Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as one-half of Click and Clack of Car Talk fame, died yesterday of complications stemming from Alzheimers. He was 77. As Ray said yesterday, it was true. He really couldn’t remember the puzzlers. Tom and Ray hosted a radio show that was ostensibly about cars for more than 30 years. Before the internet and podcasts, the only way to hear them was live, on Saturdays, on your local public radio station. I first heard them right after the show “went national” (as they say in the biz) in the late 80s. They had been hosting a local show in Boston for several years and it caught on. It was not like most other shows. They took calls about cars but the show was really about Tom and Ray. It was about their relationship, their families, their upbringing. Yes, they talked about cars and to my amateur ears, they seemed to know a fair bit. After all, most of the time all they had to go on were callers imitating the noises being made by their car. They asked diagnostic questions that reflected their academic training at MIT. They were good detectives. They even kept track of some of the more difficult diagnoses by checking up on them to find out whether their analysis was correct. After a while, when someone called in to complain of a crunching noises whenever they made a right turn, long-time listeners could predict the diagnosis. A funny noise might be a vacuum leak.
Each week they Ray, the younger of the two, read a puzzle and gave listeners a week to solve it. Next week he would give the answer and read the name of someone who sent in the correct answer. Each week he asked Tom if he remembered last week’s puzzler and almost without fail Tommy, as Ray often called him, did not.
Mostly, however, they laughed. They laughed at stories about his less than stellar military career, about his less than glorious academic career (even though he earned a PhD), his disdain for routine work (or work of any kind!), and his love for MGs and other unlikely autos. They seemed to give as much relationship advice as car advice. Most of the time the show was a refreshing change from the increasingly tedious and dehumanizing politically correct regime at NPR. Their jokes about how much longer NPR would tolerate them probably reflected a certain degree of cultural tension between their approach to radio and the too-often too-serious sonorous tone adopted by most of the rest of the shows. I listen as Tom and Ray make fun of each other, callers, and regional accent—that from a couple of guys with a fairly strong Boston accent. The consultants would surely have never let them have a show and, once again, the consultants would have been wrong. Tom and Ray became so big that NPR became the network that hosted Tom and Ray.
Why were they such a fun show to which to listen? Because they were honest, bright, funny, and warm. In a time of patently phony media personalities it was hard to listen to Tom and Ray and conclude that it was just a show. Theses guys were really brothers. They really did run a shop. Tom really was divorced. He really didn’t remember last week’s puzzler and his guess whether caller Kathy was going to Kathy with a K or Cathy with C would quite probably be wrong. All that honesty built a genuine rapport with their audience. Tom’s laughter was a part of my life for 25 years. He will be missed. That’s the power of good radio.