They made our stations a destination for millions of radio listeners on Saturday mornings. They shoved public radio’s sound away from stuffy and towards chatty. They loosened everyone’s notion of what is possible or appropriate for a national show and — just as important — what could be a hit with our audience.
Without Car Talk, shows like mine would have had a much harder time getting onto stations, no question. The Car Guys and Garrison Keillor proved you can sound different, you can organize huge swaths of what you’re doing around just being funny, you can think of your program first and foremost as entertainment, and audiences will show up in big numbers.
What they did was huge. Doug Berman does a canny, brilliant job producing them. Tom and Ray — like great ballplayers — are so phenomenally surefooted at what they do that they make it seem effortless. And they wear the mantle of success as lightly and gracefully as anyone could.
I also completely understand why program directors want to keep Car Talk on the air after it stops making new episodes in October. There’s still a big audience. The show won’t sound so different. It brings in listeners for other weekend programs and the schedule as a whole.
And if it’s not there, people will yell. There’s no way around that. Listeners yell at PDs when they take unsuccessful programs off the air. Can you imagine what it’ll be like to drop the single most popular hour on public radio? Who wants to deal with that?
But — with all respect to Doug Berman and my colleagues at Car Talk Plaza — I think when they stop making new episodes in October, they should be pulled from Saturday mornings. A show that’s 100 percent reruns doesn’t fit with our mission as public broadcasters. I don’t think it’s justifiable.
Especially not in a timeslot that’s essentially primetime on weekends. Run Car Talk late nights maybe. Or Sunday night. But not on Saturday mornings. If we’re going to have a program that continues on our air forever like I Love Lucy reruns, it should be in the timeslots Lucy migrated to.
For all of public radio’s successes, the part of our mission we’ve always neglected the most is innovation. Our biggest shows — All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Fresh Air, A Prairie Home Companion — are decades old. The average age of our listeners keeps creeping upward. At 53, I am one of the younger public radio stars. My show has been on the air 17 years.
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.
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!
Meanwhile, a new generation of producers is creating shows that aim to be the next Car Talk, in what the New York Times called a “new land rush” for public radio airtime. As you’d expect, I’m a big fan of the storytelling shows: The Moth Radio Hour and Snap Judgment. Radiolab continues to be the most groundbreaking, fun-to-listen-to, inspiring hour of journalism in public radio — first-rate reporting and a completely original editorial vision delivered as entertaining audio candy — and they’ve finally made enough of them so you can program it as a weekly show. Eric Nuzum at NPR is cooking up all kinds of new programs: TED Radio Hour, Ask Me Another and Cabinet of Wonders. Alec Baldwin’s got a new show Here’s The Thing, coming out of WNYC. Our home station WBEZ offers Sound Opinions. The CBC has the upbeat, celebrity-filled arts show Q. And is it bad for me to mention here that This American Life continues to try new things and make new programs?
It’s understandable why any station would want to keep Car Talk on the air after October, but I hope my friends and colleagues around the public radio system will seriously look at the other possibilities out there. And consider not just the downside of taking Car Talk off Saturday mornings but the upside of doing it: the opportunity they have to introduce big audiences to the shows that are reinventing what we all do.
Years ago, at a meeting with our distributor, Public Radio International, I was told that if I ever wanted to stop producing This American Life, broadcasting the archive of old shows would still be profitable. Underwriters would still pay for sponsorships. Stations would still pay fees — reduced, for sure, but they’d pay.
I figured sure, we’ll do that someday. But now that someone’s actually doing it, I realize I don’t want it for This American Life. When we’re done making new episodes, take us off the air. I want to make room for someone else.
Print edition has a different headline, “Glass: Bet on hits for tomorrow with Saturday airtime.”
Copyright 2012 American University