‘Car Talk’ in Reruns

by Mark Wilson

Every time I listen to Car Talk these days, I’m still mystified that Tom and Ray don’t acknowledge that they’ll be going off the air soon. In fact, the only place they acknowledged that they’ll end their 25 years on NPR in October is on their website.

But Car Talk won’t go off the air. It will remain in its vaunted weekend-morning spot, but as reruns. But when those programs air, the Car Talk guys won’t tell you that they’re reruns.

This American Life host Ira Glass didn’t like this idea at all. “We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas. That’s our mission, and ultimately, it’ll be good business, too, to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences,” he said. “And we don’t need Car Talk to shore up audience numbers on Saturday mornings. Thanks to Doug Berman, there’s another public radio blockbuster that’s building audience and loyalty on Saturday mornings right now — Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

NPR’s Vice President of Programming responded by saying that NPR doesn’t want to give up its biggest cash-cow. Nuzum says, in more words, (1) none of the up-and-coming shows Ira mentions would come close to Car Talk‘s ratings in Car Talk‘s timeslot; (2) if Car Talk went away, then so would a lot of NPR money — the same money that’s being used to fund those up-and-coming shows like Radiolab; (3) and, in summary, Car Talk is the most popular public radio program in the world and simply cannot go off the air.

That’s basically NPR’s argument: Car Talk is so popular (read: makes so much money) that NPR can’t afford to take it off the air. Does that mean that Car Talk will never go off the air? Does that mean that Radiolab will never get the shot that the Car Talk guys got back in 1977? NPR doesn’t particularly care; Ira isn’t the one crunching numbers back in Washington, so he can worry his artistic worries all day long. Obviously, the Car Talk decision isn’t about art; it’s about money. Especially during a recession, NPR is undoubtedly concerned about where its next meal is coming from. Why take a chance when we have a sure thing? is what Nuzum is saying.

It’s also insidious that Car Talk itself doesn’t acknowledge that it’s going off the air. Tom and Ray talk about the return of the Puzzler, blissfully unaware that it will be around for only another three weeks. But, apparently, Car Talk routinely sprinkles “old” calls in with new calls to form a show every week. Even though Doug Mayer, Car Talk’s Senior Web Lackey, claims that they’re “not trying to hide the fact that it’s not a new program,” that’s pretty much what they’re doing when they go to the level of re-recording the transitions. They want people to believe that it’s not an old caller. That’s hiding.

Maybe NPR can start saving money by not paying Robert Siegel $342,000 a year to read copy.