NPR’s ‘Best of Car Talk’ will end in September 2017

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Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of Car Talk. (Photo: Richard Howard)

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of Car Talk. (Photo: Richard Howard)

Public radio’s Car Talk will undergo another transformation next year as its producer pulls back from offering repackaged “best of” editions of the longtime weekend staple.

NPR announced Wednesday that Best of Car Talk, which airs on 654 stations, will end production as of Sept. 30, 2017. Some stations may continue to air a version of the show, however, and it will continue as a podcast as well.

Car Talk ended production of brand-new episodes in 2012 with the retirement of iconic hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the chatty, cackling car-mechanic brothers who started the show at WBUR in Boston in 1977. They stepped away from their mics as Tom Magliozzi’s health was declining; he died in 2014 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Best of Car Talk is NPR’s third most–listened-to show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million. It is the network’s most widely carried weekend show behind its newsmagazines and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

Even as it continues to reach large audiences, however, some stations and listeners have suggested that Car Talk should head for the junkyard. In a 2012 commentary for Current, This American Life host and executive producer Ira Glass urged stations to stop carrying the repeats, at least on Saturday mornings. “A show that’s 100 percent reruns doesn’t fit with our mission as public broadcasters,” he wrote.

WNYC in New York dropped Best of Car Talk last year, and Chicago’s WBEZ followed suit several months later. Listeners and public media insiders alike complain about the persistence of “Zombie Car Talk.”

As NPR and Car Talk production company Dewey, Cheatem & Howe considered ending the repackaged episodes, “the responses we got from stations and listeners were all over the board,” said longtime executive producer Doug Berman in an email to Current. “Some were ready to move on, some were really upset at the prospect of losing Car Talk.”

“We think this plan will satisfy the greatest number of people,” he added. “Those stations that want to move on are given a graceful way to do it without looking like the bad guy, and those that still want the presence on their air will have a natural inflection point at which they can move it to another day part and refresh their Saturday mornings.”

Since going into repeats, Car Talk’s audience has remained “pretty solid” but showed “a little slippage,” said Israel Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development. But stations and listeners have been telling NPR that they feel ready for new programs, Smith said, “and we want to create the space for that to happen.”

NPR told stations in December 2015 that it was researching listeners’ response to Car Talk’s repackaged episodes. That research “confirmed for us that while a chunk of the audience still loves the show and finds it a gateway for public radio and a gateway for weekend listening, a portion of audience felt like it was time for something new,” Smith told Current. “It corroborated what we’d heard in other places.”

Some listeners said the show was less relevant because it referred to older cars, though more than twice as many said that didn’t bother them.

The change comes as NPR prepares to welcome new director of programming Steve Nelson next month. With Car Talk winding down, Nelson and Anya Grundmann, NPR’s v.p. of programming and audience development, will “be in a place … to hit the ground running and make the best new thing for weekend schedules,” Smith said.

The end of Car Talk is a “melancholy moment” for WBUR, said Charlie Kravetz, general manager at the Boston station.

“It’s a bit of serendipity that is going to be very hard to replicate, to find these two brilliant, funny, endearing guys who helped us to understand life by talking about cars,” Kravetz said. “No one ever would sit around a table and come up with a program like that. It just emerged.”

The show’s transition brings another change to public radio’s weekends not long after Garrison Keillor left the stage of A Prairie Home Companion for the last time. “It’s a passage for WBUR and all of public radio,” Kravetz said. “And I think we all have a bit of a wake-up call to invest in new programming and make sure that public radio has great new content in the pipeline in the coming years.”

The show’s departure is “a little sad,” said Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at WBUR. Though in repeats, “still to this day, you turn it on, and it makes you laugh and keeps you company while you’re doing your Saturday chores. It’s still a wonderful program in that regard,” Fleming said.

“Most people don’t have any idea how much care and editing is involved” in creating the archive episodes, Berman said. The level of production work on any future Car Talk shows for radio and podcast will depend on station and audience interest, but Berman said he expects that “we will certainly have to resize the production company after September of next year. … [T]here’s no doubt, we will be smaller.”

Dewey, Cheatem & Howe will continue to run Car Talk’s website and vehicle-donation program and put out its syndicated newspaper column. But what of Marge Innovera, Zbigniew Chrysler and Car Talk’s extensive imaginary staff thanked every week in closing credits?

“They’ll be going to work in the coal mine,” Berman said. “Along with Erasmus B. Draggon.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that the show will definitely continue as a podcast after Sept. 30, 2o17.

  • Legend. Even we remember “The Car Of The Future” from WGBH’s NOVA. The Magliozzi bros. appears in public TV. That was 2005. DVD available at ShopPBS.org (you can support PBS).

  • earnric

    I still laugh every time I listen… Thanks Tom and Ray… Thanks.

  • Ann VerWiebe

    I just hope that there are some shows in development that are as relatable as Car Talk. Cross generations, liberals and conservatives, coast-dwellers and fly-over states – everyone listens!

  • timvandehey

    I discovered NPR about 20 years ago while living in Laguna Beach, California, and couldn’t have been more delighted. The first show I listened to was All Things Considered; the second was Car Talk, and I loved it instantly. It IS time to move on, but I will always cherish both the memory of the program and the fact that sometimes, when left alone, odd ingredients can come together and defy programmers, demographers and common sense to make magic. Well done, Tom & Ray.

  • James Douglas

    Like Garrison Keillor, maybe Ray and Doug can find a young and fresh replacement for the show? Unlike Garrison, they should find somebody with the depth of personality and humor necessary for a successful transition.

    • MarkJeffries

      If they were going to do it, they should’ve done it years ago and not go into perpetual reruns.

  • chris doeller

    Great show, and I would be very happy if another car repair show would take its place. Ray could be one of the speakers. But I realize that the non car related banter is more appealing to most of today’s Americans than the actual auto repair related advice, so it would be unlikely to ever be considered.
    The fact that Prairie Home Companion is trying to continue with a new host says the NPR bigwigs could consider doing the same. But i detect a downsizing of number of new episodes of running programs, in general, at NPR. These past several years witness more repeat and clip show than I remember.

    What we do not need is more chit-chat (like Bulls Eye) or ersatz game shows (Tell Me Another)which cater to pop culture and pander to millennials.

    • MarkJeffries

      Guess you want public radio to die the same day you do, huh Boomer? And Jesse Thorn *is* a millennial, so how can you call what he does “pandering?” Couldn’t it be what he is genuinely interested in and that he is is offering a more in-depth approach of interviewing his guests than the three-funny-stories-and-plug-your-project approach of most TV talk shows? What do you want on public radio? Nothing but Beethoven and Noam Chomsky speeches?

      • chris doeller

        I think its the large number of people he gets on his show who cannot complete a sentence with out peppering it with words “like” “you know” “I mean”

        • MarkJeffries

          Which one of my questions is this supposed to be a response to? And if you claim to be a great intellectual, where’s the apostrophe between “t” and “s” in “it’s” and the period at the end of the sentence?

  • Monica Koerperich

    I sat down today, drinking my coffee, and turned Car Talk on by accident. It had been years since I listened to it. Guess I got too busy with all the social media. What a great experience. I truly laughed with these two beloved brothers. I will turn them on again, but not by accident next week. I will look forward to a world gone by, there was no conflict apperant on this show. No bullying, no hate, and non-judgemental Just great humor. I think we should laugh more, it is probably more healthier then too much social media. I am looking forward to next time I catch them on.