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Cutting ties with Keillor could hurt MPR's finances

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Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor performs during "A Prairie Home Companion" at The Fox Theatre on Saturday, May 17, 2014 in Atlanta.
Dan Harr | Invision | AP 2014

Minnesota Public Radio and its parent company, American Public Media Group, took something of a financial risk in severing ties with long-time and beloved host Garrison Keillor on Wednesday. The company continues investigating two accusations that Keillor had engaged in "inappropriate behavior."

APMG is stopping rebroadcasts of the Prairie Home episodes Keillor hosted, and it's changing the show's name.

As of late Thursday afternoon, MPR had received 153 cancellation requests from its 133,000 members. The company said members are the most important source of revenue for MPR. Members donated about $22 million over the year ending last June

John and Ruth Huss are among the MPR members who say their support won't waver. Their contributions have hit $100,000 or more a year. John Huss said he trusts MPR's leaders did the right thing.

"Based on what I know of the people involved in the management of the company and the board, if they felt they had to make a change I would have to go along with it. And it will not have an impact on our financial dealings with the company," Huss said.

But Miriam Simmons and her husband, James Schenz, are thinking differently. They have given more than $10,000 a year to MPR for several years. Miriam Simmons said they were thinking of upping their contribution to $15,000. But now she doesn't expect they will. 

"I feel tremendously disappointed in MPR. Unless somebody has done something that rises to the level of a criminal act. I think the action they've taken is disproportionate," Simmons said.

Keillor has said the termination stemmed from an incident where he put his hand on a woman's bare back. MPR, though, has not said what the allegations were. The company said it received complaints from two people, only one of them saying the behavior was directed at her. 

MPR has upset contributors before. Donors quit when MPR dropped the Morning Show and when NPR fired Juan Williams.

"But Minnesota Public Radio ended up being OK," said Valerie Arganbright, who was MPR's director of membership from 2005 to 2012. She predicts MPR will be OK this time too.

"Public radio is a service that is provided to the community and the audience benefits from it so much that it's usually not just one person or one situation that could harm it beyond repair," she said.

In addition to memberships, national and regional underwriting are also a major source of funding. Those messages from businesses and other organizations brought in some $32 million to MPR and APMG last fiscal year.

Ucare, which has sponsored Prairie Home Companion rebroadcasts on MPR, issued a statement saying that it still wants to "inform and educate MPR's audience" but evaluates sponsorships annually.  

U.S. Bank and Medtronic said they do not see the Keillor incident affecting their support for MPR. They're among many local companies with executives who serve on the MPR board

There are also concerns about how MPR's severing its ties to Keillor could affect the show that has been known for decades as "A Prairie Home Companion."

The show is likely a major revenue source for MPR. The company won't say how much money the show brings in, but in the summer of 2016 stations were being asked to pay about $5,000 to $55,000 a season for "Prairie Home Companion." That was the list price, at least. More than 500 stations air the show. 

Outside of the Twin Cities, Memphis was the biggest among the few markets with rebroadcasts of Keillior hosting "Prairie Home Companion."

Bruce Meisterman, Promotions and Development Manager at WKNO-FM in Memphis, said he doesn't expect the show's name change will matter.

"We like Chris Thile's show very much. It has an audience," he said.

If the show's listernership fades significantly, stations might drop it or demand discounted prices. If either becomes widespread, that could amount to a big revenue hit for MPR.

Jo Anne Wallace, vice president of KQED in San Francisco said via email she'll be sticking with Thile's show, but wants to see it improve and will  be looking to renegotiate what her station pays for the show. She said, "APM should discount the show to give stations added incentive to stick with it."

She's not the only program director who may be fishing for a discount. 

Andy Bienstock, program director at WYPR in Baltimore, said the size of the radio audience is a key consideration.

"It is a very expensive show. So, the ratings are important," he said. "Whether it's less interesting to listeners because it's no longer 'A Prairie Home Companion' has an effect on that and what we want to pay for it."

In North Carolina, WUNC program director David Brower wonders if Thile's audience will suffer. 

"I think in some ways we would be kidding ourselves if we said that Chris and his endeavors are not weakened to not have the Garrison Keillor, the Prairie Home legacy pushing it forward," he said.

Correction (Dec. 2, 2017): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date in regards to member cancellations.