Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

How Click and Clack's 'Car Talk' radio formula never stalled

For those of us who spent the boom years mostly in a car, in traffic, going nowhere memorable, news that Tom and Ray Magliozzi would retire from the airwaves in September comes as less a disappointment than a kind of reckoning. Where did all of that time go, anyway? For 25 years, the Magliozzi brothers, mechanics who speak the mother tongue the way that Lenny Clarke intended, have hosted Car Talk on the tweedy frequencies of the radio dial, offering call-in automotive counsel (long after the golden era of the call-in show) and flights of unadulterated whimsy (long before quirk went mainstream).

The show's disastrous-sounding premise — two guys answer questions about engine lubrication and mufflers at length, on-air, with no editing to speak of — was its secret genius, making every episode a Houdini-style wager to see whether they could squeeze an hour of bravura radio from a few rattling engines. And they always did. Yet what many of us will miss most about Car Talk isn't the show itself. It's the contact with a world that the Magliozzis helped invent and bring to life, each week, on the air.

Losing Car Talk feels strangely personal. I started listening as a kid in San Francisco, in my parents' car, where NPR was ascendant and where Puzzler Tower, winter salt corrosion, Owah Fayah City — all the show's burnished specifics — seemed a plane ride and a leap of urbaneness away. The Magliozzis call themselves by the Vaudevillian names of Click and Clack and treat the studio microphones the way people treat bowls of beer nuts in a sports bar: as a kind of incidental witness to their private, unhinged, loud, loud, loud enjoyment.

Yet their foolery has a kind of vulpine logic, too. Years before Ira Glass sought to break beyond the Cronkite voices of the airwaves, Car Talk did just that, shaping a program that was both guileless-seeming and sophisticated, endearingly blithe and expertly pitched to its audience — an NPR show, in short, that purported not to be an NPR show. Its success is a testament to what the Magliozzis pretend to be, to the invention of Click and Clack, as much as to what they are.

For the odd and slightly uncomfortable thing about Car Talk is that it's an arrantly white-collar program designed to seem like a blue-collar artifact. The Magliozzis get tremendous mileage out of their Greater Boston drawls (which, somewhat mysteriously, don't match: Ray, the younger of the two, pronounces most of his Rs; Tom does not) and from the general suggestion that they speak for a profession and cohort most listeners have little experience with: working with a wrench beneath a dripping vehicle.

In truth, of course, the two brothers have the pedigree of academics and elite statesmen. As they like to remind audiences from time to time, they both did their undergraduate work at MIT, whose commencement address they've delivered; Tom, who holds a doctorate, worked as a college professor for nearly a decade. They write a syndicated newspaper column together, and the interstices of their show are filled with abstruse, university-town wit: the logic "puzzler"; the twee wordplay (Erasmus B. Dragon, Bud Tugly, Heywood Jabuzzoff, Pikup Andropov); the arch, ironic use of car-themed music. Strip away the automotive chassis of the program and it is as mainstream as the Whiffenpoofs.

Yet what saves Car Talk's backward striving from condescension and minstrelsy is — has always been — the honest yearning that appears to underlie it. The show holds a place in a broader nostalgic tradition, one that praises the local work of hands over the shady reach of corporate industry, the mechanical over the abstract. Craftsmanship is a dying skill, we sometimes hear, and in some sense Car Talk was one of its last public defenders. To host a car show heard largely by people in their cars is to underscore the physical fruit of physical work; to talk about the failures of cheap recent models is to emphasize what's lost. There's not a lot of Detroit in Car Talk, but there's enough to make us realize what has gone.

What we'll miss most, then, is the reminder that physical work is honorable and matters — even to a Cambridge, Mass., professor. The interaction from the show that I remember best rose when a fussy caller phoned to ask what protective measures he needed to take to avoid being maimed in tire blowouts. The Magliozzis told him he was overreacting — life is dangerous — but, ultimately, their jokes crowded out any advice. "Ahhhhh-ha-ha-ha!" one of them guffawed at the suggestion that the caller attend to his tires in a space suit. "Haaaaah-ha-ha-ha-ha!" the other joined in. The best thing about Car Talk was the most obvious, too: It's the only program you can turn to and hear nothing but laughter.

Comments
Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

When Samantha Hess’s marriage ended five years ago, she felt she was lacking a basic human need: Physical touch. As a woman in her late 20s living in Portland, Oregon, she found plenty of men interested in dating, but sexual contact was not what she ...
Published: 04/21/18
Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Tampa Bay foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa has violated numerous rules of professional conduct and caused two clients to nearly lose their homes because he failed to tell them about settlement offers from their banks. Those were among the prelim...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Times staffThe greater Brandon area will celebrate the grand opening of its second Goodwill store beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday (April 28) at 1407 U.S. 301. The new store will add another 12,000 square feet to the complex, which includes a 200,000-...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

State regulators Friday determined that one of the country’s largest residential solar companies, San Francisco-based Sunrun, is allowed to lease solar energy equipment for homes in Florida. The decision, solar energy advocates say, could open the do...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

For the sixth month running, Florida’s unemployment rate held at a nearly 11-year low of 3.9 percent in March as steady job gains continued. While many factors kept Florida’s economy chugging along, three industries stand out for leading year-over-ye...
Published: 04/20/18
Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

ST. PETERSBURG --- Stretched across the front of Tim and Hyun Kims’ two-year-old house is a big banner with the name of a developer and the words: "I have to fix my new house."Some of what needs fixing is instantly apparent. The front steps are too ...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida has hit a milestone of sorts as it slowly moves toward wider availability of medical marijuana.The number of patients in the state who are registered to use the substance has surpassed 100,000 for the first time, according to Florida Departme...
Published: 04/20/18
Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

The Tampa Bay Times recently sat down with Walmart director of corporate communications Phillip Keene to chat about the retail giant’s latest retail strategies and how the company is winning over customers in a competitive market.Already, two of the ...
Published: 04/20/18
SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

Associated PressNEW YORK — SunTrust Banks Inc. says accounts for 1.5 million clients could be compromised following a potential data breach. The Atlanta bank says that it became aware of the potential theft by a former employee and that the investiga...
Published: 04/20/18
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Published: 04/20/18