Episode 31: You Get A Car!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: Are you ready? Hold on. Are you ready? Cue the drum roll. All right, open your boxes.]

Doug Gordon: It’s one of the most famous moments in daytime TV history.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: But it’s not just one, two, three. You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!]

Doug: But what really happened when Oprah Winfrey gave a brand new Pontiac G6 to every member of her studio audience—276 in total? And what does it have to do with the war on cars?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: Everybody gets a car! Oh my goodness!]

Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars, the podcast about living in a world where everyone gets a car. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and I’m here with my co-host, Doug Gordon. Aaron Naparstek is off this week.

Doug: So Sarah, do you remember that moment on The Oprah Winfrey Show?

Sarah: I don’t. I somehow missed this major cultural milestone. But I have to confess that when I did dabble in watching daytime television, I was more of a Jerry Springer kind of girl.

Doug: Oh, wow. Yeah, very big difference. Jerry Springer is not at all similar.

Sarah: No, I have a sick taste, I guess. [laughs]

Doug: Well, on today’s episode, we are going to dissect the “You Get a Car” moment on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And we’re gonna ask what it says about America that our mobility depends not on a reliable bus or an on-time train or safe bike lanes, but on the generosity of talk show hosts and the kindness of strangers.

Sarah: But first, we don’t have Oprah money, so we rely on support from listeners and the kindness of strangers to produce this podcast. If you want to pitch in, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Donate,” and for just $2 a month, you’ll get an official War on Cars sticker.

Doug: You get a sticker! You get a sticker! Everybody gets a sticker!

Sarah: Okay, Doug. Doug. Chill out, okay?

Doug: I’m pretty excited about this episode, Sarah, it’s gonna be a lot of fun.

Sarah: [laughs] Okay. And it is true that we have all kinds of levels and rewards, including t-shirts, buttons and, indeed, stickers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: This year on The Oprah Show, no dream is too wild, no surprise too impossible to pull off. And it can happen anywhere at any time to anybody—maybe even you.]

Doug: Okay, so it’s September, 2004, and it’s the premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show‘s 19th season. And this season is billed as “The Wildest Dreams with Oprah” season. Like, they’re gonna make people’s dreams come true. Now if you know The Oprah Winfrey Show—and Sarah, you said you don’t, really—it was really common for Oprah to give things away to everybody in her audience. And normally, it was things like pajamas. She gave an iPod away in 2003. You know, basic sort of stuff like that, that was really exciting and fun. But to cut a long story short, when the idea came to give everyone in her audience a car, Oprah went out of her way with her producers to find people who really needed a car. And there’s a quote from an interview she did where she said to her producers, “What if we find people who actually are in circumstances where the car will make a big shift in the trajectory of their work and life being?”

Sarah: Their life being.

Doug: Yeah, it’s the most Oprah quote ever.

Sarah: That’s so Oprah, yeah. Yeah.

Doug: It’s really great. Her producers start talking to audience members, and they’re asking them a bunch of questions like: how do you get to work? Or how old is your car? Stuff that seems a little off topic, you know, for just a regular audience member. But they end up finding 11 people who fit the bill, who are all desperately in need of a car. And so the episode begins, and they have these people up. And they give out brand new Pontiac G6s to 11 people—I think they were mostly teachers. And, you know, the audience cheers and is happy, but basically thinks, like, that’s it, it’s over, how nice for them. And that’s when Oprah springs one of the greatest surprises ever broadcast on TV.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: That was really exciting. I thought that was cool. Okay, but there’s—I got a little twist. Because as you saw, there’s 11 of them and I said that there were 11 cars outside, but really, I have one car left. I have one car left. Hold on, hold on. And someone in this audience still has the chance to go home with a brand new, fully loaded Pontiac G6. G6! G6!]

Doug: Okay, so then she has a bunch of people come out—her producers, her staff—and they give out boxes to everyone in the audience. And she explains that just one of those boxes contains a set of keys to the 12th car.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: So do not open until I tell you. Do not open. Do not open until I tell you!]

Doug: So I love this moment because you really can see how Oprah is so good at what she does. Because on the one hand, you know, she’s giving basic instructions to the audience, like, “Don’t open it.” But she’s also playing out the drama. She’s dragging things out. And she also knows that, you know, if one person opens a box the whole moment, everything they’ve been working for, is totally ruined.

Sarah: Right. But everyone’s gonna obey Oprah.

Doug: Oh, you do not disobey Oprah. It works on so many levels, I love it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: Okay, now here’s the deal. Listen carefully. Inside one of these boxes is a key. Do not open it yet. If your box has a key, you will be the last person today to get one of those cute little G6s. Okay? Who will it be? Are you ready? Hold on. Are you ready?]

