Ask someone to name a public radio show, any public radio show, and the chances are the answer will have been around during the Reagan administration: "A Prairie Home Companion," "All Things Considered," "Car Talk," "Fresh Air" ...
Even "This American Life" and "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!," the Chicago representatives and the perceived newbies in the public radio pantheon of hit and signature shows, were started 17 and 14 years ago, respectively.
"Isn't that terrifying," said Peter Sagal, host of "Wait Wait." "That's nuts. Fourteen years it's been since a show has launched and become a national success?"
This comes to mind not because it's pledge time again — although it surely is, somewhere — nor because, heaven forbid, a new show is threatening to enter that elite group of unquestionable superstars and needs to be written about right now.
Instead, it arises because Garrison Keillor,the Sherwood Anderson and/or Jean Shepherd of the Upper Midwest, has once again feinted in the direction of removing listeners' "Prairie Home" companionship. And much more concretely, Tom and Ray Magliozzi will definitely, no kidding around, stop making new "Car Talk" episodes this fall. The fraternal hosts announced the October end date last month in a blog post titled "Time to Get Even Lazier: Work-Averse Brother Decides that Even One Hour a Week Is Too Much."
The show's departure highlights a divide in public radio over the importance of pumping in fresh blood, a point of view led by WBEZ-FM in Chicago and by Ira Glass, host of WBEZ's "This American Life," versus retaining audience even at the price of delivering a steady stream of reruns.
With the "Car Talk" announcement came news that the show will, nonetheless, drive on, plucking parts off old episodes and reassembling them, each week, into a vehicle that will continue to elicit groans and chuckles and probably not much notice that things are any different. In a show that thrives on the woes of old and beaten-down motor vehicles, along with the similarly imperfect beings who pilot them, how long before it really becomes apparent that these particular cars are a little too long in the tooth, and didn't that last caller's muffler and boyfriend problem sound just the tiniest bit familiar?
That's a joke, of course, but the question of what to do with, as it has been called, "Zombie Car Talk" has ignited debate in public broadcasting that gets to the heart of the service's problem in developing popular new shows on a schedule that's anything less than glacial.
Chicago Public Media, parent of WBEZ, won't run "Car Talk's" new version, but most stations seem ready to, whether or not it addresses what is supposed to be public broadcasting's core mission: providing an alternative, both in content and thinking, to the commercial outlets.
Speaking of the end of new "Car Talks," Kurt Andersen, the novelist, former Spy magazine editor and host of the radio magazine "Studio 360," said, "I would hope they don't sort of fall into the trap that people sometimes do, which is to say, 'This works for us. We'll just keep running this over and over and over again.'"
That is no way, he said, "for public radio to remain great and essential and grow new shows."
There are relatively few prime slots available and plenty of quality shows, relative newcomers already in the system that might, with proper care and feeding and time-slot placement, fill at least one of "Car Talk's" very big shoes.
Most obviously, there is "Wait Wait," the news-quiz humor show produced in Chicago and recorded, most weeks, here, which is already paired with "Car Talk" in many markets and, in Chicago, will take over "Car Talk's" 9 a.m. Saturday spot. But "Wait Wait" is doing very well now, carried on 612 stations and averaging, in the most recent ratings period, 3.1 million weekly listeners. ("Car Talk" was at 661 and 3.3 million, said NPR, which distributes both shows.)
"If this were, like, seven, eight years ago, we'd be campaigning for that (slot)," said Sagal, whose show shares an executive producer, Doug Berman, with "Car Talk." "But we don't need to. We're fine."
Good, broad-appeal shows that might benefit from being moved into, say, a primo time period after "Wait Wait" include "Radiolab," clever, slickly produced reportage "about curiosity," the show says; "Studio 360," Andersen's nimble weekly chronicle of arts and culture; "Sound Opinions," the Chicago Public Media-produced music-geek hour (co-hosted by Tribune critic Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis of wbez.org and already following "Wait Wait" in Chicago); and "To the Best of Our Knowledge," a consistently engaging ideas magazine produced by Wisconsin Public Radio.
Compelling stuff from alternative sources includes shows derived from podcasts, including "The Moth Radio Hour," a collection of first-rate storytelling, and "WTF with Marc Maron," a comedian's probing interviews of, mostly, other comedians. You'd have to be highly provincial not to admire "Q," the zesty culture program produced in Canada.
NPR — it's a specific entity that makes shows for distribution, not the overlord of all public radio, as many believe — even has three newer shows it is publicly trying to fast-track as Hits of the Future, which is a lot like announcing your kid is going to be a great ballplayer. You can make the effort, get him the coaching, but, ultimately, he's going to have to hit the curveball (or, in radio shows' case, get people to listen).
They are "TED Radio Hour," derived from the tech-culture lecture series; "Ask Me Another," a quiz show that's more about general knowledge and problem solving; and "The Cabinet of Wonders," a New York-based variety show hosted by musician John Wesley Harding.