Car Talk announced today that it was continuing to evolve its brand to focus primarily on digital media. Since 2012, Car Talk has provided NPR stations with its “Best of Car Talk” program, but it will sunset that programming in September of 2017 to focus on its digital programming. It’s part of an expansion beyond radio that started 20 years ago when cartalk.com arrived, to just this week when Car Talk launched newly updated communities on its website.
Car Talk started in 1977 as a local radio show on WBUR in Boston, and achieved Peabody Award-winning success as a syndicated show on over 650 NPR stations. But as the show reached its peak popularity, there was always the understanding that a personality driven show has a lifecycle dependent on the hosts of the show, but an online brand can grow well beyond the personalities involved.
As constantly updated editorial became a must-have in online publishing, CarTalk.com again shifted focus to develop a roster of writers that produces writing targeted at fans that have stayed engaged with the brand. Writers like Jamie Kitman – long time Automobile magazine writer and Investigative Reporters and Editors Award-winning contributor to the Nation – and Tom Bodett provide fans with a familiar tone, a love/hate relationship with cars, and a sense of humor to which Car Talk fans respond. Since 2015, BestRide.com has partnered with Car Talk, delivering stories and videos like this story on manual transmissions.
One less talked about evolution has achieved notable results behind the scenes: Because of its success as a radio show focused on cars, Car Talk created the Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program, which helps local NPR member stations generate funds through cars donated by listeners. According to Doug Berman, the 12-year old program has become the leading public radio vehicle donation program, featuring a variety of the voices from all of public radio’s programs. Many stations are already using the program in private label form, and it resulted in total donations of $5.4 million in 2015. That program, which now operates as a separate business unit under the name Car Talk Vehicle Donation Services, will continue and expand.
The nearly 40-year-old radio show had an unusual start. Tom and Ray Magliozzi were invited to appear on a call-in panel show. “We got a call one day back in 1977, from Vic Wheatman, the Program Director at Boston’s WBUR Radio,” says Ray Magliozzi. “Now, this was at the time when WBUR was a tiny little college radio station, with a signal that would get staticy whenever the wind blew.”
By 2012, the show was reaching 3.3 million listeners every weekend, syndicated to 660 NPR stations across the country. That was also the year that Car Talk decided to suspend production of original shows.
“We will make the 2016-2017 season of Car Talk the best of the best,” said producer of Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Doug Berman. “We will edit, enhance, and program the very best of the 30 year series.”
The website receives over a million unique visits per month, and its Facebook audience of 610,000 fans — unlike any other automotive audience – is split evenly between men and women. “There’s still a lack of brutally honest information out there for people who just have to live with cars. Not for tool-obsessed car geeks, not enthusiasts, but the rest of us — those who love our cars one day, and want to set them on fire the next day when they won’t start. Those are our people,” said Car Talk’s Ray Magliozzi. “Now, pardon me while I set fire to my car.“
When the last “Best of Car Talk” program airs in 2017, it will mark 40 years of wildly unlikely success on NPR. “In many ways, the Best of Car Talk is the best of public radio,” said Doug Berman, “honest, authentic, original, warm, interactive, broadly welcoming, and unforgettable.”