Launched in 1974 with a (now legendary) audience of 12, the weekly A Prairie Home Companion (PHC) radio show based in Minnesota now reaches around four million listeners via the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasting system. A variety show of comedy skits and music, PHC was created by author Garrison Keillor, who has hosted and anchored the show since its first broadcast.
Genuine or calculated, there is an audience-perceived local sincerity to the brand that is PHC. The show’s content is always centered on the culture of the upper Midwest. And characteristic of the region, it often features religion as both an earnest and a comical subject. After a two-year hiatus in the 1980s, PHC relaunched, broadcasting from New York City (calling itself “American Radio Company of the Air”). The show quickly moved back to Minnesota, an act that is seen by many fans to be a symbol of its authenticity.
But maybe more important than what PHC has done to demonstrate its character is what it hasn’t done. Over the last three decades PHC has done very little to capitalize on its popularity via brand extensions that aim to gouge a loyal audience. Even PHC’s official online store, Pretty Good Goods, is anemic by the standards of any show of even middling popularity. (Keillor himself, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, promotes the store as a place to find “things you don’t need.”) For contrast, compare PHC to NPR’s other oddball-helmed hit program, Ira Glass’ This American Life, which after less than a third of the time on the radio already has a premium cable TV show and reports of a feature film in the works.
Part of what makes PHC such an appealing brand is that it doesn’t care about appealing to a wider audience, a lesson that many be-all-things-to-all-people brands could sorely stand to learn. Indeed, Keillor himself might be considered an ardent localist, in love with the qualities that make us different: “People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, ‘Where are you from?’ doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know.”
When PHC finally did get around to making a feature film of itself in 2006, the result was so full of in-the-know scenes and characters that it drove non-fans (e.g., not regular PHC listeners) to irrational levels of rage. Film critic Rex Reed wrote, “…a rambling screen fable that is not only corny, lumbering and dull, but also pretentious, because it pretends that a lug-load of tasteless cracker-barrel baloney can pass for 105 minutes of heirloom charm. A Prairie Home Companion is about as charming as waking up with a dead animal in your bed.” He added, “Since I have never been a listener of Mr. Keillor’s dopey, long-running program, I am probably not his perfect test-market watcher.” It’s possible that Rex Reed, like many who irrationally are offended by PHC’s brand of programming, lives near too many Gap stores and is jealous of the localized connection the brand creates in its audience.
And anyway, as with many very brand-loyal consumers, the inability of others to understand the brand’s attraction actually increases many fans’ devotion. PHC devotees would likely say that Reed’s asinine rant makes PHC better by virtue of excluding a jerk like him. Of course, further demonstrating just how much it is indistinguishable from Keillor, PHC takes a lot of lumps based on how some feel about Keillor’s other writing activities, which include non-PHC-related essays on culture and politics.
Oddly, A Prairie Home Companion shares something in common with the Playboy brand. Fans of either would certainly immediately disagree. But at their cores, both are brands born from the visionary mind of one man: PHC from Keillor and Playboy from Hefner. Maybe even more important, though, is where the brands will go after their respective leaders pass—two events that will happen sooner than later. (Playboy, having slipped from Hefner’s original vision, has diluted itself into more of a media brand than a “lifestyle” one and thus will probably have an easier time surviving, though at the cost of cannibalizing, and perpetually diminishing, the brand’s iconic status.)
Anyone who listens regularly to Keillor on PHC, and especially those familiar with his non-PHC works (such as The Book of Guys), know that he is well aware of the impermanence of it all, especially the impermanence of himself. His recent Lake Wobegon novel Pontoon took death as its subject. The aforementioned film version of PHC is another perfect example. Written by Keillor himself, the story, while wittily including many of the regular PHC skits, is really all about mortality and death. One exchange has Keillor saying, “I will die.” A final scene essentially has Keillor’s alter ego nervously asking the angel of death if it’s his time. In the upcoming Public Broadcasting System documentary (The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes; PBS, July 1), Keillor says, “You die, there’s a sort of decent grief, a few people really do suffer from your absence but the impact on the greater world is not that big. You do not leave a big hole. They dig a hole and they put you in it.”
Of course it is his darkly humorous, often pithy takes on death, especially his own, that largely leave his audience chuckling in a knowing abstract rather than quieted in a sincere ponder. And yet, just how will the many, hyper-loyal PHC fans react after their beloved show is no longer helmed and permeated by Keillor’s familiar voice? What will they do when their captain does not answer, his lips pale and still?
To be sure there will be little initial drop in popularity. Part of PHC’s fate will depend on Keillor. If he passes, there will certainly be a major boost of fan fervor and loyalty. If Keillor retires, which he has mentioned doing but to longtime fans seems impossible, it’s less likely PHC will see even a temporary boost in interest. Keillor (via a PHC spokesman) declined to comment for this profile. And why would he?
In either scenario, it’s hard to envision a post-Keillor fate for PHC’s brand of entertainment that would eclipse or even equal its current standing. Many listeners will of course tune in from time to time to catch the old show, for nostalgic purposes, which in fact was one of the main reasons they became hardcore fans to begin with—nostalgia, that is, of being a child and listening with one’s parents, maybe while in the kitchen washing dishes or cooking supper. And then, one Saturday night, they will turn on the radio and wonder where it went.