Fans of the weekly public radio call-in show Car Talk are mourning the death of one of the show’s hosts, Tom Magliozzi. With his younger brother Ray and his infectious non-stop laugh, Tom imparted lessons in life, along with guesses about what may be wrong with a caller’s car. He also taught us some great lessons about owning a small business.
In many ways, Tom was the embodiment of what Americans envision when we hear the term “small business owner.” If you know his story, recounted by NPR’s Len Neary in her remembrance of him, you know that he and his brother grew up as part of an Italian family in a blue-collar neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass.
Obviously smart, both Tom and Ray graduated from MIT.
In the 1970s, a near-death auto accident led Tom to re-evaluate his life, quit his job and, as he would describe it later, “became a bum.” Others might argue that “becoming a bum” is different than what he actually did, which included becoming a college professor, consultant and eventually earning a PhD in marketing. But that’s how Tom described things.
He and Ray also started a small business during Tom’s “bum” period. It was back in the early 1970s when “starting a business” didn’t mean starting a “startup.” It was a small business, as in, a car repair business. (Imagine your two MIT graduate sons telling you they were opening a garage.) Tom came up with the idea of a garage where people could work on their own cars, a do-it-yourself concept that he and Ray started and called, “Hackers Haven.” (An idea that sounds similar to the current wave of “hackerspace” concepts).
Later, Tom and Ray would open a more traditional car repair business called The Good News Garage. (Yes, that link goes to the garage, but we’ll get there in a moment.)
Quite by accident, the public radio gig happened when Ray was invited to be on a local radio show airing on an NPR affiliate. It was supposed to be a panel show, but no one else but Ray showed up, so he called Tom and that led to the two of them being together in front of a microphone and, well, anyone who has heard them in front of microphone knows the magic.
And that laugh. The brotherly rapport and obvious love between the two made listeners, most of whom knew nothing about cars, tune in week-after-week to hear Car Talk.
The way the brothers interacted with each other and with callers made listeners want to have mechanics like them. No one could pretend to be these guys. Tom was the authenticity marketers pretend is something that can be packaged up and measured. Tom, a PhD in marketing, knew it had to be real.
After they became famous and successful (in a public radio version of fame and success), Tom and Ray didn’t just stay close to their small business roots, they remained attached to those roots. Their small business is still up and running. And the Good News Garage’s website looks just like a typical auto mechanic’s website (i.e., they have the savvy to keep it from looking like it’s owned by two graduates of MIT, one with a Ph.D. in marketing).
Tom Magliozzi loved being a small business owner. He never stopped being one. On their show, he and Ray were everything right about running a small business: mastering their craft (both in car repair and radio), having a never-ending passion for a topic, not just fixing cars but helping customers understand more about their cars.
You could always tell Tom Magliozzi loved cars. But you always knew he loved people more.
We will never forget all the goodness he embodied.
Nor shall we ever forget that beautiful laugh.