Garrison Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio

For MPR and Keillor, ties bound became ties broken

Garrison Keillor's final "A Prairie Home Companion."
Garrison Keillor delivers the news from Lake Wobegon during his final "A Prairie Home Companion."
Nate Ryan | MPR file

Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon and "A Prairie Home Companion" have been synonymous with Minnesota's culture for decades. Keillor was the Minnesota boy who found fame bringing the humor of the state's culture to the radio and the stage.

Now, what happens to Keillor's legacy and his hallmark show is anybody's guess.

Minnesota Public Radio and its parent company, American Public Media, cut ties with Keillor and his companies on Wednesday amid an investigation of alleged "inappropriate behavior" involving Keillor and a Prairie Home coworker.

Garrison Keillor in 1969.
Garrison Keillor in 1969.
Donald Black | Star Tribune file

For Keillor and MPR, a decades-long relationship that helped both to prosper and propelled public radio across the nation has unraveled.

APM is stopping rebroadcasts of the Prairie Home episodes Keillor hosted, and it's changing the name of the show's current iteration, which Chris Thile hosts.

Keillor, 75, told the Star Tribune that the allegations come from a time when he "put my hand on a woman's bare back" and his hand went up it about six inches. "She recoiled. I apologized."

APM offered no details on the allegation, aside from MPR spokesperson Angie Andresen telling the Associated Press Thursday night that there is "a formal complaint from an individual that includes multiple allegations related to Garrison's behavior."

To many listeners, Keillor is public radio.

Keillor was born Gary Keillor in Anoka, Minn., in 1942, the third of six children. He graduated from the Minneapolis suburb's public high school and went onto the University of Minnesota. He completed an English degree in 1966.

Three years later, he had a job at MPR.

Keillor was the morning host on KSJN, MPR's original station in Collegeville, Minn. Somehow, he convinced station founder Bill Kling that MPR needed a live variety show.

The first "Prairie Home" aired in July 1974.

It was a low-key start. But Keillor was thinking about the possibilities. "We've got to get this audience to a point where at the end of the show they are coming up, up these steps at us," he said during the show. "Taking pieces off the shirts and the ties and stuff."

The show began attracting a larger audience. But National Public Radio passed on the opportunity to distribute the program.

So, in 1983, MPR and three other large public stations formed a new distribution network called American Public Radio. Through APR, later called PRI, "Prairie Home" and other shows went coast to coast. Audiences loved the mix of music and the news from Lake Wobegon.

Garrison Keillor in 1974.
Garrison Keillor in 1974.
Mike Zerby | Star Tribune 1974

Time Magazine put Keillor on its cover in November 1985. For musicians, the show became prized appearance.

As Prairie Home flourished, so did MPR. Other stations paid to air the show. Such was its popularity that the station had to install 60 phones to take contributions during member drives.

Also in 1985, Keillor's novel "Lake Wobegon Days" sold more than a million copies. Keillor donated half the royalties to MPR.

A long goodbye

But on the Valentine's Day show in 1987, Keillor made an unexpected announcement: "A Prairie Home Companion" would shut down at the end of the season

After 13 years he said, it was just time to go.

"I want to resume the life of a shy person," he said. "I want to be a writer. I am tired. I want to lead another kind of life with my family, in which there are Saturdays."

That family included a new Danish wife, with whom he moved to Denmark. MPR created a new show "Good Evening" hosted by Noah Adams to fill the void. It didn't catch on with listeners.

Keillor soon returned to the U.S. and in 1989 launched a new show from New York called "American Radio Company of the Air." In 1992, he brought it to St. Paul, and the following year reverted to the "Prairie Home" name.

In 2003, Keillor incorporated Prairie Home Productions and began producing the show under contract, distributing it through PRI and later American Public Media Group.

By 2005, the show was carried by 700 stations with a weekly audience of 4.3 million people. It toured nationally and internationally.

Keillor wrote almost the entire show every week, including the news from Lake Wobegon. He also produced novels poetry and newspaper columns.

Garrison Keillor leaves at the end of a news conference for the movie.
Garrison Keillor leaves a news conference in 2006 in St. Paul.
Jim Mone | Associated Press file

In 2006, celebrated director Robert Altman used a Keillor script to make his last film. He shot "A Prairie Home Companion" in the Fitzgerald Theater with an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, and Keillor.

Then in 2015, Keillor suddenly announced again that he was retiring from Prairie Home, and that he really meant it this time. He named Chris Thile as the new host.

"As the solo writer of the show I feel it and I want to pass it on to other people who are younger and have stronger backs," he said. "So that is what I am going to do."

He performed his last broadcast in front of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl on July 1, 2016. He took a call during the show from someone approaching the end of his own tenure, President Barack Obama.

The president said during long drives as an Illinois state senator and while campaigning, listening to the show made him feel better and more human.

In the crowd that night was the man who hired Keillor, MPR President Emeritus Bill Kling. He lauded Keillor's talent, but also credited luck.

"He says he was lucky. He found the right niche," Kling said. "The audience was lucky because we had him. The company was lucky, because he did so much for all of us."

In an email Thursday, Kling said he could not comment on the questions surrounding Keillor's behavior.

Prairie Home spawned a cruise, tours, State Fair performances — and brought in millions of dollars annually for APM. The show still attracts some 2.6 million listeners each week.

Keillor mostly sang and told jokes on stage, but he'd often involve himself in DFL politics. He counseled the whole state when Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash.

Keillor continued performing across the country after Prairie Home, and began writing a regular column in the Washington Post.

In what would become his final essay for the Post, published Tuesday night, Keillor criticized calls for Sen. Al Franken to resign over allegations he groped and forcibly kissed a woman in 2006.

The next morning, Keillor would face public allegations against his own behavior. Within a day, the longtime bonds between Keillor, MPR and public radio were shattered.

By Wednesday night, Keillor seemed genuinely stunned by the speed and slope of the fall.

"It's astonishing that fifty years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation," he wrote. "I always believed in hard work and now it feels sort of meaningless. Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances.