Keillor sees new future for himself and 'A Prairie Home Companion'

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor in his office in St. Paul, Minn., on July 21, 2015. Earlier in the week, he announced he will retire at the end of the 2016 season of his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Garrison Keillor can be hard to reach these days. Part of the problem is he's busy. He has just returned from a vacation with his grandsons, and in a few days he'll be off on a 36-day "America the Beautiful" farewell bus tour of 30 cities.

Keillor, 72, is stepping down as host of "A Prairie Home Companion," which he has hosted for decades. His departure will mark a big change for one of public radio's most enduring and popular programs, which he created in the early 1970s.

His tour starts Sunday in Bayfield, Wis., on Lake Superior. It then twists around the country, stopping Aug. 19 in Mankato, Minn.

After traveling to Alaska, Keillor will finish the tour on Sept. 4 at the Minnesota State Fair. The show will open its 2015-2016 season with a Sept. 19 show and street dance at the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul.

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Although the season will be Keillor's last, he sees a great future for the show. For those who wonder why he would leave, he has a simple answer:

"Because I found a replacement," Keillor said. "I didn't want to simply walk away from the show and have it go into endless re-runs."

Chris Thile
Chris Thile has been chosen as the new host of "A Prairie Home Companion."
Nate Ryan | MPR

Keillor has long argued that what makes "A Prairie Home Companion" special is that it is a live show. He has selected mandolin player Chris Thile, known for his work with Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers to become the new host starting in the 2016-17 season. Thile has the presence, and the musical chops to carry the show, he said.

"He is, I think, the great bluegrass performer of our time and he is a beautiful jazz player," Keillor said. "There just isn't anything he can't do — and he is very enthusiastic about live radio."

Keillor said after a life on the road as a musician, Thile is ready to settle down.

In a written statement Thile said he has listened to the show since he was a boy. He said he considers Keillor a major inspiration and has discussed the future of the show with him at length.

"There are, of course, plenty of details to iron out, but I'm very excited," Thile said.

Keillor, who has openly sought a replacement for some time, expects the show will change.

"The show will start again as it was at the beginning, which was as a music show and the comedic part, and the stories and whatever — that will come along," he said. "It will grow naturally out of it, I have no doubt. And I am going to enjoy watching from a distance."

Keillor has said he plans to continue performing his signature "News From Lake Wobegon" monologues and other skits. But he said Tuesday that he'll be done after the upcoming season. He's talked about being the show's executive producer but said things will just have to develop.

"How it will roll out, we don't really know," he said. "But I intend to step back, be useful if needed but otherwise enjoy being an ornament. I can do the warm-up. I can sell popcorn, I can do all sorts of things."

Garrison Keillor, 1986
Garrison Keillor gestured to his audience during the first show in the remodeled World Theatre, now known as the Fitzgerald Theater, in St. Paul, Jan. 11, 1986.
Larry Salzman | AP 1986

Keillor said he wants to focus more on writing novels and perhaps another movie. He'll continue to do one-man appearances, mixing music, jokes and poetry.

Despite Keillor's optimism about the show's future, public radio program consultant Jim Russell is not so sure it will continue to be a hit. He said program directors may be suspicious of a retooled "A Prairie Home Companion."

"I hate to sound unkind but it's an incredibly competitive, exceedingly difficult environment among program directors," Russell said. "They hardly agree about anything — and I just can't imagine them treating this as anything but a brand new show."

Keillor, however, believes there is still a demand for a live radio show that begins at a specific time every week for people to tune in and enjoy.

"If stations don't want it, that's perfectly all right," he said. "They will know to say 'no, thank you.' And we will be there for whoever wants to do this."

A statement from American Public Media Group, the parent company of MPR News which distributes "A Prairie Home Companion," also was supportive. Company officials say they are looking forward to working with Keillor on the future of the show.