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NEAL RUBIN

Rubin: The Appliance Doctor is in – a new studio

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The trick isn’t being able to explain how a pressure switch works. Lots of people can do that.

The trick is explaining it clearly and quickly over the radio, and luring people in to listen even if their pressure switches are behaving perfectly and the water level in their Maytags is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

“That’s the story of your washing machine,” Joe Gagnon says — “and that’s been the story of the radio show for 32 years.”

Thirty-two years? Consider: the Lions’ Calvin Johnson was two years from being born when Gagnon, 74, first started diagnosing ailing appliances over the air.

Now Johnson is retired, and the Appliance Doctor show is making what Gagnon says will be its last change of station. Come Sunday at 8 a.m., he’ll greet listeners at WTKA-AM (1050) in Ann Arbor for two hours of programming that seems as improbable as the career of the figure behind the microphone.

Gagnon — pronounced Gannon — was born in a French-speaking household in northern Ontario and says he was 6 years old before he learned that “yes” meant the same thing as “oui.”

He learned to be a repairman through a correspondence course when he was 16 and went on to become, among other things, a minor league hockey player, a Navy veteran, and the author of the washer, dryer and dishwasher entries in the World Book Encyclopedia.

He had a hand in crafting state laws that outlawed plastic or vinyl vent lines for clothes dryers and made it harder for unscrupulous repair companies to fleece customers.

For a time, he was pulling in six figures a year for eight hours of work per week — all because he can turn do-it-yourself appliance repair into compelling enough entertainment that listeners and advertisers value it.

“I have one thought in mind each week,” he says in his deep, reassuring voice with just a trace of gravel. “To help people save money, to help them feel pride in fixing their own appliances, and to create informed consumers.”

That’s three thoughts, actually, but they’re good ones, and who’s going to argue with a doctor?

Nor ‘boring’ to advertisers

Dial his number in White Lake Township and he’ll answer the phone, “It’s a great day to be an American.” Or, alternately, “How can I put a smile on your face today?”

He’s a determinedly sunny sort of guy, willing to laugh at himself for not being able to solve the mystery of his flip-phone contact list when he can analyze a garbage disposal from the way a caller describes a chunka-chunka sound.

Clouds appear only when he talks about the Ann Arbor station he left to infiltrate the otherwise sports-heavy lineup at WTKA.

Conservative talk outlet WAAM-AM (1600) cut him back from three hours to two, then to one. An executive told him his show was boring, he says.

Stations have doubted him before — WJR-AM (760) started him at one hour in the early 1990s before he worked his way up to eight — but boring?

“She broke my heart,” he says. “Broke my confidence.”

Fortunately, he says, his advertisers have reassured him, snagging nearly all of the available slots for the new show.

“I used to say to him, ‘Who in their right mind would listen to an AM station from 8-10 in the morning to learn about repairing appliances?’ ” says Pat Kelley, owner of K&B Energy Solutions in Livonia.

Now Kelley, 60, is a supporter of more than a decade who has Gagnon read his commercials.

“He’s righteous and he has integrity,” Kelley says. “If Joe says I’m OK, I’m OK.”

‘Service man’ at your service

Consumer protection is a recurring theme of the show.

Millions of appliances — millions! — are on recall lists, Gagnon says, and the owners don’t know because flaming dishwashers aren’t as newsworthy as cars.

Check yours out at saferproducts.gov, and Google “smoke alarm controvery,” too.

“I’m a service man,” he likes to say. “Nothing more and nothing less.”

He actually is more, of course, but the unassuming refusal to recognize it is part of what makes the show work.

That, and a good ear. Ka-chunk chunk ka-chunk, with a sort of whiny whirring sound in the spin cycle?

Here’s what you need to do ...

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn