Car Talk – Discovering America on Talk Radio

Last week’s sad news that Tom Magliozzi had died as a result of complications of Alzheimer’s disease caused some reflection on my discovery of American radio over the last few years.  Both National Public Radio (NPR) and Pacifica Radio Foundation have become my two main staples and it was on the former station that my fondness for Car Talk began.  Tom, the Click to his brother Ray’s Clack (together known as the Tappet Brothers), had co-hosted Car Talk for more than twenty years.  My acquaintance with it is of a newer vintage.  I listened sporadically before becoming an ardent listener.  Admittedly, I initially found it jarring; almost irritating, before slowly beginning to appreciate the genius that underpinned the weekly broadcast and its co-hosts’ unique chemistry and expertise.

There’s something about Saturday morning that makes good radio far more palatable than even the best of tv programming.  Whether running around on errands or having a late lie in, Car Talk became one of the indulgences I looked forward to weekly.  Broadcast of repeat episodes that began in 2012 after the Tappet Brothers retired allowed me to play catch up on the rich archive of episodes I would previously have missed.  Saturday morning radio was not a new treat though.  John Peel and his exquisite BBC Radio 4 Home Truths had previously filled that void.  Curiously, both shows – Home Truths and Car Talk –  encapsulated a similar quirkiness that conveyed so much of the regional and linguistic cultures of the UK and US respectively.  On reflection, both shows also highlighted the topsy-turvy, often jovial nature of family and romantic relationships as part of their general offerings.  But as an immigrant to both of these countries, these programs also revealed important aspects of the cultural fabric of both locations in ways that are much less apparent in visual and digital media.

NPR’s memorial episode did a great job of condensing much of what made Car Talk popular across a wide cross section of the US and even in its disaporas in far flung locations in South Africa and South Asia.  From the varieties of regional accents, cadences and other linguistic markers that Tom and Ray were always keen to identify or explore, to the advice on romantic or family relationships: Who could resist hanging back for just a few more minutes to hear the quick ripost followed by the spontaneous bellows of raucous laughter.  Even on the dreadest of Saturdays that boisterous laughter produced a reluctant smile, that was quickly followed by a belly full of laughs.   And that is the secret to how Car Talk grew on the listener.

Some have correctly compared Tom’s humor and cultural knowledge to the venerable humorist and author, Mark Twain.  Certainly, his satirical take on many issues, spot-on recognition of regional accents and interest in the varieties of spelling of names that belied the cultural heritages of his callers were refreshing perks of listening to Car Talk, a show ostensibly about cars and the car industry.   But that was the genius of Click and Clack.  Who else could entice so many listeners with the barest interest in cars to hang back to hear a discussion, a story about a prank played or to find out the answer to the weekly puzzle?

Similarly with John Peel who made his name primarily as a disc jockey championing obscure musicians and musics such as indie rock and reggae long before they acquired main stream appeal.  Yet Home Truths was an hour of Saturday morning programming that could not be easily pigeon-holed as Peel too dealt with relationships and the unpredictable and strange twists that life can take.  Peel’s storytelling was masterful and his signature deadpan tonal quality drew the listener into the intimacy of the world he described in those stories.  Peel did not have the chance to retire as he died unexpectedly while on vacation in Peru in 2004.  Last month marked a decade since his death which affected his many loyal listeners in m much the same way as Tom Magliozzi’s.  Both deserve the rich tributes that have been paid in their wake.

As Peel helped to describe those intangible cultural truths about Britishness and the mundanity of daily life and relationships, so too have Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers defined aspects of American life with Car Talk.  What the show may have lacked in ethnic diversity of callers it made up for in the range of linguistic, regional and global differences it elicited.  Perhaps that fact in itself is revealing about who is most likely to call into such a program.  From the many who registered their tributes online, it is clear that their fans were ethnically diverse and included many an immigrant as myself.

I hope that NPR can continue to repeat the programs for as long as possible so that Car Talk and Tom and Ray’s work can be celebrated for the cultural contribution it (and they) have made to American radio, the understanding of American life and the symbolic significance of the car.


To listen to NPR’s Memorial Episode of Car Talk broadcast Nov 8, 2014 and other tributes, CLICK HERE.


For a taste of the magic that was John Peel’s Home Truth, check here from the BBC archives, CLICK HERE.



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