Back in the summer of 1997, I got my one and only assignment for a magazine called The Web, back when it seemed like it made sense to publish reviews and profiles relating to websites on dead trees. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining projects I ever worked on: I profiled Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack of public radio’s Car Talk.
When I saw the sad news today that Tom had passed away at 77, the memories came flooding back.
I made contact with the Car Talk team by getting the phone number of their production company. In 1997, you did that by calling directory assistance. I still remember the pleasure I took in asking for the number for Dewey Cheetham & Howe.
At least back then, snagging an interview with the brothers was tougher than you might think. They didn’t particularly like publicizing their show, and rarely talked to the press. But my timing was good: My editor, Dan Miller, had asked me to write about them because they were launching their first website. That they were willing to promote.
I conducted the interview one afternoon when they were taping their show at the studios of Boston’s WBUR. They were a little impatient with being interviewed, but smart, warm, and funny. I learned that even though the show felt like it was live–the Magliozzis’ mom sometimes called in after supposedly hearing another call on the radio–the handful of people who made it onto the program were actually chosen from 10,000 prospects a week who left recorded messages. That explained why so many of the on-air callers seemed so similar in personality and car problems. (There was a certain sort of female caller who pretty much made it onto the air several times a week.)
And I was startled to see that the Magliozzis sometimes worked from material written by others. That seemed to happen during the bridging sequences, and I don’t think it’s scandalous, since much of their funniest moments did appear to be ad-libbed–or at least not read off a script. But I see that I didn’t mention it in my story.
The best part of the assignment was that it finally taught me to tell the difference between the brothers, who I’d never bothered to think about as separate individuals before. Tom, the older brother, was a wacko who pretty much seemed to say whatever came into his head. Ray was far more low key, and prevented the proceedings from careening completely off course. From then on, I never had the least bit of difference keeping track of who was who.
When I’d finished my interview and was ready to leave, the producer handed me a cassette of me chatting with Tom and Ray. It sounded like an episode of Car Talk which I had mysteriously wandered into. I still have it somewhere–but I don’t think I have a tape player anymore.
Anyhow, here’s the story, which I just scanned in from the September 1997 issue of The Web. As far as I can tell, it’s not otherwise available online.