Monday, April 11, 2016

Garrison Keillor's Impending Departure Worries Affiliates

As Garrison Keillor wraps up his farewell tour over the next 12 weeks, the public radio world is anxiously preparing for “A Prairie Home Companion” without him, a future as tricky to forecast as spring weather in Lake Wobegon, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

In a survey of more than a dozen radio executives across the country, some questioned the survival of an old-fashioned variety show without its longtime star. Others were enthusiastic about the prospect of attracting a new generation of listeners with incoming host Chris Thile, who at 35 is less than half Keillor’s age.

Garrison Keillor
It’s a high-stakes moment for American Public Media (APM), which grew out of “Prairie” to become the nation’s second largest producer of public radio programming. While St. Paul-based APM sees an opportunity to refresh a fading franchise, it’s also risking a cornerstone of its business.

“I like to come with a clear-eyed view of what a program is all about, and that’s very hard to do without Garrison involved in some shape or form,” said Maine Public Broadcasting CEO Mark Vogelzang, one of hundreds of program directors who must decide this month whether to renew the show.

The 2016-17 season, scheduled to open Oct. 15 at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre, will include only 13 live shows — a substantial drop from the 37 offered this season — packaged with “classic” reruns featuring Thile and some of Keillor’s greatest hits.

In essence, APM is trying to absorb the shock by easing Thile into the Old Scout’s red stockings while cutting the fee it charges stations for the show.

“It’s not a good idea to yank out of the schedule a ‘brand’ like Garrison Keillor,” said Christina Kuzmych, general manager for Wyoming Public Media. “It must be done graciously, with regard to the audience.”

Another general manager said he doesn’t plan to pick up the show and faulted its bosses for failing to develop “a successor with significant audience attraction.”

Former Wisconsin Public Radio director Jack Mitchell was even more blunt.

“The show is basically dead without [Keillor],” he said. “I can’t imagine anybody replacing him. It may continue, but stations won’t be willing to pay as much, income will go down, the show’s budget will not be what it was.”

“Prairie Home” is among a handful of public-radio shows that cover their expenses. Sponsorships and ticket sales are important, but the show’s most reliable source of revenue comes from the fees that stations pay to carry it — currently $5,500 to $61,000 a season, depending on the size of their market. That’s on top of affiliation charges that go to APM.

The “carriage fees” recently set for 2016-17 reflect a 10 percent drop in rates. Several affiliates say they plan to negotiate for even more savings.

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