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Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi has died. Ira Glass remembers how he changed public radio

Tom Magliozzi, left, has died. With his brother Ray (also pictured), he was co-host of NPR's Car Talk.
Tom Magliozzi, left, has died. With his brother Ray (also pictured), he was co-host of NPR's Car Talk.
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Tom Magliozzi, one of the co-hosts of the long-running, popular NPR show Car Talk died today from complications of Alzheimer's. He was 77.

Perhaps better known as one half of "Click and Clack," Magliozzi was part of the evolution of public radio programming into something more oriented toward humor, storytelling, and entertainment. Though Car Talk was a call-in show, the real attraction to the program was hearing the interplay and banter between Tom Magliozzi and his brother Ray, who would joke and have fun with callers, before diagnosing their car troubles.

It was, as This American Life host Ira Glass points out in an essay for Current, part of a hugely revolutionary approach to what public radio programming could be.

I enjoy Car Talk. I like those guys. And as a public radio lifer, I'm grateful for what Tom and Ray Magliozzi did to bring a vast audience to public radio, year after year.

They made our stations a destination for millions of radio listeners on Saturday mornings. They shoved public radio's sound away from stuffy and towards chatty. They loosened everyone's notion of what is possible or appropriate for a national show and — just as important — what could be a hit with our audience.

Without Car Talk, shows like mine would have had a much harder time getting onto stations, no question. The Car Guys and Garrison Keillor proved you can sound different, you can organize huge swaths of what you're doing around just being funny, you can think of your program first and foremost as entertainment, and audiences will show up in big numbers.

What they did was huge. Doug Berman does a canny, brilliant job producing them. Tom and Ray — like great ballplayers — are so phenomenally surefooted at what they do that they make it seem effortless. And they wear the mantle of success as lightly and gracefully as anyone could.

Glass wrote his essay on the event of the Magliozzi brothers' retirement from broadcasting in 2012. He was advocating at the time for Car Talk to end when the brothers' career did, rather than for stations to turn over that slot to reruns of the venerable program.

But that so many stations would even consider such a move is exemplary of just how influential Tom Magliozzi was to public radio as a whole. Car Talk proved that public radio could be built around humor and entertainment, while still being informative, and it also showed how great hosts could build relationships with each other — and the audience.

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