Column: The voices on the other side of the dial

Dad's Radio

The first time I visited my husband’s parents, I noticed that his dad carried a small radio from room to room of their New Jersey garden apartment, tuned to a Yankees game, just the way I carried a radio with me everywhere I went tuned to National Public Radio.

And come to think of it, my then soon-to-be husband did the same thing. We may not always hear each other — “What? Hold on while I turn this thing down!” — but when it comes to radio, we are a family of very good listeners.

By the time we married in 1985, I’d been listening to “A Prairie Home Companion,” the variety show hosted by Garrison Keillor, for almost a decade. I was not the only one at our wedding in possession of a “Powdermilk Biscuit” T-shirt. Our friend Sam offered the toast: “May Charity always be strong, may Steve always be good looking, and may their children be above average.”

In the early 1990s, we bought a Volvo 245 wagon with 60,000 miles on it to transport my husband, two sons, hound and me from our apartment on the Upper West Side to the East End every weekend. I started listening to “Car Talk” with the wisecracking, big-hearted, flirtatious hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, every Saturday morning. Our car spent a lot of time in New York, a place that, like the Magliozzi brothers’ Boston hometown, was hostile territory for internal combustion engines. Like the song said, “If you can park it there, you can park it anywhere.“

In 1996, with 100,000 miles on it, the car started making a tremulous whine that morphed into a higher-pitched grinding when I turned the steering wheel — but only when going left and uphill. I called the “Car Talk” listener line and described the problem, even clearing my throat and warming up a bit to make my re-creation of the sound as accurate as possible. Amazingly, as soon as I said it out loud I felt better, like going to confession or talking with a therapist.

My vocals did not get me on the show. I eventually had to take my Brick (affectionate term for a Volvo —it’s a “Car Talk” thing) to a garage, where they were nonplussed by my performance of “the noise.” But I believed that Tom and Ray had my back. They would never let one of their listeners continue to drive if it was life threatening.

Tom and Ray inhabited an automotive world that I remembered, a time when the stuff under the hood could be understood, even reasoned with, a time when my dad expected me to check the oil, the belts, the water levels myself. When mere mortals changed their own oil, and when you got a flat on the LIE, you knew what to do, and it involved getting out of the vehicle.

In the 1990s, the sports talk program “Mike and the Mad Dog,” hosted by Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, began to dominate the afternoon airwaves in our house, especially when there wasn’t a baseball game to listen to. These two guys and the people who called them had a lot of interesting things to say about sports. Plus, their relationship was fascinating. Russo’s bombast and his over-the-top New York accent were in such contrast to Francesca’s levelheaded delivery that you could practically hear Mike wince every time the Mad Dog opened his mouth.

On a July afternoon in 1999 we headed east from the city with the radio on, as David Cone was pitching a perfect game. We pulled over on Route 25 near Southold to hear John Sterling describe the last out, “27 up, 27 down, baseball immortality for David Cone. And the Yankees win, thuuuuh Yankees, win!”

Heard of a “driveway moment?” This was a “shoulder moment,” necessary because Steve was so excited he couldn’t steer, and our sons were jumping around as if Cone himself was in the back seat at the bottom of the pile.

“Mike and the Mad Dog” finally broke up in 2008, when Russo left the show. Except for a televised reunion benefit last week, they have stayed broken up. In 2013, Tom and Ray Magliozzi stopped making new episodes of “Car Talk,” and a year and a half ago, 77-year-old Tom Magliozzi died from complications of Alzheimer’s. A few months later, in another era-ending announcement for NPR listeners to absorb, 73-year-old Garrison Keillor, the host for more than 40 years of “A Prairie Home Companion,” said this would be his last season.

Radio has been called the most intimate form of mass media, and it’s true that losing the voices I’ve spent countless hours listening to feels like a personal loss. I may keep listening to “A Prairie Home Companion,” even after Garrison Keillor stops delivering “the News from Lake Wobegon” sometime this summer.

But last Saturday night, at Town Hall in New York, I said farewell to the tall, odd and very funny man with red socks and a beautiful baritone singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” along with a sold-out audience at the last live performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” that I’ll ever attend.

Goodbye, Mike and the Mad Dog, I’ll never fugetaboutit. Goodbye, Tom and Ray Magliozzi. What you gave me will endure for at least 250,000 miles with regular oil changes.

Charity Robey is a features writer for the Shelter Island Reporter, a sister publication of The Suffolk Times.

Photo credit: Flickr/Alan Levine