'Live from Here' lets three longtime employees go

"A Prairie Home Companion" show at the State Theater in Minneapolis.
American Public Media is not renewing the contract of Kate Gustafson Sanderson, technical director Jason Keillor and marketing director David O'Neill.
Nate Ryan | MPR

Updated: July 25, 5 p.m. | Posted: July 24, 1:31 p.m.

Three longtime employees of "A Prairie Home Companion" are losing their jobs as its successor show, "Live from Here" with Chris Thile, forges a new path independent of Garrison Keillor.

American Public Media is not renewing the contract of Kate Gustafson Sanderson, the show's managing director. The company is also eliminating the positions of two others who worked on the show — Keillor's son, technical director Jason Keillor, and marketing director David O'Neill.

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"I don't know what to say about it," said Jason Keillor, who received news of his layoff Friday. "We weren't given any reason other than the tightening of the budget of "Live from Here," which I do understand. MPR is promoting a very expensive new show, and they're getting incredible talent. I understand they're having to budget carefully."

In an email Monday to company leaders, Senior Vice President Tim Roesler said changes were necessary to "support the evolving creative direction of the show, as well as the changing business needs of this program."

"Kate, David and Jason have contributed immeasurably to the large and loyal audience this show has built over the years," Roesler wrote in the email obtained by MPR News. A fourth staff member has been offered a new assignment.

The shakeup is part of a tumultuous year for the nationally broadcast live variety show that owes its origins to Garrison Keillor. In November, Minnesota Public Radio severed ties with the retired host over allegations of sexually inappropriate incidents with a female subordinate. By December, Keillor's handpicked successor, Thile, announced a hastily chosen new name for the show — "Live from Here." Keillor and MPR settled their differences in April.

Company spokesperson Angie Andresen said Tuesday that MPR's national programming arm, American Public Media, will share more about its plans for the show in the coming months and as the third season gets underway in the fall.

"The new approaches we're planning require some changes to the team and in how we do some of our work," she said in an email to MPR News. "We also anticipate additions to the ["Live from Here"] team as we prepare for next season."

Since the relaunch two years ago, the show has made several adjustments. It's attracted top-notch musical guests and has added to its stable of comedy writers. The company said the third season will include 26 shows.

Jason Keillor started his career at MPR in 1994 as a stage manager, then moving into engineering and production roles. "I loved every minute of it," he said.

Over the decades, O'Neill and Gustafson Sanderson remained loyal supporters of Garrison Keillor. Gustafson Sanderson, who was employed by Keillor's independent company, started working for "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1986, according to her biography on the "Live from Here" website. She declined to comment for this story. Gustafson Sanderson will be replaced by Jeff Hnilicka, who helped direct live events for MPR.

Former employees told MPR News that Gustafson Sanderson managed Keillor's mercurial demands and stood up for the show's staff, but in some instances did not do enough to curtail her boss' behavior in the workplace.

One Prairie Home contractor who was romantically involved with Keillor received a $16,000 check and handwritten note from Gustafson Sanderson in 2009. The note explained that the check was given with the understanding that the woman would sign a confidentiality agreement barring her from discussing personal details about Keillor or other information. The woman never cashed the check or signed the agreement.

Keillor's attorney, Eric Nilsson, says the check was not intended as "hush money" but was a severance payment offered to the woman after she decided not to accept a new contract.

As a young man, O'Neill started working odd jobs for "Prairie Home," ranging from sweeping the theater to selling merchandise in the lobby, according to his bio. He worked his way up to become the show's media contact and liaison to the hundreds of stations that carried Live from Here. He did not respond to a request for comment.