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MPR Cutting Ties With Longtime Business Partner Garrison Keillor

7 hours ago
Originally published on December 7, 2017 7:38 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Allegations of sexual misconduct have shaken many organizations, including ours. NPR has fired or suspended male executives, and so have other organizations within the public radio network. One of the biggest stars to have fallen is Garrison Keillor, longtime host of "A Prairie Home Companion." Minnesota Public Radio and its parent group, APMG, cut ties with Keillor last week. It is a complicated divorce, as Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports. We should note Kerr and his news department were not involved in the company's decision.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: For many people, there is no name more synonymous with public radio than Garrison Keillor, creator of "A Prairie Home Companion."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TISHOMINGO BLUES")

GARRISON KEILLOR: (Singing) I hear that old piano from down the avenue.

KERR: In July 2016, 18,000 people packed the Hollywood Bowl for Garrison Keillor's last hosting of "A Prairie Home Companion" and the final news from Lake Wobegon. Fans including Shenda Baker and Perry Chamberlain lapped it up.

SHENDA BAKER: There are many of us who have been listening to him for decades, and this was just a fabulous way to close this out.

PERRY CHAMBERLAIN: We're so sad to see him go but, gosh, what a show. He's so dearly missed.

KERR: In the early 1970s, Keillor convinced Minnesota Public Radio founder Bill Kling to launch "Prairie Home." Kling was in the Hollywood Bowl audience, too.

BILL KLING: He says he was lucky. He found the right niche. The audience was lucky 'cause we had him. The company was lucky because he did so much for all of us.

KERR: Indeed, he did. "A Prairie Home Companion's" success in the 1980s spurred Minnesota Public Radio's development. "Prairie Home" became a mainstay of the developing public radio system across the U.S., too. In 2005, it aired on 700 stations with a weekly audience of 4.3 million people. "Prairie Home" merchandise did big business, and in recent years Keillor hosted a series of sold-out cruises until last week, when the allegations of inappropriate behavior against Keillor surfaced. NPR's parent company, American Public Media Group, has released few details other than it involves one individual who alleges multiple incidents over an extended period of time, not a one-time inadvertent placing of his hand on her bare back as Keillor has said.

The divorce has been swift. APMG stopped distributing "Prairie Home" rebroadcasts hosted by Keillor and the popular Writer's Almanac feature. It is also renaming the new Chris Thile show. These actions have led some fans to accuse Minnesota Public Radio of trying to erase Keillor. Harvard Business School professor Rohit Deshpande says erasing the face of a brand can backfire.

ROHIT DESHPANDE: What a lot of organizations sometimes forget is that a brand is a human thing. A brand is the face of the organization to their audience.

KERR: Listeners have inundated Minnesota Public Radio with complaints, some canceling their memberships. Reporters here have repeatedly reached out to Keillor since the news broke, but he has not agreed to an interview. He has taken to Facebook, posting a message saying he was erasing Minnesota Public Radio from his new memoir. In another post he wrote, it's astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation. I always believed in hard work, and now it feels sort of meaningless. He removed both posts after a short time. Across the country, public radio program directors are left pondering the change. At WUNC in North Carolina, David Brower says losing the iconic "Prairie Home" name is disappointing.

DAVID BROWER: That's been an institution both here at WUNC and across the system, so it's a real loss to see it leave.

KERR: As the physical untangling of Garrison Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion" continues, after decades of inviting Keillor into their lives on Saturdays, for many listeners the emotional untangling may prove to be more difficult. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.