Doug: And then comes the moment that would become an indelible part of pop culture.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Oprah Winfrey: Cue the drum roll. All right. Open your boxes. Open your boxes. One, two, three! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!]

Doug: [laughs] I love it.

Sarah: I mean, what’s crazy about this is that I literally got chills listening to that audio.

Doug: I’m tearing up right now, and I’ve seen this a hundred times.

Sarah: I mean, like, I’m definitely verklempt over this. I mean, it’s very intense.

Doug: So what’s really fun about this moment, and a kind of interesting tidbit, is that the piece of this that becomes the most memorable thing—Oprah in this bright red outfit running around screaming, “You get a car, you get a car,” actually has a really technical explanation.

Sarah: Okay.

Doug: They were worried that A) people wouldn’t hear her. Like, everyone’s screaming and yelling. And also, they thought people might think it was a joke or that maybe just they won. They wanted people to really know—the producers wanted people to know you all get a car. Every person in this audience gets a car. So that’s why she’s running around pointing at everybody, repeating this over and over again. And it becomes this—I mean, it’s an incredible moment, but it becomes that pop culture, iconic moment for that slightly technical reason, which is a piece of it that I just love.

Sarah: Well, I mean, this is great. This is super fun. And I’m really glad that now I have a better appreciation for this moment, but what does this have to do with the war on cars?

Doug: Ah, good question. Okay, so basically what happens next is that, you know, most of the people—276 people in this audience—are really thrilled that they have received a new car. The news gets out that a handful of people are a little upset.

Sarah: Oh, really? They’re not grateful for the car gift?

Doug: Right. So each Pontiac G6 was worth $28,500 in 2004 money. That’s about $39,000 today. And the show paid the sales tax and the registration fee for each car, but the car itself is considered a prize or a gift, kind of like winning a lottery jackpot or being on a game show. And so each person had to pay the gift tax and, depending on your income bracket, that worked out to about $6,000 or $7,000 per person.

Sarah: And so there’s no such thing as a free car.

Doug: The producers are a little upset over this, and you can understand why, you know, that people are unhappy. Because the producers have worked really hard to pull off this incredible surprise, and some people are unhappy. So they gave the audience members three choices: one, you know, keep the car, pay the taxes, done. Two, sell the car and pay the taxes with the proceeds and keep whatever’s left. Or three, refuse the car, but just take a cash payout. And I actually wasn’t really able to find how many people took that third option, but it’s just interesting that in the aftermath of this, that became a minor news story. I saw some CNN articles and things like that from back then.

Sarah: But that part of the story isn’t really what people remember. What people remember is this just incredibly joyful, thrilling, iconic TV moment.

Doug: And I think, you know, the idea that it becomes this big part of pop culture almost hides this bigger question, which is, you know, what really happens when we give people cars, or create a spectacle out of fixing individuals’ problems? Are we really fixing anything at all?

Sarah: Leave it to us to take a beloved pop cultural moment and just suck all the air out of it and tell people it’s actually bad.

Doug: [laughs] That is what The War on Cars is about, Sarah. Isn’t that really what we’re trying to do here?

Sarah: Yes, that’s what we’re doing. Yes.

Doug: And we are trying to burst your bubble.

Sarah: I mean, the whole podcast is premised on the idea that one of the most beloved pop culture icons of all: the automobile, is actually really a terrible thing.

Doug: Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing here.

[NEWS CLIP, anchor: Finally tonight, here, #AmericaStrong. The dedicated FedEx worker who walked 12 miles to get to work every day and then, of course, the same walk home. Her coworkers noticed. And here’s Steve Osunsami.]

Doug: So Sarah, you are probably very familiar with this particular genre of local news story. It’s usually, you know, a person facing some sort of hardship, walks a very long distance to work every day, and then suddenly out of the blue, they are gifted a car by their coworkers who all chipped in and pooled their money to buy one.

[NEWS CLIP, Steve Osunsami: Darlene Quinn is a package handler at FedEx in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Three months ago, her only car broke down. She’s been walking in the dark along these roads to get to her 4:00 a.m. shift every day, 12 miles to and 12 miles from work. When her coworkers found out, they were concerned and chipped in to give her the surprise of her life. Watch as Darlene finds out from a co-worker what they have done.]

[NEWS CLIP, co-worker: There’s a lot of people in this community that love you and care about you. You’ve inspired so many of us to do great things, so maybe about a hundred other people got together and we raised enough money to buy that car cash for you today.]

