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“This American Life” host Ira Glass and Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president of programming, are engaged in the public-radio version of a cage match (impassioned, but civil) about “Car Talk.” Glass says NPR stations should not air reruns of the show in its current time slot once the hosts retire in September.
“A show that’s 100 percent reruns doesn’t fit with our mission as public broadcasters,” he writes. By distributing and airing reruns in the same time slot, NPR and its stations are missing an opportunity to expose listeners to an up-and-coming show:
For all of public radio’s successes, the part of our mission we’ve always neglected the most is innovation. Our biggest shows —All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Fresh Air, A Prairie Home Companion — are decades old. The average age of our listeners keeps creeping upward. At 53, I am one of the younger public radio stars. My show has been on the air 17 years.
We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas. That’s our mission, and ultimately, it’ll be good business, too, to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences.
Nuzum’s response: “Car Talk makes innovation possible,” not only because it brings in so much money, but because it’s the best show at bringing in new listeners and increasing occasional listeners’ attachment to NPR. Plus, no other show on the air right now could match its ratings, and there is no obvious successor:
This winter, Wait Wait will turn 15 (surprising, I know). When Car Talk was 15, we were already five years into the development of Wait Wait. As Wait Wait reaches this milestone, we’re behind. We aren’t ready with the next big-tent audience generator.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the current power of Car Talk will not continue forever. But the question is, in a number of years when we see Car Talk’s power begin to sunset, will we be ready?
I find it interesting that This American Life, which recycles a ton of content, would be the show posing this question. Personally I think that so long as the audience wants to listen it NPR should continue to air it.
This post has been updated to clarify that although NPR distributes “Car Talk,” individual stations decide when to air it.