts of "All Things Considered" claims credit. He says that one day when he was on vacation here in Massachusetts, he was surfing the dial and heard the show - and somehow decided that we were national material. (It was later determined that Seigel suffered from a rare, transient brain parasite that normally infects bull moose during rutting season, which only partly explains his bizzare decision.)
Jay Kernis, the original Producer of NPR's "Morning Edition" tells a similar story about how he was driving through Massachusetts and knew we were destined to be big. NPR Field Producer Gary Covino says the same damn thing. So who knows.
Of course, WBUR's General Manager, Jane Christo says that, by that point, she had been sending in tapes to NPR for several years in a row. Of course, we knew all along that she was chucking them in the dumpster outside the station. She used to tell us, "Oh yes, boys, of course I sent the tape in! It was rejected again, sorry."
Along the way, we picked up our esteemed producer, Mr. Dougie Berman.
Since 1987, Berman has made every conceivable attempt to refine, focus, and otherwise elevate the standards for the show. We would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Doug for our complete inability to follow any of his directions, despite his best intentions. He's long since given up on us, which is a good thing, because we were getting tired of reading his memos.
Berman is a real radio professional, so you can understand why we never clicked. He's great company, though, and every now and then we do take a piece of his advice. For example, just last month we made sure that we're in the building at least five minutes before going on the air.
The person who first put us on the air nationally was NPR's Susan Stamberg, who invited us to host a weekly "Car Talk" segment on her new show, "Sunday Weekend Edition."
Susan is a great person - funny, charming and quite smart. That's why we're so terribly troubled, having single-handedly wrecked her program.
Nine months after starting with Susan, in the fall of 1987, NPR agreed to launch "Car Talk" nationally. So there we were, following in the footsteps of award programs like "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition," and "Morning Edition." We, like you, remain entirely mystified and have no idea what combination of prescription medicines brought about a decision like this out of NPR's management. We can only assume that they were looking for some cultural diversity, trying somehow to balance their high quality programming with crud like ours. Stations turned to us in droves - much in the same way that lemmings flock to the sea.
We discovered pretty quickly that producing a national radio show is a lot of work! Shortly after going national, we decided we needed a staff. That way, our afternoon naps could continue uninterrupted and, when not napping, we could still pursue our CAFE study. (Don't confuse this with the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy report. Ours is about latte and cappucino in the greater metropolitan Boston area.) So, in 1989, we founded Dewey, Cheatem and Howe.
In all seriousness, we've had lot of fun along the way.
In 1988, we appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" with Jay Leno as the guest host. Turns out, Leno used to be a grease monkey, too - so maybe there is hope for us, after all. We had a great time, but after a few days on the LA freeways, it was nice to get back to Boston. At least here, you won't get shot for double parking.
In 1989 we launched a twice-weekly newspaper column, called "Click and Clack Talk Cars." Today, we're singlehandedly lowering the standards of more than 200 newspapers around the country. (Including, we kid you not, the Riyadh Times. So if you're ever in Saudi Arabia and your car breaks down...) The column is a lot like the radio show, meaning we take questions and espouse all kinds of solutions - a small fraction of which may actually be correct.
A few years ago, we even wrote a book, which, after days of committee meetings, we decided to call "Car Talk."
We encourage you to buy several copies. We promise that all of the proceeds with go to our favorite charity, Save The Skeets.
In 1992, we won first place in some national radio award from a guy named Peabody. (Don't confuse him with that Mr. Peabody scientist dog in "Bullwinkle" like we did.) When we first got the call, we thought they said "autobody" award! We were pleased enough about that. As it turned out, this Peabody award is pretty haughty stuff. Berman tells us it's the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize! People like Daniel Schorr, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby also won that year.
Little did we know, this Peabody character had been dead for years! Still, we had a great time - until they caught us stealing the silverware after the ceremony. (We told Dougie that the serving utensils were going to stick out of his jacket pockets!) We did get one hell of a trophy. In fact, the only way we could fit it into the Tom's Dart for the trip home was to bust the thing into three pieces, but that's a story for another time, after the statute of limitations has expired.
Over the years, we've been on "The David Letterman Show," "CBS Evening News," and "The Today Show," - all of which we found to be a colossal pain in the butt. Of course, we're still waiting for the big time - we haven't gotten a call yet from Regis and Kelly. But, maybe we'll hit the big time someday. We can always keep hoping.
Recently, you may have even seen us on "60 Minutes."
Of course, we had been expecting them to call for years. When they got to Boston, though, they must have lost their list of tough questions about "Save The Skeets," and we actually had a pretty good time with them.
So, that's where we're at, as of these days. We're currently carried on more than 588 stations, from Guam to Fairbanks to Tuscaloosa. Each week, more than 4.4 million listeners tune in. (These are the same two million people in the country who can only pick up their local NPR station, and would rather listen to us than static.)
These days, Tom spends most of his time reading listener letters and shoo-ing the racoons out of the engine compartment of his '63 Dodge Dart, while Ray paces around the garage trying to figure out a halfway decent puzzler for next week's show. We love doing the show, and we enjoy hearing from all of you! Be sure to drop us an e mail or give us a call sometime.
Oh - and one more thing - Don't drive like my brother!
Tom and Ray