On July 6, 1974, an audience estimated at 12 people filed into a college auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the first broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion."
On July 4-6, 2014, a considerably larger number of people will return to that auditorium and the surrounding campus to celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary.
I was a listener from the beginning, and then a member of the staff from 1978 to 1987, the first step in a public radio journey that would eventually lead me to the KQED newsroom.
I had begun listening to the Saturday show’s predecessor, a local morning show also called "A Prairie Home Companion," in 1972, in search of something that would help me get out of bed and to high school on time. The program was hosted by an announcer whose name I did not know, because he never gave it on the air. But I liked the enormous variety of music, from the Beach Boys to Mendelssohn to Sol Ho'opi'i.
And I was fascinated by the sponsors that the announcer talked about, such as Jack's Warm Car Service, an early version of Uber that seemed particularly attractive to a teenager waiting for a bus on a dark Minnesota winter morning. I suspected these sponsors might be fake, and I couldn't find the town that the announcer occasionally described on my state map, but I wanted it to be real, and in the absence of any firm evidence either way I decided to believe in it.
By the time the Saturday show debuted, I had discovered Garrison Keillor's name, learned from a few articles in the local paper that he had a cult following, and read a few of his stories in the New Yorker. "A Prairie Home Companion" had its roots in the lively Twin Cities folk music scene. It was a departure from the rest of Minnesota Public Radio's program schedule, which was mostly classical with the one NPR news program that existed in 1974, "All Things Considered."
But it was not considered especially risky, because there was really no Saturday evening audience for public radio to lose. There had been no focus groups or market research to indicate the demand for such a program — just the feeling of Keillor and of MPR's president, Bill Kling, that it might be fun.
Four years after the inauspicious 12-person debut on the Macalester College campus, APHC had a regular in-person following of a few hundred people, and MPR decided to rent an old movie theater in downtown St. Paul as a permanent venue for it. Now a college student, I responded to a call for volunteers to clean the place up, and stuck around to help take tickets and sell popcorn. Eventually I finished school and became the full-time house and box office manager. I stayed with the show until it went on hiatus in 1987 when Keillor moved to Denmark.
Main Features Evolved Slowly
When I started working for "A Prairie Home Companion," it was still a local broadcast, only 90 minutes instead of the current two hours. Features that are central to the show now evolved slowly. "The News from Lake Wobegon" began as a community calendar segment – Visitors Day events as submitted by Harold Starr, editor of the Lake Wobegon Herald-Star.
At first Keillor would ask the audience as part of the preshow warm-up to yell out where they were from, and then would read the list as a way of filling time while the stagehands changed microphones for different musicians. After we got more than 300 people in the theater, it was harder to do that, and one week he asked the audience to write down their hometowns on pieces of paper and give them to the ushers.
Almost immediately we started getting notes that said things like, “We’re here from Thief River Falls, and would you say hello to Aunt Ruth and remind her not to give the dogs too much kibble or they'll be sick, and we’ll be home in the morning.” Thus the greetings segment was born, and it became part of my job to sort through and find the ones that were most legible and interesting to send backstage.
In 1981, the show went national, and shortly after that was the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal. Those of us in the theater noticed, with mixed emotions, that the audience started to change. We did the summer shows outdoors if it wasn't raining, because the theater had no air conditioning and got unbearably hot. But in that first summer of national broadcasts and press attention, people began to show up who were so well-dressed that they didn't want to sit on the grass.
But I don’t hold that against any of you; those people with the nice pants were probably not from the Bay Area. KQED was one of the first stations outside Minnesota to carry “A Prairie Home Companion” and the audiences here, on the radio and in person, have always been particularly enthusiastic. In 1984, the show made its first Bay Area touring appearance with two shows at the Warfield in San Francisco. It has returned to Northern California 15 times since then, with stops in Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, Concord and Sacramento, as well as various San Francisco venues.
San Francisco, as the site of the Public Radio Conference in May 1989, was also the place where Keillor announced he was returning to the U.S. and beginning weekly live broadcasts of “American Radio Company of the Air” (the show returned to Minnesota and resumed the original name a few years later).
It's strange to contemplate what public radio would sound like today if "A Prairie Home Companion" had never existed, or had stayed the local cult favorite that it began its life as 40 years ago. So much of public radio's distinctive sound has come from strong local stations producing national programming, and from the diversity of producing organizations around the country: Public Radio International, American Public Media and the Public Radio Exchange, as well as NPR in Washington.
That model started with the network that became PRI; APHC was the strongest of its initial offerings and continued to be its flagship for at least a decade. A public radio world without it, I think, would consist of much weaker stations, much more dependent on a single source of programming.
As for what comes next for "A Prairie Home Companion," your guess is as good as mine. After briefly considering handing the microphone to a new host, Keillor says he intends to keep doing it for the foreseeable future. Which I think is good news for all of us who have come to spend part of our weekends in a town that is real, as long as you don't go looking for it.
Nina Thorsen is a producer for KQED News and The California Report, and former producer of KQED's Pacific Time.