Remembering Tom Magliozzi’s “bright light”

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Tom Magliozzi, co-host of public radio’s wildly popular Car Talk, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Nov. 3. He was 77.

Magliozzi was born in East Cambridge, Mass., in 1937 and co-hosted Car Talk with his brother, Ray, from the show’s inception as a local broadcast of WBUR in Boston through a 25-year run as one of the top draws for public radio listeners on weekends.

Magliozzi

Magliozzi (Photo: Richard Howard)

The show ended original production in 2012 due to Magliozzi’s declining health, yet it continues to attract large audiences for local stations while airing in repeats.

According to NPR, for the spring 2014 ratings Car Talk attracted an average quarter-hour audience of 1.7 million, making it the second-highest-rated show using that metric, behind Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

Doug Berman, the producer who created Car Talk with the Magliozzi brothers, described Tom as “a bright light.”

“Tom was the kind of guy who walked into a room and everyone smiled,” Berman said. “The country is fortunate someone put him in front of a microphone so the whole country can smile.”

Magliozzi family members have agreed that Car Talk should continue airing despite his death, according to Berman. But, as of its Nov. 15 broadcast, the show has been retitled Best of Car Talk. Berman characterized the change as a “light rebranding” that aligns the name closer to the show’s content.

“We feel like we needed to do this to reflect the changes that have taken place,” Berman said. “‘Best of’ is really what it is, and it just makes sense to call it that.”

Prior to his first broadcast appearance on WBUR, Magliozzi graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering. He worked in corporate research and consulting jobs into his 20s when, after a near-miss traffic accident on his morning commute, Magliozzi strode into his boss’s office and quit.

Ray Magliozzi, the other half of the Tappet Brothers, jokingly reminisced that afterwards Tom carried forth a lifelong aversion to work.

“He actually hated working in any world,” Ray said. “Later on, when we were doing Car Talk, he would come in late and leave early. We used to warn him that if he left work any earlier, he’d pass himself coming in.”

After working in some teaching jobs and running a car repair garage with Ray, Magliozzi landed his pubradio gig in 1977 in an unorthodox fashion. He was invited to participate in a WBUR call-in show with a panel of car mechanics, but was the only guest to show up.

From there, he and Ray teamed up with Berman to create what would become Car Talk. The show grew in popularity among Boston listeners, and was picked up and syndicated nationally by NPR in 1987. The brothers’ personalities and humorous riffs on car repairs and human relationships made it accessible and hugely popular.

The Magliozzis hosted Car Talk for 37 years, until Tom started experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s. “Tom had started noticing some things, and he decided he didn’t want to do the show anymore if he couldn’t do it well,” Berman said, recalling the decision to keep the series on NPR by repurposing archival material.

Even after running for two years on repeats, Car Talk remains a ratings juggernaut. It airs on more than 600 stations, and draws an estimated 3.2 million listeners weekly.

“It’s just amazing radio, and people have a visceral reaction to it and want to be around the guys,” Berman said. “It’s always been something special to be in their company.”

By comparison, Weekend Edition Saturday is carried on 748 stations, drew an average quarter-hour audience of 1.2 million and a weekly cume of 2.7 million; NPR’s Fresh Air, a show that airs weekdays on 586 stations, has a weekly cume of 4.8 million and an average quarter-hour audience of 939,000.

Retired audience researcher David Giovannoni said Car Talk is ranked among public radio’s most powerful weekend programs under his AudiGraphics ratings system.

“Some feared Car Talk would drop from public radio’s top tier when it underwent changes a couple years ago,” Giovannoni said in an email. “It hasn’t. Some predicted other programs would become essential to a strong weekend lineup. None has. Don’t get me wrong — there are some great weekend programs on public radio. But as 2014 draws to a close, the objective fact is that no other show draws audiences as powerfully as Car Talk.”

According to the Boston Globe, Magliozzi is survived by three children, Lydia Magliozzi Icke, Alex and Anna; five grandchildren; his brother Ray and sister Lucille; wives from his first and second marriages, Julia and Joanne, respectively; and his close companion of many years, Sylvia Soderberg.