Car Talk

Back in 1998, very soon after I was offered the job (on a temporary basis, hah) as host of a struggling new NPR quiz show, I had a conversation with Doug Berman, the creator of both our show and Car Talk.

I said, “I want to be clever, smart, edgy, just like [name of well known political commentator/comedian.]

There was a pause. And then Doug said…

“Well, sure. He’s very funny. But he’s also an asshole.”

I remember that conversation because it was the first time I confronted a lesson that I had to learn as I became the host of Wait, Wait… and am probably still working on 14 years later. I had always assumed the most important thing when talking on the  radio was, well, what you said. Were you funny? Were you interesting, new, provocative, different from what you or anyone else had done before? That had been my goal during my prior career as a playwright, and I assumed it would carry over into radio.

What Doug was pointing out then — and what became the most valuable and important lesson he ever taught me — was that all of that is far, far less important than simply being somebody an audience wanted to spend time with. Radio, as I learned, has an intimate, long term relationship with its audience. People don’t flick around the dial, like they do with cable TV. They tune in to something — more importantly, someone — they like, and they stay with them, because after a while it feels like a friendship. We in radio are in your homes, in your cars, in your kitchen, sometimes in your bathroom. Why would you invite someone into those places if you didn’t like them? And why would you listen to someone — no matter how funny, provocative, or clever somebody was — if he or she was a jerk?

I will confess, back then, I didn’t care much for Car Talk. I considered myself way too smart and sophisticated for Tom and Ray and their braying laughter and their silly jokes. But as I struggled with Wait Wait to become even a fraction as successful as they were, I learned to appreciate, and then admire, and then finally envy their ease, the way they were able to project the best part of their characters through the radio, every week, to an audience that loved them for doing just that.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Tom and Ray are exactly who they sound like on the radio, although of course, there’s more to them than their radio personas — Tom, in particular, has Very Strong Opinions, and a profane way of putting them — but getting to know them over the years made me realize that in radio, maybe in life, it’s much more important to be kind than it is to be clever. And that instead of being different every week, it’s more of a challenge, and more of a reward to your listeners, to find a way to be yourself.

Tom and Ray have announced their retirement, but  Car Talk will continue with “new” episodes culled from 25 years of archives. And although the material will be familiar, that won’t be a problem for their fans — of whom I am now one, of course — because being familiar was always the point.



19 Responses to Car Talk

  1. leslie (crookedstamper) June 8, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    I love Car Talk, and they will be missed. But re-runs are still hysterical, and will be loved all the more now that they are all we’ll have. *sniff*

  2. TheTrekNerd June 8, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    I’ll miss the new shows that will never be, because I’ll always know that somewhere they’ll be tinkering with cars. vacationing, or making creative flower arrangements… all out of range of my ears. I won’t be hearing who they are. I’ll be hearing who they were.

    I’ll miss you, Tom & Ray!

  3. Steve Collins June 8, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Do you think Limbaugh’s legions disagree with you and enjoy listening to an asshole (as Berman so genteelly put it)? Or perhaps they agree with you but think he’s charming and you’re an asshole.

    • Russell June 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      So maybe he was referring to John Stewart?

  4. Adri June 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Well put Peter. Thank you for learning that lesson from Tom and Ray, because like them you too have become a familiar friend and voice in my family’s life. You being you is what brings us back to Wait Wait every weekend!

  5. MobilePhonesFan June 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be,” — she always called me Elwood — “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

    – Elwood P. Dowd, ‘Harvey’ (1944 film)

    Tom, Ray…we’ll miss you.

  6. Sue June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I have spent the last 12 years or so listening to Car Talk at 11am, followed by Wait Wait at noon. I appreciate the humor and personalities in both very different programs, and I’m grateful my Saturday routine will continue.

  7. Charles Estus June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Thank you for such a wonderful family; I love having you all over on weekends and weekdays and for my long drives!

  8. Kate June 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    “Opinions.” You meant Tom has “Very Strong Opinions.” Have always loved “Car Talk” AND “Wait! Wait!” Thank you.

  9. Allan Bradburn June 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    Car Talk and Wait Wait… are both part of my Saturday mornings. I will miss Car Talk yes, but I will continue to enjoy the “old” episodes. Your explanation of the relationship radio listeners have with the shows they listen, is correct. The shows I listen to are as near and dear to me as anything else in my life3 and the persona’s I have come to know and love are dear as family. So, indeed, my relationship to radio personalities are far more personal than anything on television. In fact, I don’t even know the lineup I participate in television so seldom. Happy Retirement my friends Tom and Ray.

  10. Anne Marie June 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    I’m no car maven. But Click and Clack (the tappit brothers) opened an entire world to me with their hysterically funny but no nonsense advice. My family is NOT mechanical; listening to Tom and Ray s callers describe their troubles (especially those doing sound effects) made me feel better about my level of mechanical knowledge. Then, after the guys had me howling with laughter at the way they grilled those poor clueless callers, they always TAUGHT me something. What more can you ask? Entertainment, enlightenment, and a visit with old friends — all in one. Fellas, you’ve earned time off to go fishing or to watch bad movies or whatever foolish thing you want to do. But you’re leaving an awful gap behind. Thanks for everything, and …enjoy.

  11. Patti Dodson Goesl June 8, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    I wasn’t a fan at first either, but my husband listened so I did too (the things we do for love, right?). Anyway, I have enjoyed their show ever since which led to listening to “Wait, Wait…” and attending two tapings in Chicago. And yes, you have ALL been in my bathroom.
    We will miss you brothers, but wish you a glorious and restful retirement. Peter can’t retire yet, however, so don’t get any ideas!

  12. Be Kind June 9, 2012 at 4:18 am #

    Peter, this may sound incredibly stupid to some, but I would love Wait Wait as I’ve loved Car Talk if only you would consider your older listeners and slow down the rapid fire delivery just a bit. I’m in my 50′s and honestly, I think you’re brilliant but it’s real work to keep up with the tsunami of wit. One of the wonderful qualities of Car Talk is its pacing, punctuated by laughter.

    I happen to love clever (and kind)…just can’t handle the speedy delivery anymore!

    • TechGeek June 13, 2012 at 9:13 am #

      I discovered both the shows as podcasts about 5 years ago. Now I can listen to them any time I want, and I can rewind if I miss something. I have listened to some episodes more than once and they never fail to get me in stitches every time. Love both the shows!

  13. Barbara Hoffmann June 9, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    How did you not love the Car Guys immediately.

  14. Linda June 9, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    Reruns! B-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-GUS! Love to all at NPR!

  15. Joanne June 10, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    I didn’t know that they were retiring ! I have listened to them for so many years – this makes me very sad …….. but I guess they’d have to retire sometime …… just not now ! :(

  16. Judith Taylor June 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    I’m really going to miss Tom and Ray. I really love Car Talk and not only have I learned a lot about cars over the years I also get to laugh, often very hard every Saturday. Best of luck to them both. Tom and Ray I love you guys, you ROCK so don’t ever change.

  17. Russell June 11, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    You should also be grateful for Car Talk because (by immediately preceding your time slot) they led a lot of us to Wait Wait…for which I am also grateful.