[NEWS CLIP, Darlene Quinn: You’re gonna make me cry.]

[NEWS CLIP, co-worker: Because we love you, and because you’re awesome.]

[NEWS CLIP, Steve Osunsami: Darlene was so moved she had to hold on to the back of her chair. She went out to see her 2014 Chevy Captiva, and those tears turned to smiles.]

Sarah: Oh my God. That kind of kills me because, of course, what an amazing story of generosity. And, you know, obviously, we don’t want to take anything away from the people who organized and made that incredibly loving gesture to their co-worker. It’s really beautiful and moving.

Doug: Nor would I want to take anything away from the woman herself who was so dedicated to her job and so needed her job that she’s willing to walk that distance back and forth every day just to make it there on time. You know, it says something about American spirit and this idea of community that people are willing to do that. So yeah, we definitely don’t want to take anything away from these individual actions of generosity. But then I also have this weird suspicion that, sure, you’ll chip in $100 to help your coworker buy a car, but if the government said we’re gonna raise your taxes by $100 a year to build a transit line or put in a bus line, there would be huge movements to say, “No, we don’t want that. That’s for other people. That doesn’t benefit me.”

Sarah: That’s definitely true. And the other thing that these stories really bring home for me is just how fragile people’s economic well-being is, and how not having access to a car can just cut a person’s lifeline just like that overnight. That they go from being a viable part of their community to floating in outer space and perhaps facing destitution.

Doug: And that actually reminds me of another huge problem in America.

Sarah: Which is?

Doug: Health care.

[NEWS CLIP: Boys were mowed down by a car while crossing Sunrise Highway, and all three are still struggling to recover from some devastating injuries.]

[NEWS CLIP: Family and friends set up a GoFundMe page called Brothers’ Recovery. They say the Lopez family needs money to help pay for the boys’ rehab and their siblings’ back-to-school supplies.]

[NEWS CLIP: If you would like to help the family, we do have the information on donating. Just go to News12.com and click on numbers and links.]

Doug: It was hard for me not to notice the similarities between these heartwarming stories of desperate people who rely on their coworkers or who are surprised by their coworkers, and not make the connection with the way in which we fund health care in this country, which is basically you get diagnosed with a terrible disease or you have something tragic happen to you, and you have to put up a GoFundMe to beg for help with your basic living expenses—including medical bills.

Sarah: Yeah, a really incredible percentage of GoFundMe pages are for health care costs. One third—one in three—GoFundMe campaigns is to fund health care.

Doug: We couldn’t find exact stats for what percentage of GoFundMe campaigns are for people who need help purchasing a car, but I did a search on GoFundMe just for “New car” and I got almost 100,000 results. And if you refine that search and do “Reliable car” or “My car was wrecked, please help” you get a whole lot more.

Sarah: And among those tens of thousands of requests, a not small number of them are people who have gotten into a car crash, been injured, have medical bills resulting from that, and then also need a new car because they can’t survive without a vehicle.

Doug: Yeah, it’s basically The Hunger Games, but for medical bills and transportation. It’s pretty perverse. And actually so that, I think, leads to an even bigger question, which is this performative aspect of solving our problems, right? Like, who gets their problem solved? Who gets the new car? Who gets the money to pay their medical bills? Who gets the seat in the audience at Oprah Winfrey or their story told on the evening news? And I found this article in The New Yorker magazine. It’s called “The Hidden Cost of GoFundMe Health Care” by Nathan Heller. And Sarah, do you want to read this little part? Because we shared it.

Sarah: Yeah, I read that article when it came out. And the premise of it is that when people have to rely on crowdfunding to get their basic needs met, it’s the person who has the best story who wins. Here’s what he writes. “Putting so much weight on storytelling underscores its limits. Stories dictate their own span—beginning, middle, resolution. This is not how major change happens. And the strength of social storytelling, its ability to make problems seem individual and ordered, can also become a weakness. Storytelling looks past all the interlocking motions of society in favor of the personal, the private, the atomized few. We risk building a theater in which individuals are led on stage, told to perform their moving stories, showered individually with cash and allyship, and then summarily dispatched.”

Doug: It was that last line, “summarily dispatched,” that really struck me because these stories happen and then we never follow up with them. You know, you don’t follow up with the woman who’s gifted a car by her co-workers six months, a year or two years later and ask how things are going. And, you know, the thing is, you give someone a car who’s economically disadvantaged, the car’s still really expensive. You know, even if you’re not paying monthly payments. You know, the average annual cost of car ownership and operation is about $8,500 dollars per year, according to AAA. So even if you subtract monthly car payments, you’re still talking $4,000, $5,000, $6,000 a year, depending on how much you’re paying. And so then the question is: can people afford that? What happens if they get into a wreck? What happens if the car gets a flat tire?

