Can public radio still take risks?

You either loved Car Talk or you hated it; there was no in between. So the news today that the two brothers, who helped pull public radio away from its “way too serious” approach to broadcasting are quitting , is bound to be met with a mixed reaction.

Count me among the lovers, if only because I share an accent with Tom and Ray Magliozzi. It should be called “N-P-Ahhhh.”

NPR — and this is a public radio tradition — is going to continue to produce the show by recycling old ones. They don’t have much choice; it’s a cash cow for the station that produces it and the people who distribute it.

But let’s face it: it won’t be the same.

This has been an interesting time in public radio of late, and the next few years are going to test whether it’s capable of taking a risk enough to give an outlet to new ways of doing things.

Car Talk is gone, Keillor is retiring, Eichten has retired, and an increasing number of people who basically built public radio are turning things over to the next generation, which has not been well schooled in the art of betting it all on an idea..

But public radio is a lot more popular now than it was when Car Talk started. I know. I’m from the Boston area and I can assure you, nobody listened to WBUR, the station that produced the program, and where it grew for 10 years before it went national.

A few years ago, when the Smithsonian was asking for it, I encoded the very first A Prairie Home Companion show and it lived online for a few hours, until Keillor asked it be removed. It was, to be kind, not very good. But MPR was a new outfit with not much audience and the risk of trying it out wasn’t going to hurt anybody.

You can do a lot of creative things when nobody listens to your radio station because there’s little downside to taking risk. But not anymore. Public radio has never been more popular and taking a risk has never been more dangerous. The early A Prairie Home Companion would have a most difficult time getting on the air — anywhere — today.

Essentially, public radio is where commercial radio was 30 years ago, just before it went on its suicidal path toward irrelevance by playing it safe in order not to alienate an existing audience.

The problem is times do change, people do retire — sometimes they die — and change has to come. Are public radio stations any better at taking chances than the commercial stations were 30 years ago? NPR is dipping into the archive to keep the status quo and to keep current listeners happy.

Eventually, someone’s going to have to come up with a new idea and the audience is going to have to give it a chance.