Eight, double-eight, Double-two, Seventy-eight, Two fifty-five

December 6, 2009

Hello. You’re not quite on Car Talk.

Back in the early days of Car Talk, you dialed the number (a local Boston number) and if you were so luck as to have them hit the button of the line you were on, you talked. Half hour show (just one half to the show, with inflation there are now three), three calls per show, no pre-screening. They say it was painful. But if you wanted to get on, you’d just call the number a few times, they’d pick up, and, “hello, you’re on Car Talk.”

Not anymore. The show went national in the late 1980s and now has several million weekly listeners. They claim to receive 200010,000 calls a week (that’s as many as half a million a year, of which 1/10 actually leave a message, and of which fewer than 500 make it to air), which overwhelm the switchboard. So, the procedure is a bit more complicated now. I’ve been through the rigmarole twice, so here’s a quick rundown:

1. You call 888-CARTALK. (that’s 888 227 8255)

1a. You get a busy signal. If you call when the show is being broadcast—generally on the weekend—the lines are overwhelmed. You’ll have better luck during the middle of the week.

2. You get through and get—a phone message. It tells you that if you want to order merchandise, you should call 888-CAR JUNK. If you have a car problem, leave a message. Describe the problem, use as many sounds as you can to describe it, and then leave your name, email, voice mail, and any other contact information. And, if they’re interested, they’ll all you back.

3. Wait. I assume someone at Car Talk goes through all the calls (that’s, what, several hundred per day, making it a full time job if not more—perhaps they get them textualized and indexed by term) and they select out people they think might be interesting for the show. If that happens …

4. They call you. I won’t publish the number here, but if you get a random call from the 617 area code after you’ve called in, don’t ignore it. It could be Louie Cronin—that’s right, The Barbarian—calling to screen out the nuts. Two nuts is enough for the show. There’s a great article from the WSJ about Louie and her process for getting calls on the air. Be funny, have an interesting problem with a weird noise, and you’re golden. Smoke and fire help, too.

5. You talk to Louie. (She’s super nice.) She tells you that they want to have you on the air and makes sure that your problem is, well, real. Fakery, or already-fixed problems, are out. If you pass muster (so either have a real problem or a good cover story), she schedules you to be on the show.

6. The show is taped on Wednesday morning. Eastern time. Yes, you’ll have to explain to your boss why you are cackling in to the phone. If you’re on the West Coast, you may have to drag yourself out of bed for the taping.

7. She calls you. In 2006, they were adamant about no cell phones. Now, they can be flexible, but land lines are preferable.

These next few steps I’ll take from the email you’ll be sent if you are going to be on:

8. Once Louie reaches you, you’ll be on the line for about 15 minutes. The first 10 minutes you will be put on hold and listen to the show on the phone. Depending on the call in front of you, it can be longer or shorter. It must be a madhouse that morning, which Louie calling each person, getting them in line, and queuing up other calls. I don’t envy that job.

9. They tape the show straight through. It sounds just like the regular show. And the most important thing of all … Tom and Ray do NOT know anything in advance about the calls or the questions. In fact, only Louie knows. As Tom and Ray pointed out, if they had to research in advance, that would be “work.”

10. This wasn’t in the instructions, but don’t say “good morning” or mention the time or day of the week. The show is aired at all different times of the day. When I called in, Louie told me this on the phone, and then they had to, at the end of the previous segment, rerecord the caller saying “hi guys” instead of “good morning” (it took her two more tries). It entailed Tom and Ray—who must have been of the transgression during the call—holding the caller on the line to get this information.

10. When Louie calls you, she will tell you the exact order of calls and when you will be on. When it is your turn, Tom and Ray will say, “Hello, you are on Car Talk.” (Yes, Louie, we know that.) That is your cue, jump right in and say, “Hi, this is ____, (first name only) calling from ___.” Then ask your question.

11. You should get your question for Tom and Ray down to a concise one or two sentences. They have no idea beforehand who is on the line or what the question is … so be brief and to the point so that they can get the gist of your problem quickly. Louie also tells you, on the phone, to talk slowly and enunciate. I didn’t do a great job of this.

12. Now you’re famous.

13. Well, not yet. They edit the heck out of the shows. In 2006, I was on the line for better than fifteen minutes, yet the segment on-air was under five. The guys are very talkative and probably more than half the time on the line winds up on the cutting room floor.

14. And … it takes a few weeks to produce the show. Generally, you record on Wednesday and hit the airwaves a week and a half later. Sometimes calls are held to put in to later shows, which was the case this time. I recorded on the 13th of October, and the show aired on the 5th of December.

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