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Don't touch that NPR dial

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For a confederation of supposed liberals, public radio can be awfully conservative.

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?

"We're hoping to be like 'I Love Lucy' and air 10 times a day on 'NPR at Nite' in 2075," the brothers wrote.

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. 

But none of these is ready now or in the near future to carry the kind of audience load of a "Car Talk" or "Wait Wait," contends Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president for programming. 

He argues, and much of the public radio establishment seems to agree with him, that leaving the nouveau version of "Car Talk" in place is the responsible, audience-friendly move, one that will ultimately help all the other programs.

Arguing the other side, more or less, has been a Chicago contingent.  

"This American Life" host Glass, in an opinion piece in Current, the trade journal of public broadcasting, argued for taking the new "Car Talk" out of the prime Saturday morning spot that the show, public radio's most popular in terms of how many listen in an average quarter-hour, now occupies. 

"A show that's 100 percent reruns doesn't fit with our mission as public broadcasters. I don't think it's justifiable," Glass wrote.

"Especially not in a time slot that's essentially primetime on weekends. Run 'Car Talk' late nights maybe. Or Sunday night. But not on Saturday mornings. If we're going to have a program that continues on our air forever like 'I Love Lucy' reruns, it should be in the time slots 'Lucy' migrated to.

"For all of public radio's successes, the part of our mission we've always neglected the most is innovation."

Torey Malatia, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Media agrees, and WBEZ won't be running the new (old) "Car Talk" in any time slot come October. The reason is a combination of mission and economics. 

"Keeping the audience interested in the medium has a lot to do with refreshing the product and introducing new ideas," he said, arguing that you can't just think about serving the largest possible audience.

"If that's what you were concerned about, you could say ('Car Talk') is still going to work," said Malatia. "Most people aren't going to know. … People turn on the radio and they hear something delightful, and they're going to enjoy it, right? But, again, I think if you have prime audience time, you should be very thoughtful about what you're offering. You should try to offer things that are both enjoyable but also stimulating, creative, new, exciting." 

He'd consider, as Glass suggested, moving what he called "CGI Car Talk" to somewhere else on the schedule, but National Public Radio "is not really changing the pricing," he said.

At almost $44,000 a year, it is the station's most expensive weekly show. ("Prairie Home Companion" costs $53,500, but it's two hours. "Wait Wait" and "This American Life" would cost, if Chicago Public Radio weren't involved in producing them, roughly $25,000 and $15,000, respectively. Stations in smaller cities pay less.)

He does not sense, however, that he's leading any sort of uprising among stations: "The little that I've heard when I've called around (to peers) is that people just haven't made up their minds, which I think means people are just going to leave the status quo going," Malatia said. 

One of them, Dave Becker, the program director for Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas, made headlines within the industry when he decided to drop "Prairie Home Companion," a show that, he said, "never had much of an audience" on his station and has been losing some of what it had. 

That decision was strictly financial — an expensive, not-super-popular show on a station "struggling like crazy" in a region with a challenged economy — and had nothing to do with whether or not "PHC" will end one of these years. "Garrison, every couple of years, he seems to say, 'Well, I think I'm gonna call it quits,' but then he says, 'I was just kidding,'" Becker said. "It's like Lucy and the football."

But while Becker may be ahead of a curve with "Prairie Home," he will gladly continue to carry "Car Talk."

"I'm happy to hear that the producers are going to work on what amounts to an evergreen show," he said. "I would bet money that we're all going to kind of continue to carry the show and then gauge listener response after maybe three or six months." 

Which brings us back to the question of why public radio seems to have this conservative streak, this reverence for long-running hits and resistance to change that is, as Sagal pointed out, completely different from the "creative churn that you've got in commercial broadcasting." 

"Why is it so hard to launch new shows?" he said.

"We have all these conditions that are ripe for invention, the leading one of which is, of course, the strange irony, that most people don't understand, which is that (programming choices) are up to the individual stations." 

There's no public radio ruler saying, thou shalt carry such and such, as there is in even public television.

But in a blog post he wrote after the initial "Car Talk" announcement, Sagal — who acknowledges that "Wait Wait" would not have survived some rocky early years without some very noncommercial forbearance from the public radio system — supplied something of an answer to his own questions. 

At first, he wrote, "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."

What the audience values is, he elaborated in the interview, consistency and authenticity. And that, on the left end of the dial, is what they get, for better or worse.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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