I suppose I’m predisposed to either love or hate the public radio program A Prairie Home Companion. There’s no middle ground for me because, growing up, I was held captive in the back seat of my family’s Oldsmobile on interminable road trips as my dad popped cassette tape after cassette tape of A Prairie Home Companion into the car stereo.
By age 10, I knew all about the Lutheran ministers in their Hush Puppies, marooned out in the middle of Lake Wobegon after the pontoon boat they were floating on sank. I reveled in Garrison Keillor’s joy of heaving a half-rotten tomato at his sister, mocking her “tomato butt.” (As a younger brother of an older sister, this story particularly hit home.) I cringed as Carl Krebsbach towed his father’s 1937 Chevy-turned-septic-tank right into the middle of the high school’s homecoming parade. His daughter, the queen.
Great stories, certainly, but like all adolescent perceptions of parental passions, rebellion surely wasn’t far away. By the time I was a teenager, I was scoffing at Keillor’s hokey radio show (among many other things). It would be years before I came back home to Prairie Home.
Strangely, that return to this ode to small town America came after moving to the second-largest city in the United States. Perhaps I needed nostalgia here more than ever. Perhaps, as I pursued my own career in public radio, I finally realized the debt I owe to people like Garrison Keillor, Click and Clack, and Ira Glass—the folks who have made public radio the vibrant broadcast medium it is today.
Over the years, my consumption of Prairie Home Companion has been confined entirely to the audio realm. When I wasn’t listening to the live radio show, it was cassette tapes in the back seat, which turned into CDs in the front seat, which turned into podcasts on the go. Until this summer, I had never experienced the show in person. Why would one need to see a radio show, I figured.
But that all changed when I spent a cool Friday evening this past July at the Hollywood Bowl, basking in the glow of Guy Noir, Powdermilk Biscuits, and a song called “Don’t Scratch Your Butt.” To my delight, I was quite wrong about not needing my eyes for a show designed for the ears.
A Prairie Home Companion works on the radio because of its intimacy. You feel like the program is being put on just for you. Somehow, Keillor manages to pull that off for a live audience of more than 10,000 too. No small task. Maybe it’s his frumpiness, maybe it’s the way he bumbles around the stage like a slow-motion ringmaster, maybe it’s the quiet subversion he directs at his special guests as he pokes them in the ribs over and over again, maybe it’s his red shoes. Whatever it is, when Garrison Keillor takes the stage, I have the undeniable sense that, in that moment, he’s speaking and singing directly to me. And all is right with the world.
It cannot last forever. Keillor turns 70 today. He’s bound to retire soon. And when he does, I’ll go back to my dad’s old cassette tapes and dream of a world where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Now, if only we still had the old family Oldsmobile.