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Ray Magliozzi ’72 talks about the creation of Cartalk, its most memorable moments, and why he and his brother decided to discontinue the show.
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The popular radio show Car Talk hosted by MIT alumni brothers Tom Magliozzi ’58 and Ray Magliozzi ’72 will stop new episodes in Septemnber; reruns will continue in syndication. Car Talk was first broadcast by WBUR in 1977, and was picked up by the National Public Radio ten years later. Car Talk has been broadcast on NPR for the last 25 years.

The decision to stop was largely motivated by Tom’s desire to retire from the show. While Tom was not available for comment, Ray explained, “Tom was ready. He’s 75, so that’s a long time to be working.”

Ray said that he had mixed feelings about the move to syndication. “It’s a transition because I feel I could have gone on — but I couldn’t have gone on without him. Either doing this show by myself or having another co-host just wouldn’t feel right.”

The Car Talk dynamic

As co-hosts of Car Talk, Ray and Tom are known for their humorous banter and insightful advice for callers’ car problems. Car Talk receives thousands of calls from listeners with car issues per week. The calls are pre-screened, and selected callers are then contacted for taping. All participants for a single show are placed on hold for the duration of taping, allowing callers that appear later in the show to listen and refer to earlier calls. Recording usually occurs the Wednesday before a Saturday show. The time between taping and airing is used for production and editing.

Ray noted that the comical dynamic between him and his brother dates back to when they were kids. “That’s the way our household was. Talking to callers on the air was basically like sitting around the kitchen table when we had invited a guest over, you know. It was always pretty lively. It was always fun.”

The Magliozzis tried to incorporate humor into the show and keep the atmosphere light and accessible. “The show started off pretty seriously,” said Ray. “When we realized that we were basically doing the same thing that we would be doing at the garage, we decided that we weren’t having enough fun. And, at that point, we decided to joke around with the callers a little bit more.” As the show progressed, the brothers tried to use humor to put callers’ woes in perspective. Ray explained, “I think that, unconsciously, we tried to just improve people’s lives a little bit — trying to get them to appreciate the fact that their problems were relatively small in the giant scheme of things… And whatever was wrong with your car or other things in your life, it’s fixable. And most things are fixable. “

Ray said that his favorite moments on the show were when the callers made them laugh. He recalled a particular instance when they received an angry letter after reading a spoof in The Onion piece about a “vowel drop” initiative to aid the Bosnian people.

“This fellow said that he didn’t know how NPR could possibly tolerate two individuals like this who poke fun at a people who’ve been downtrodden for much of their existence,” recalled Ray. “And the letter was signed Zzzyshkick — the guy had like one vowel in both his first and last name! To this day I don’t know if the letter was legit or how it came to be in front of us, but when Tom read the fellow’s name, we just couldn’t stop laughing.” Through their years on the show, Tom and Ray tried to make sure that laughter played a consistent role in Car Talk.

Leading up to Car Talk

Ray began his time at MIT in the department of mechanical engineering. But, after a gap year after his sophomore year with Vista, a domestic volunteer corps, he decided that he wanted to pursue teaching and graduated with a degree in Course 21B (now 21S, Humanities & Science) in 1972. Tom graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in Course 10 (Chemical Engineering) and Course 14 (Economics) in 1958.

The Magliozzis’ foray into radio was a result of a series of the brothers’ ventures. After graduation, Ray relocated to Vermont to teach junior high school. While there, he received an invitation from Tom to return to the Boston area to open a do-it-yourself garage. The two eventually moved away from the do-it-yourself concept towards a traditional mechanic-run garage. They also began to pursue other endeavors.

Ray said that he and Tom obtained most of their mechanical knowledge through work in their auto-repair shop, Good News Garage. Working hands-on with their customers’ automobiles allowed them to recognize what types of symptoms accompany what problems and apply this knowledge to on-air problems. By using data they obtain from their show feature “Stump the Chumps,” in which previous callers are invited back to discuss how useful the advice given was, Ray and Tom correctly remotely diagnose callers’ automobile problems 80 percent of the time.

“We had been running the garage for a few years, and Tommy was between wives,” said Ray. “He wanted to meet young ladies, and he had this brainstorm that we should teach these adult education courses and gear them towards women. I guess someone from WBUR must have taken one of our courses and felt that we were fairly competent and articulate, and that led to an invitation to participate in a panel discussion.”

Initially, Ray declined the offer to participate in the panel discussion, but Tom accepted. When none of the other invitees to the panel showed up, Tom answered questions by himself. The segment was successful and led to WBUR extending an invitation to both Tom and Ray to do a regular segment that eventually morphed into the version of Car Talk that is now broadcast on NPR.

Ray said that while Tom is permanently retiring from the radio business after Car Talk, he could perhaps see himself working with radio in the future in ventures unrelated to automobiles. But, he said that he could not envision doing anything outside the realm of NPR after enjoying their support for so many years.

Working with NPR allowed Ray and Tom to give honest opinions about cars and models as they did not have to worry about upsetting sponsors. “A couple of times we ran afoul of GM and Chrysler and Ford and others, and NPR had our backs which was wonderful because we were able to tell basically the truth,” explained Ray. “I think our listeners really appreciated that, and they knew that no matter what, nobody owned us. And I think that’s important.”

Ray and Tom’s radio show was the subject of Car Talk: The Musical, a show produced by Suffolk University; it is playing at the Central Square Theatre through August 12. The brothers also inspired an animated Car Talk spin-off, Click and Clack’s As the Wrench Turns, which aired on PBS in 2008.

Both of the Magliozzi brothers plan to continue their work at the Good News Garage in Cambridge, maintaining the http://cartalk.com website, and writing their newspaper column.