Nonprofit Branding: Behind the Scenes @ NPR’s Car Talk -10 Surprising Facts About Tom & Ray

Tom and Ray of Car Talk are retiring.  After a 25th Anniversary Celebration this Fall, all new episodes will feature the most acclaimed portions of prior broadcasts. Since 1986 these guys have been our pals and business colleagues, along with Bongo Boy Doug Berman and Senior Web Lackey Doug Mayer. So now we reflect on the beloved Brothers M, their program and its audience. Fact: Tom and Ray ARE Tom and Ray. There is no difference between their on-air and real life personalities. That stuff is real. They do not turn on and off. Fact: Normally, the above is a cool trait. At a restaurant, it is not cool. During a broadcast, Tom’s laugh may stun the speakers on your radio. In person it may cause teeth to crack. We twice, in both Cambridge and Denver,  saw a customer leave the table and walk through a crowded (and noisy) restaurant to ask for his autograph. Both said they recognized the laugh from across the room.   Fact: Some people recorded Tom’s laugh and use it as the ringtone on their cell phones. (They tend to be reclusive).    Fact: It’s OK to admit you love Car Talk. That affinity puts you in a top-tier demographic. Audience research firms surprised NPR by discovering listeners to Car Talk and to Morning Edition are an elite group with shared characteristics. Fans of both programs have equally high levels of affluence, education, positions of influence, career achievement, interest in public affairs, etc. Car Talk attracts, and will continue to attract, one of the most upscale audiences in broadcasting!    Fact: Some say Tom and Ray sound like guys who might sweep the streets in Boston. Actually, both graduated from MIT. In addition, Tom has a PhD!

The actual Car Talk Plaza – third floor, across from the COOP in Harvard Square. Gilt lettering on the windows announce Dewey, Cheetham & Howe.

Fact: Car Talk won the top honor in broadcasting, the Peabody Award, for “distinguished achievement and meritorious public service.”    Fact: The Car Talk Team was thrilled to the industry’s highest award. Nevertheless, the Peabody plaque hangs on the wall in Doug Berman’s guest bathroom.    Fact: Ray manages the garage they started together decades ago. We’re told the garage has such a great reputation people may wait for several weeks to get an appointment for service.   Fact: The show is about cars. But the Brothers M adroitly find ways to use automotive matters as metaphors for topics of lesser import. Like love and childhood. Ethics and politics. And like international affairs and child-rearing and real (REAL!) family values. And like where, within Dante’s Circles of Hell, some Detroit auto-executives should eventually be positioned.    Fact: A sizable portion of the audience gathered around this iconic program does not own a car.

Signed and numbered certificate in the guitar body

Fact: Tom and Ray are fine Bluegrass musicians. They once had a band of their own. Knowing their level of skill, the Martin Guitar Company made a Car Talk limited “signature edition” model. How limited? Only 25 units; list price $6,500! During a national pubradio conference we put one of those guitars on display in the VisABILITY booth. Here is a video of Tom & Ray receiving the prototype of the Car Talk guitar, describing the instrument’s unique embellishments and jamming with some friends. (The music begins around 4:20.) Fact: Car Talk is one half of what many in the pubradio industry call Radio Berman.  The other half is also an NPR program – Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. Doug Berman added finesse to Car Talk and then took it national via NPR. He invented Wait, Wait. And he is Executive Producer of both programs. Fact: Car Talk is not only a major brand – it is the highest performing non-news program in public radio. Wait, Wait is second. Radio Berman!    Fact: If you are a Wait, Wait fan, you admire the incredible wit of host Peter Sagal.  So you will want to read Peter’s perspective on The Brothers M! (If you’re not a fan, you must become one! So, read this just to meet the host of Wait, Wait. Don’t Tell Me.)    Fact: Tom and Ray obtained licenses as ministers in a highly commercial quasi-church religious enterprise recognized by the State of California. – one of those deals that sells a minister’s license for $50. Then they legally performed the wedding ceremony for producer Doug Berman and his wife, Sip. Tom opened the service with “Good afternoon. I am the Right Reverend Raymond Magliozzi. This is my brother, the Left Reverend Thomas Magliozzi….” While the brothers were hilarious, the vows Doug and Sip exchanged were serious and beautiful.    Fact: At the wedding we met Tom’s daughter and her spouse. I realized her husband is the son of a guy who lived on my floor in Cornell’s freshmen dorms in 1958… nearly 40 years earlier. What are the odds? So what’s happening now? Or, in other words, why did the VisABILITY office get deluged with emails and phone calls when the announcement broke on Friday? (June 8, 2012)

Tom & Ray decided that, after 25 years hosting a national program, it is time to pause “…and smell the cappuccino.” (Their words.)

Car Talk’s secret vault holds four-bazillion recorded program hours. This archive of wisdom and humor is important. It should be exhumed, dusted off and re-broadcast. We deserve to hear it again. Or for the first time.

Led by Doug Berman, the good folks at Dewey, Cheetham and Howe will dig through the archives and bring us the Absolutely Best Of The Best of Car Talk. Weekly! Every Saturday.

Life goes on….

The BRANDING LESSON: No cognitive dissonance here. No waffling in mission. No self-indulgent identity crisis.  Tom and Ray Magliozzi stayed true to themselves on-air. And off-air. The public responded. A major brand developed. Start with a good product. Or a distinctive nonprofit mission. Consistency and frequency of presentation invites public notice. And response. And then – affinity! That’s how brands evolve. And that’s how Tom and Ray and Doug fostered one of the most bullet-proof and respected brands in broadcasting.

Branding ADVICE

Oscar Wilde said it first. Tom and Ray Magliozzi demonstrated it for 25 years.  In all branding communications and in all public interactions, every nonprofit should follow Wilde’s advice aggressively, enthusiastically and confidently:

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”