Prairie Home Companion faces crucial pivot post-Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor sings during rehearsal on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. His final show will be recorded Friday night.
Nate Ryan | MPR

Garrison Keillor will host his final production of A Prairie Home Companion this weekend. The show attracts more than 3 million listeners weekly and brings American Public Media, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, millions of dollars in revenue annually.

But the change likely means less revenue for MPR's parent company.

At the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, if you ask someone under 30 if they've heard of Keillor or A Prairie Home Companion, you'll likely hear a chorus of no's — unless you come upon a student like Zane Wagner, whose dad listened loyally to Prairie Home with him.

"I like the new guy. I'm sad to see Garrison go," he said. "Garrison Keillor is definitely America's storyteller."

This fall, the show will continue with a new host, Chris Thile, whose job is to keep longtime listeners while attracting a younger, more diverse audience.

Chris Thile
Chris Thile will replace Garrison Keillor as host of A Prairie Home Companion later this year. Thile starts hosting a 13-episode run of the show in October.
Ann Heisenfelt | AP file

A Prairie Home Companion is at a crucial point. The show's weekly audience has a median age of 59 and has shrunk by nearly 1 million listeners from a decade or so ago. American Public Media has the job of keeping stations from defecting during the transition from an iconic host. The company is offering 10 percent discounts on broadcast fees to keep stations on board. But it could be a tough sell in some cases.

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"I think a lot of people have been looking at the high expense and flat ratings and basically have been waiting to do this graciously when Garrison decided to retire, to leave the show," said Randy Eccles, general manager of NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Eccles was ready to leave. But he changed his mind after hearing from listeners who objected — and is negotiating what he thinks is a fair price to broadcast the show.

The season that launches in October will cost stations $5,000 to $55,000, depending on market size.

For their money, stations will get 30 shows with Thile, including 13 live broadcasts. They can also air previous broadcasts that featured Keillor.

Dave Kansas, executive vice president of MPR's parent company, said preparations for Keillor's departure started a decade ago. And he said the company has the time and financial strength to let Thile put his stamp on the show and develop the audience.

"Garrison's show reaches about 3.3. million people per week, making it one of the biggest weekly shows in the country," he said. "If Chris retained a good portion of that — say he had 2 million coming out of the gate — with a brand new show, that would be the most successful weekly introduction of a show in a couple of decades in public radio."

Garrison Keillor, Heather Masse and Sarah Jarosz
Garrison Keillor, Heather Masse and Sarah Jarosz sing together during rehearsal. With Keillor's departure, A Prairie Home Companion is at a crucial point.
Nate Ryan | MPR

Kansas said most public radio stations in the top 50 markets are already on board for next season and APM is working on signing up the some 600 other stations that carry the show now.

APM won't disclose revenue or profits but A Prairie Home Companion, sponsorships, tickets sales, broadcast fees and other related revenue streams have been a cash cow.

Ideally, Kansas said Thile will retain longtime fans and win new ones.

"That's what makes this investment worthwhile because we can build a program that will have appeal for the next 25-30 years, as opposed to take the easy road and just going into repeats alone."

Thile, an accomplished musician and gifted entertainer, has appeared on A Prairie Home Companion many times, first in his teens.

Thile has told program directors the show will combine music, comedy and the spoken word. And he envisions guests such as Beyonce, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, comedians Dave Chappelle and Sarah Silverman. He said diverse entertainers with appeal across generations will help keep longtime fans and win new ones.

"My favorite thing is to look out into a crowd of people and see everyone, from 80 to 2 . We can do that for the show," he said.

Some public radio veterans are skeptical, among them public radio historian Jack Mitchell, former head of Wisconsin Public Radio.

"It's going to be a long shot. Keillor is a genius. Keillor, I believe, is irreplaceable," Mitchell said.

For what it's worth, Thile is a recipient of the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, known as the Genius grant. In any case, Mitchell said APM, with annual revenue of $123 million and an even larger endowment, wouldn't suffer much if Thile proves a bust.

"American Public Media is so much more than just that one program. There was a time when that was key. But that was 30 years ago," Mitchell said.

Garrison Keillor rehearses
Garrison Keillor rehearses "The Lives of the Cowboys" with Fred Newman, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Christine DiGiallonardo and Sara Watkins.
Nate Ryan | MPR

Thile won't get years to hit his stride according to Joe Barr, program director of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.

"My sense is there's a one-year grace period here," Barr said. "And there's a lot riding on this next year for Chris and for A Prairie Home Companion."

Iowa Public Radio's Katherine Perkins is among the radio execs confident Thile will succeed.

"I think he's probably up to the challenge. He's got big ideas and dreams for that show and it'll be interesting to see what he does with it," she said.

Keillor's final show will be recorded Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And if there's doubt about the value of the show's next incarnation, scalpers have been asking more than $500 for some tickets for the final version of this one.