Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tom Magliozzi's 4 Million Friends on NPR

[Photo: Tom and Ray at play, at work (]
"With that laugh, he was able to make everyone around him feel better about everything," said radio producer Doug Berman earlier this month.  He was remembering Tom Magliozzi, who co-hosted NPR's program Car Talk from 1987 to 2012 with his younger brother Ray.  The day before, NPR had announced Magliozzi's death from complications ensuing from Alzheimer's. "Car Talk was a way to sort of mass-produce that feeling.  You put him and his brother [Ray] in front of a microphone and suddenly four million people a week feel better." 

The many tributes to Tom Magliazzi on NPR media made me wonder if there's a mass-produced intimacy here that's different in quality from other media "communities?"

Tributes from fans at the site of NPR program Fresh Air thanked Tom and Ray for years of shared laughter.  A recovering alcoholic got a morale boost from Car Talk; the brothers' banter kept a long-distance driver company; others (myself included) had the show on during years of routine Saturday chores.  Listener Sarah Pinho said a lot of what I would like to say with her posting:
Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers have probably been in my life since birth. Just hearing the words "Car Talk" makes me think of the taste of sawdust, Saturday mornings, and Dad in the workshop, saws and sanders buzzing away. They were just part of life, part of weekends, part of Dad.  I'm being reminded this week, even more than usual, that public radio is a national treasure. Thanks to these two brothers for loving each other and for adding so richly to American culture.
Since the age of Mass Media began -- sometime between the serialized blockbusters of Charles Dickens and the mourners lined up around the block to view the body of film star Rudolf Valentino -- we consumers have shared emotional connections to distant celebrities.  We've also had connections to each other through events shared live: JFK, Watergate hearings, the Challenger, 9/11.  We've connected through fictional characters, too, tuning in at the same time across the country to see season finales and series finales from M*A*S*H and Dallas to Breaking Bad.  It's cliché how a recorded song can conjure up a time, full-force.

But NPR is more than a single program or personality; it's almost a parallel society, defined by curiosity, appreciation, and civility.   "All things considered" is more than the name of its flagship program; it's the creed.   Co-hosts on the national and local programs are convivial, and never antagonize their interviewees, though they do press a question if they receive an evasive answer.  Just recently, in stories about the President's deportation relief plan, they interviewed an attorney of Latino descent who has defended immigrants from deportation -- who is now a Republican congressman.  He was asked open-ended questions to expound his views, and follow-up questions about a range of responses by opponents.  It ended with a cordial sign-off, and news that a Latina congresswoman on the other side would be interviewed the following day -- and more reporting about the ins and outs of the new policy.   News stories and investigative stories all get a 360-degree treatment, more than "left/right" or "pro/con." 

This parallel society is funded by listeners, and most of us have common memories and share this ethos.

In emergencies, I go to NPR for perspective and some comfort.  Some weeks, I feel that I need to hear the weeks' bad news turned into comedy for Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.    I remember the shock of the exceptions, as Tom and Ray said in sober voices that they didn't feel like laughing on the Saturday following 9/11.  There was a shocking silence in October 2008 when the Morning Edition host asked an economist, "Wow!  Is there any silver lining to Lehman Brothers' collapse?"  There was a long pause before the expert replied, "I don't want to think about what's ahead.  This will be the worst financial crisis in our lifetime."  Long pause. "Well," said the host, "all right then.  Thanks.  This is Morning Edition."

In a way, NPR's like the Episcopal Church, complete with traditions, familiar old tunes, openness to new things, refusal to get too riled up about things.  It's ritual, too:  voices in the car, the Saturday bike ride to Stone Mountain with Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me! on my radio app, Saturday night with a martini and Prairie Home Companion, evenings with Fresh Air and classical concerts.

So, Tom lives on in memory and "the Best of" Car Talk; and NPR continues to amuse, engage, and enlarge my view of the world.   

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