Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In For The Long Haul

By James Busbee

JUNE 22, 1998:  If you’ve ever been stuck by the side of the road with an overheated engine; if you’ve ever been burned by an oily little used-car salesman pushing a lemon on you; if you’ve ever gotten rooked by some mechanic who told you “we found some other problems” as he hands you a repair bill triple the original estimate – you know how valuable Car Talk is. Car Talk is the syndicated radio show/advice column on all things automotive. It’s the brainchild of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two brothers from Boston nicknamed “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers,” and it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary on the air (plus almost 8 months). As part of the celebration, NPR’s local affiliate, WKNO-FM 91, will be hosting an anniversary party at the Racquet Club of Memphis.

The party will include a live video simulcast of the show (more on that later), along with food and games. “During intermissions, we’ll be hosting contests like Car Talk Trivia,” says Marcy Anderson, WKNO’s manager of development and promotions. “AutoZone has donated $50 gift baskets, and there will also be a ‘Happy Anniversary’ card for everyone to sign.”

Talk radio, Car Talk’s primary medium, has always been slagged as the lowest rung on the broadcast-media ladder. Even though a Howard Stern has an audience that’s millions larger than a Leno or Let­terman, talk radio is still considered less “serious” a medium than others. The ranting right-wingers, rabid sports-talk hosts, and allegedly “wacky” local morning shows do little to change that opinion. Unlike other media, talk radio lives and dies by its callers – average Joes and Janes who phone in and discuss, theorize, or spew about whatever comes into their heads.

That’s where Car Talk comes in. Tom and Ray have a genuine interest in and concern for the automotive concerns of their audience. Not only are these guys funny, they actually know what the heck they’re talking about. (They’re both mechanics themselves, and graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Their hands-on experience in auto repair dates back to 1973, when Tom and Ray opened a do-it-yourself garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eventually, the brothers worked their way into a gig hosting a well-received Boston-area version of Car Talk. On Halloween 1987, Car Talk went nationwide on NPR. In the ensuing 10 years, listeners have been treated to hours of “bad” car advice, along with bizarre stories about lovelorn ladies, husbands emasculated by their lack of auto know-how, and bizarre repair techniques. Perhaps their most famous story was that of Max the car dealer, who replaced a customer’s dead schnauzer with a live one to cover up his body shop’s apparent murder of the dog. (It turns out that the dog’s body was being taken to a taxidermist when an accident occurred.)


Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.

Soon after the radio show debuted, the Tappet Brothers expanded their empire with a syndicated weekly column, Click and Clack Talk Cars. The column now appears in 175 newspapers, including the Flyer. A trade paperback, appropriately titled Car Talk, came out in 1991 and has sold 115,000 copies. The Car Talk domain even features tapes and CDs, with titles like Men Are From GM, Women Are From Ford. On the Web, Car Talk is located at http://www.cartalk.msn.com.

Car Talk airs in Memphis on Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. – prime shade-tree mechanic time – on WKNO’s stations: WKNO-FM 91.1, WKNP-FM 90.1, WKNQ 90.7, and WKNA-FM 88.9. It’s a mix of real-world advice, smart-ass humor, and pretension-bursting straight talk. Recent shows have included anecdotes about cats being used to test the integrity of certain cars (“companies would put a cat in a car with the windows up, and if the cat was dead the next day, the car was airtight”), the truth about quickie oil-change places (“they spend so much trying to get you in there that if you pay only 20 bucks, and don’t take the extras, to them that’s like going into a restaurant and ordering a cup of tea”), and irrelevant brain teasers (before you, you have three light switches, only one of which is connected to a lightbulb in another room. You can switch the switches as much as you like, but you can only check the lightbulb once. How do you figure out which switch connects to the bulb? – see below). The mix is a hit – Car Talk is heard on 415 stations by more than 2.6 million listeners.

Now, about this live video celebration thing. Sure, the Tappet Brothers are great fun. And it’s nice to see good guys surviving for 10 years in a cutthroat medium. But really – a telecast of a radio show? Seems like it would be almost as painful as watching television news anchors try to ad-lib. The power of radio comes from the intimacy of just hearing a voice – and, considering the appearance of many radio talk-show hosts, we should be thankful for that.

But Click and Clack won’t force you to watch their mugs all night. They’ve set up plenty of guests, including the Flying Karamazov Brothers, the Smothers Brothers, and Dr. Joyce Brothers (sense a theme here?). The brothers will reminisce about their wildest times on the air. Beyond that, it’s business as usual.

“We’ve been told by Car Talk’s producers in Boston that they won’t be rehearsing for this event,” Anderson says. “They don’t rehearse for their regular show, and this won’t be any different. It should be a lot of fun.”


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