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.
[UPDATE Sept. 28, 2017: Best of Car Talk isn’t really ending, but many stations are still dropping it in October.]
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 continue as a podcast after Sept. 30, 2o17.