Back in 1998, very soon after I was offered the job (on a temporary basis, hah) as host of a struggling new NPR quiz show, I had a conversation with Doug Berman, the creator of both our show and Car Talk.
I said, “I want to be clever, smart, edgy, just like [name of well known political commentator/comedian.]
There was a pause. And then Doug said…
“Well, sure. He’s very funny. But he’s also an asshole.”
I remember that conversation because it was the first time I confronted a lesson that I had to learn as I became the host of Wait, Wait… and am probably still working on 14 years later. I had always assumed the most important thing when talking on the radio was, well, what you said. Were you funny? Were you interesting, new, provocative, different from what you or anyone else had done before? That had been my goal during my prior career as a playwright, and I assumed it would carry over into radio.
What Doug was pointing out then — and what became the most valuable and important lesson he ever taught me — was that all of that is far, far less important than simply being somebody an audience wanted to spend time with. Radio, as I learned, has an intimate, long term relationship with its audience. People don’t flick around the dial like they do with cable TV. They tune in to something — more importantly, someone — they like, and they stay with them because after a while it feels like a friendship. We in radio are in your homes, in your cars, in your kitchen, sometimes in your bathroom. Why would you invite someone to those places if you didn’t like them? And why would you listen to someone — no matter how funny, provocative, or clever somebody was — if he or she was a jerk?
I will confess, back then, I didn’t care much for Car Talk. I considered myself way too smart and sophisticated for Tom and Ray and their braying laughter and their silly jokes. But as I struggled with Wait Wait to become even a fraction as successful as they were, I learned to appreciate, and then admire, and then finally envy their ease, the way they were able to project the best part of their characters through the radio, every week, to an audience that loved them for doing just that.
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Tom and Ray are exactly who they sound like on the radio, although of course, there’s more to them than their radio personas — Tom, in particular, has Very Strong Opinions, and a profane way of putting them — but getting to know them over the years made me realize that in radio, maybe in life, it’s much more important to be kind than it is to be clever. And that instead of being different every week, it’s more of a challenge, and more of a reward to your listeners, to find a way to be yourself.
Tom and Ray have announced their retirement, but Car Talk will continue with “new” episodes culled from 25 years of archives. And although the material will be familiar, that won’t be a problem for their fans — of whom I am now one, of course — because being familiar was always the point.