Fun party game the next time you find yourself in a crowd of people with liberal arts degrees who are, say, eating tacos from a stylish truck: Say “‘Car Talk’ and ‘Prairie Home Companion’ are basically my favorite things that air on NPR.” Stand back, and let the arguments start flying.
“Car Talk,” which NPR announced this morning will no longer put out new episodes, is an oddly divisive flash point for public radio listeners, who, once you get past the news shows, have strongly felt and wildly varied programming affiliations that create a rift as wide as any plate-tectonic action ever has. (You’d be surprised at the degree to which devotees of Diane Rehm could feel so alien to certain Terry Gross diehards.) You either find the big personalities of Click and Clack Tappet companionable or irritating. Because “Car Talk” wasn’t really an advice-based show, despite its entire premise as a call-in show for people with car trouble; it was a charm-based show.
For a certain tranche of NPR’s listeners, perhaps an aggressively urbane slice of it, the schtick didn’t quite land, or the whole thing seemed pointless. For one thing, there are more efficient ways to fix your car, if you insist on driving those pollution machines! (I like to think of these as the too-clever-by-half — but not funny — types who keep “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!” in business. This is probably unfair.)
But if, like me, you spent a large portion of your childhood in the backseat of a car that played only NPR, and you grew up to have a secret longing for a car in your subway-based life, along with fatal weaknesses for broad puns and comforting repetition and brotherly banter and a certain kind of brash old-school vibe and most of all, for the baseline romantic hopefulness inherent in imagining that a five-minute conversation in which you and a stranger attempted to replicate the weird noises your carburetor was making could actually lead to something getting better about your life — well, there’ll be reruns airing. Really, it won’t make a difference that the car models we’re hearing about get more and more outdated, and that we could never now actually call in to chat as a minor silver lining to some future car problem, because we weren’t really listening for practical reasons anyway.