Want new radio hits on Saturday? Step 1: Drop Car Talk when the guys retire

Commentary by Ira Glass

This commentary prompted a response from Eric Nuzum, programming v.p. of NPR, which distributes Car Talk.

Ira GlassI enjoy Car Talk. I like those guys. And as a public radio lifer, I’m grateful for what Tom and Ray Magliozzi did to bring a vast audience to public radio, year after year.

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.

Ira Glass, host and executive producer of This American Life, began his public radio career in 1978 when, at age 19, he worked as an intern at NPR. He put TALon the air in 1995. To encourage stations to pick up the show at the very beginning, he gave a Snickers candy bar to every PD who signed on.Photo of Glass: Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Print edition has a different headline, “Glass: Bet on hits for tomorrow with Saturday airtime.”

  • Macac17749

    Completely agree w Ira, new quality shows are in line so younger listeners solidify their loyalty to NPR. I’ve done my part, passes it on to my 2 adult children now in their 30’s!

  • Pubradstaffer323

    The point made here is genuine. If you believe that you MUST keep Car Talk running after the fresh installments are gone, then you’re mired in old thinking. The ONLY way to move forward in Public Radio is to, well, MOVE FORWARD. Really. Use a month or two of old shows as a short-term transition to avoid ‘listener’ cold turkey? Okay. But moving on is key. It’s important. And if you want new ears (and you want to keep as many of the loyal ears as possible) then bring on the latest and greatest. Thank you Mr. Glass. 

  • George Brolaski

    Thank God Car Talk is finally going off the air. For years now I have had to turn them off the second that I heard them come on. How anyone could find them funny is beyond my comprehension. They both are so stupid and laugh at one another when there is nothing even remotely funny about what either is saying. To even think that I will have to continue to turn off reruns is more pain than I can bear.

  • Pingback: ‘Car Talk’ in Reruns « Quantum Meruit()

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25712517 Kevin Gordish

    I wish NPR would offer new innovative programming. Nothing hardly changes. I lament shows like Wait, Wait, which are self congratulatory, featuring unamusing comedians. Who the hell wants to win a recorded answering machine message? Who still has an answering machine? As for CBC’s Q show, I live in Detroit where NPR affliate WDET purchases the show. I can change the dial to listen to Q on the actually CBC channel. It is wasteful spending for duplicate programming. Public radio, and radio in general, has become more homogenous. I recall the airwaves used to filled with niche radio shows catering to loyal audiences. Those shows are now dead and distant memories. In part to economics, radio has forever changed. Thanks for the rant Ira.

  • Anastasia Shilling

    Alright! I just discovered that Car Talk has 1,200 episodes to mine for the reruns. I’m so excited. I did not discover their show until around 1999, so this means I get to hear some of the shows I missed. What a relief. I thought they were going off the air entirely. Those guys not only educate me, but they bring good cheer into my weekend.

    Sorry about the the show not fitting with the mission. Really I am. I can see how this is disappointing and prevents a new show slot from opening up. We are getting a new show here in the Ozarks… Another game show… Not into it. Hope others enjoy it.

    I love Car Talk. I think This American Life is most excellent work. I appreciate those two shows very much.

  • DrDon

    At least 2 of the stations I get not only have CT on Sat. morning, they rerun it on Sun. So, rerunning reruns. I agree w/Ira, wish for new programming from NPR.

  • John

    I don’t listen to Car Talk all the time, but I do listen as often as is possible. The rebroadcast show that aired yesterday answered the problem that a friend of mine was having with his car. I learn about car repair by listening to Car Talk. In addition, I appreciate their humor. There is a reason why Car Talk is the #1 show on NPR. The show should continue in reruns.

    I have heard This American Life a few times. My son has listening to it a few times. I asked him if he likes it. He said that the show is usually annoying. I’d agree. Ira Glass is _boring_. His promotion of social engineering runs against what most people advocate. He’s one of the reasons why some people want to defund NPR. Please, let’s take This American Life off the air. Certainly there must be a show with some redeeming social value that can replace it.

  • Matthew Green

    This is crazy, that is really too bad. I really liked them.

  • smartalek

    Another vote in favor of putting Car Talk episodes in the archives, where they belong — accessible to anyone who wants them, but freeing up the airwave real estate for something new & current.
    But until that happens (not “unless;” it is inevitable, whether it be a matter of months or of millennia; “Car Talk” will no longer be too relevant once hovercars or teleporters have appeared), could npr stations at the very least refer honestly to the shows as “reruns,” “replays,” or “greatest hits?”
    Do I really have to trigger a whole discussion of whether lying by omission is or is not as bad as lying by commission?
    It’s been way too long since sophomore year, and frankly, most such convos were boring even then.

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