Sarah: What happens if the same thing happened that happened before, which is that their car gets old and breaks down and becomes too expensive to repair? I mean, that’s how they got there to begin with. It’s not like you get a new car and then it stays new. You’re gonna end up having the same problem over and over again.

Doug: And I think the other thing that Heller brings up in The New Yorker article, too, is that this whole idea of the performative aspect of crowdfunding or being on TV is that it kind of advantages the already advantaged. It advantages people—even if they themselves are in pretty bad situations—who might have really good social networks. You know, they have coworkers, they have friends. Maybe they have a huge Facebook following, and can get their GoFundMe page out there to a lot of people.

Sarah: Right. Or maybe they’re good looking or, you know, particularly gifted at telling a story, and they are perceived as being respectable and responsible because of the way they look or the way they act or their social background. It totally advantages people who already have a leg up.

Doug: And there was one other piece of the Heller article that I really, really liked. And I think it’s about this responsibility that we have to contribute to the larger good. This is what he says. He says, “The risk in giving medical aid”—and in our case, we could say cars—”on the basis of stories is that the theater of change trumps actual systemic reform. The guy with resources helps an ailing friend or donates to a stranger whose experiences resonate, and believes that he’s done his part. Meanwhile, the causes of problems go untouched.” You know, so I think that it just highlights this big problem that we have in America is that, you know, we do rely on charity and charity is good and should be encouraged, but it sort of just then removes us from, like, bigger conversations about building a society where we’re all responsible for each other.

Sarah: And also, the charity itself becomes performative, right? It becomes, you know, in the case of Oprah, it’s hyper performative and hyper lucrative to her, right? That’s part of her image is that she’s somebody who runs around dispensing largesse. And that actually is part of what makes her enterprise profitable. And it’s a big ego boost for some people to say, like, “Oh, yeah, I did this charity fundraising thing,” and whereas if you just pay taxes and, you know, just go about your business, then you don’t get that that ego boost of saying, like, “Yeah, I saved this individual person.” And so that’s part of what we love about this individualistic charity is not just the performance of the person who’s begging for money, but also the performance of the person who gives the money. And actually, like, if you look at least some scriptural basis for how you’re supposed to give charity, you should do it anonymously. Your right hand should not know what your left hand is doing. I mean, you should just be quiet about it, and it shouldn’t be about you.

Doug: In Judaism, actually, the teaching is that the highest form of charity is where both the giver and the recipient don’t know each other.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly.

Doug: And that can get nothing out of the exchange.

Sarah: That would be taxes. [laughs]

Doug: Yes, that’s called taxes. Exactly. But I think that really gets to, you know, what we’re talking about here is that giving someone a car does, in fact, make for compelling television and very shareable videos. And I tear up a little bit when I watch these, and my heart is warmed. But they’re not getting us closer to solving some of the very big problems related to mobility and economic opportunity in this country.

Sarah: Yeah, and those problems are only getting worse.

Doug: And there just aren’t enough Oprahs or local news segments in the world that are gonna fix these problems.

Sarah: Nope, there aren’t.

Doug: So there you have it, folks. Remember to rate and review The War on Cars, on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcast because that helps people find us. And who knows? Maybe Oprah will find us.

Sarah: That would be great. Hi, Oprah. How are you?

Doug: Oprah, if you are listening, please, you can email us your comments, your questions or suggestions to [email protected].

Sarah: And if you want to give us a car, then we could sell it and use it to finance The War on Cars.

Doug: She could just become our top Patreon sponsor. She could become people like Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Huck and Elizabeth Phiney, Lee H. Herman Jr. and Drew Raines.

Sarah: This episode was directed and recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio and edited by Matt Cutler. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And you get a podcast! You get a podcast! You get a podcast!

Sarah: Okay, stop. Stop!

Doug: I’m still pretty excited about this episode.

Sarah: Okay, settle down. And this is The War on Cars.

[TELEVISION CLIP: George Gray, tell her why it’s more than $62,000.]

[TELEVISION CLIP: It goes great with speakers and a barbecue island. It’s your new Audi! It’s the 2018 A5 Cabriolet Premium Plus! This convertible comes equipped with a two-liter engine, seven speed S Tronic automatic transmission, quattro wheel drive, natural gray oak wood inlays, navigation package, luxury package …]