Car talk show aims to expand reach after 22 years
By Dirk Lammers
Associated Press / August 19, 2012
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—When Bostonians Tom and Ray Magliozzi walked away from their widely popular "Car Talk" public radio program after 35 years, a trio of radio colleagues 1,600 miles to the west wondered if it was time to boost their cadre of "hoodies."
"Under the Hood with the Motor Medics" has been broadcasting weekly out of Sioux Falls for more than 22 years, and parts expert Shannon Nordstrom, Russ "The Super Tech" Evans and host and moderator Chris Carter have slowly built up the automotive call-in show's affiliates to 90 stations across the country.
Evans thinks the show can grow even more.
"Now's kind of the time," he said.
NPR's "Car Talk," which began on a Boston station before going national, has long been the king of the joke-filled auto advice show, airing on 660 stations across the country with some 3.3 million listeners a week. Although the Magliozzi brothers are done dishing out their advice and jabs, repurposed versions of old shows will stay on National Public Radio indefinitely.
The hosts of "Under the Hood," which has aired for nearly as long as the Magliozzis' 25-year NPR run, enjoy mixing humor and banter, but they don't ever want comedy to overshadow solid automotive advice.
During a recent broadcast, the trio fielded questions on a jumping fuel gauge and a cabin air filter clog, but also wandered off on a tangent on whether you're obligated to buy an item when pulling off the road to use a convenience store restroom.
"We don't necessarily have a comedy show," Evans said. "We wanted to have plenty of humor, but also have plenty of real useable advice to get people help."
The show debuted in 1990 with Nordstrom solely at the helm. His family initially intended the program to be an infomercial of sorts for their Garretson recycled auto parts center, but it quickly morphed into an advice show with Nordstrom tapping his expertise as a parts supplier to independent garages, dealerships and do-it-yourselfers.
"We sit in the middle of this entire wheel and see if from all angles," Nordstrom said.
As Nordstrom started spending less time in the garage so he could run the overall Nordstrom Automotive, he decided in 1998 to bring the shop's mechanic, Evans, on for more on-hand expertise. A listener quickly labeled Evans "The Super Tech," and he's been on air ever since.
"I had to be way too ambiguous with callers," Nordstrom said. "I knew Russ had all that knowledge. It just added so much to the show."
Neither Evans nor Nordstrom carry Internet-connected devices into the studio, fielding unscreened questions armed solely with what's in their heads. Nordstrom jots down notes in a loose-leaf notebook in case a listener follows up later.
Radio veteran Chris Carter joined the crew seven years ago, running the board and taking calls while interjecting "regular guy" questions into the technical talk: "I always think, `Does the caller have to fix it, and how much will it cost?'" he said.
"Under the Hood" recently added a station in the Philadelphia market, and the show is also heard by more than 10,000 fans downloading their podcasts. Nordstrom and Evans, both 43 and born a day apart, also distribute an "Ask the Motor Medics" column to newspapers.
The hosts say they've worked hard to build personal relationships with their affiliates, which has helped them steadily add and retain stations.
KBJM-AM in Lemmon is a longtime "Under the Hood" affiliate, but the station's Mike Schweitzer seven years ago was considering switching up his Saturday morning lineup and wasn't sure if anyone was listening.
When he called the hosts to cancel, Evans asked what they could do to change his mind. Evans and Nordstrom made the 400-mile drive to the ranching community along the North Dakota border in Perkins County to host a table at the town's Farm and Home Show.
"People couldn't get in and out of the building because there was such a line," said Schweitzer KBJM's president and general manager. "I just sat there and I looked at it and said, `Well, maybe I guess they do have some listeners up here.'"
The show has aired on the station ever since, and Schweitzer said he'd love to one day add the show's second hour of the show if he had space in his lineup. The hosts' technical knowhow draws in the car geeks, but the chemistry of the personalities extends their reach to regular folks young and old, he said.
"They're able to do the show and be very knowledgeable very professional and do it with a hint of humor," Schweitzer said. "I think that's probably the key to the success of the show."
Virginia "Ginny" Peterson, 73, said she's been listening regularly from her home in Boyd, Minn., for a couple of years.
"They're just kind of jokey, and I just really enjoy looking to it," she said. "And I figure it's helpful for me on my car."
Peterson was widowed more than 30 years ago, but she was always out in the garage in with her husband when he was tinkering with their automobiles. She doesn't do her own repairs, but she checks her own oil and tops off the anti-freeze and other fluids in her 2002 Chevy Monte Carlo when needed.
Her increasing knowledge allows her to ask the right questions with mechanics, she added.
"A lot of times a woman will get ripped off to it," she said.
Evans and Nordstrom over the years have fielded calls from on-the-job automobile plant assembly line workers and U.S. motor pool soldiers in Iraq. They've also dealt with their share of puzzling predicaments.
A woman once couldn't figure out why her garage door went up or down every time she started her car. The hosts determined it was interference from bad spark plug wires was causing the mayhem.
And some years back, a frustrated caller griped about a seemingly haunted pickup truck with doors that locked and unlocked whenever it started moving.
The hosts were stumped, and the caller later sold the truck, but he later called back in to reveal the solved mystery: The new owner found a spare remote key ring behind the spare tire, which was triggering the remote whenever the truck hit a bump.
Evans said he and Nordstrom are huge fans of "Car Talk," and they learned from hosts "Click and Clack" that it's always to be important to listen to the callers, help them out and make them feel good.
"They're taking time out of their day to call us," Evans said. "They're putting trust in us with their car, and it's not always at the best time for them. They're calling because they have a problem that could likely cost them a lot of money."
He'd love to one day meet the Magliozzis.
"They're my heroes as far as the car talk world goes," he said.