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What the Loss of “Car Talk” Host Tom Magliozzi Means to Me and My Children

Car Talk
Tom Magliozzi

Saturday mornings were usually spent in the car when I was a kid. My dad would drag me out of bed so I could go to the allergist for my shots, stopping for doughnuts afterwards (he always opted for a cruller because he claimed they were healthier. Ha.) and then continuing on to get the car washed or complete other long-range tasks that were too time-consuming for weekdays.

While we cruised around and battled for parking spaces with other weekend-errand warriors, my dad would have the radio tuned to Car Talk on our local public radio station.

To this day, I’m lucky if I can remember how to prop open the hood of my car to refill the washer fluid, and yet a few of my most memorable lessons gleaned from childhood came from listening to Car Talk.

“Whenever my wife and I have an argument,”Car Talk co-host Tom Magliozzi once said, “I’m always right. But being the clever fellow that I am, I never try to prove to her that I’m right, and she thinks that I’m a dummy because I’m always wrong. But she loves me.”

It was a show about cars that was only about cars roughly half the time. Car Talk originated on Boston’s public radio station in the late ’70s, was syndicated on NPR shortly thereafter, and stopped producing original episodes just a few years ago. Its presence on the dial for so long served as what many call a “gateway drug” to public radio — “getting people hooked,” as they said in a Morning Edition segment remembering Magliozzi, who died on Nov. 3, at the age of 77 following complications from Alzheimer’s.

Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me, another NPR comedy show, said of Magliozzi and his brother and co-host, Ray: “They made it safe to be silly on public radio and showed that we’re not all, you know, stiffs. They changed the tenor of public radio forever.”

Indeed, a show like Car Talk was a prime opportunity for my dad and me to enjoy a radio program together — one that specifically didn’t involve unquestionably awesome rock music (according to me) or inarguably boring college football games (also according to me). It was a compromise that provided the distinct benefit of loosening the perceived stiff collar of a network with a stuffy reputation. From there I graduated to some of NPR’s newsier shows, but never gave up on my affection for the hosts with the hardcore Bah-stun accents and an even deeper sense of humor and still goofier air of sweetness.

When it was reported that Magliozzi had passed away, it made me feel sad for his brother and family, but also for my kids. They don’t listen to public radio, or even know that it exists. We have satellite radio in our car and generally have it tuned to the Broadway channel or Radio Disney. The bulk of my public radio listening comes when I’m exercising with headphones on. Plus, it’s hard to find a station we can all agree on (I admire and marvel at how my dad didn’t give me the choices I give my kids).

NPR was always a safe space — shows like Car Talk were a judgment-free zone, or at least if Tom and Ray judged you by your car, they were probably right — and you knew enough to laugh at yourself with them. With the absence of Car Talk it’s hard to find too many other shows — radio or otherwise — these days that are equally enjoyable for parents and their kids. It’s a relic of an increasingly fading era. Old-fashioned humor that’s not out-of-date but just good fun combined with kindhearted ribbing has been replaced by smartphones, cameras, microphones, or other technological foolery that often ends up more hurtful than humorous.

Maybe when my kids think of time spent in the car with me when they’re older, it’ll be the memory of show tunes that they’ll remember fondly (because it just can’t be the horrid pop music they’d listen to nonstop if I let them), which is still a lovely idea. But it’s a shame that they never got to know some of the brighter spots of the entertainment world — those programs that shone a light on a unique way of storytelling and relatability that included self-effacing humor, Buddha-like widsom (if Buddha was a mechanic, that is), surprising insight and off-color advice. (“Well, it sounds like a clear choice between a new wife and a new car. And frankly, since you’ve held tight to this piece of junk for over 130,000 miles, I’m a little worried about which way you’re going to go.”) Not to mention lots of giggling and belly laughs.

I’ll work to ensure my kids continue laughing for as long as possible (with the occasional Saturday-morning doughnut thrown in for good measure); I just wish more shows like Car Talk were still around so they had a better idea of how it’s best done.

Photo via NPR.org

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