The Big Mistake: Or, Who Let Those Clowns on NPR, Anyway?

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Oct 09, 2012

As we celebrate 25 years of denigrating NPR’s good name this year, we’ll take an occasional look back at the cloud of acrid, bluish smoke Car Talk has left in its wake.

This week, our web lackey Connie Brichford talks with Tom and Ray about what has become known around Car Talk Plaza as, simply, “The Big Mistake”-- the first time the Boston NPR station aired Car Talk.

Connie: How did you even get through the door at WBUR? Was there no security to keep the riff raff out?

TOM: Somebody from WBUR called us and said, "We're doing a show on Saturday about cars and car repair, we're going to ask six mechanics to come in, and would you like to join us?" I said, “Sure! Why not?” 
RAY: Tommy went for the free advertising, to drum up business for the garage. I think we were just hoping they’d say, “Tom is from Good News Garage in Cambridge,”  a few times and the transmission rebuilds would roll in, and we’d be in fat city.

Connie: So WBUR had six mechanics answering questions?

RAY: Nope--just one. My brother was the only one dumb enough to show up!

TOM: Everyone else thought it was an FBI scam. The first week, it was just me and the host, Vic Wheatman. To start, we talked about cars and car repair. After ten minutes, I had said absolutely everything I knew.

RAY: I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Ten minutes? It took that long?”


Relics of the past: Analog recording equipment, rotary dial phone, Ray's hair.
Relics of the past: Analog recording equipment, rotary dial phone, Ray's hair.

Connie: You sat in silence for the rest of the hour?

TOM: No, we decided to start taking calls. Vic gave out the phone number, but I didn’t think anyone would call. Boy, was I wrong.

RAY: Anyone who’s ever done anything more than an oil change knows how easy it is to screw up a repair job.

TOM:  So all the DIYers (do-it-yourselfers) were calling in for free advice. They forgot our motto: “It’s the stingy man who pays the most.”

RAY: There were far more DIYers in those days than there are now. How do I know? You saw a lot more bloody knuckles and singed eyebrows in those days.

Connie: Anyone can make a mistake once... but why did WBUR invite you back?

TOM: This is one of the great imponderables of the universe. Vic claimed I was great, and we didn’t get through all the calls. He asked if I'd do it again the following week. I think he just didn’t have a guest lined up.

Connie: You said yes.

TOM: Right. And I also said, “Can I bring my idiot brother?”

RAY: So I came along. And we showed up the week after, too, but Wheatman wasn’t there, and he left us a note on the table. Basically it said, “The hour is yours. Have fun, try to watch your language.”

"That's right, point the torch away from your face."
"That's right, point the torch away from your face."

Connie: They turned you loose with no supervision?!

TOM: What kind of radio station would invite you back and fire the host? You really have to wonder about ‘BUR’s judgment in those days.

Connie: I bet WBUR’s upper management has been asking themselves for 35 years why they asked you back.

RAY: BUR was a very different place at that time. I mean it was a real community radio station.

TOM:  A small amount of the programming was from NPR, but most of it was just local stuff--a jazz show here, a nut job there. Community stations back then, they were happy to have anybody fill the airtime. Got your own records? Great! You get a show.

RAY: I think the short answer as to how we got on the air is this: sheer desperation.

TOM: That’s the only reasonable explanation. 

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