LOS ANGELES — Not a single public opinion survey would have hinted at it in the mid-1970s, but it turns out that stories about Norwegian bachelor farmers, mock ads for the American Duct Tape Council and musical sets mashing together bluegrass and bossa nova have a bit of staying power.
Writer and radio host Garrison Keillor has proved, once again, that people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. He has serenaded public radio audiences with his vaguely plaintive, bemused voice and idiosyncratic variety show since Gerald Ford sat in the White House.
When Keillor and the cast of “A Prairie Home Companion” return to the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night, it will be with a commitment to keep the indomitable act going, albeit with the recognition that the time for changing ringleaders might not be that far down the turnpike.
“We are a variety show, an absolute variety show,” Keillor said of “A Prairie Home Companion.” “There are none on television or anywhere else on radio. On a good night on our show, opera can meet jazz can meet bluegrass can meet comedy can meet stories. I just think it’s a natural for radio.” A few moments later he acknowledged he has been thinking that “for the good of public radio I ought to get this ship prepared to sail on” with someone else at the helm.
The fate of public radio’s most venerable personalities became a hot topic in recent weeks, with the announcement that original episodes of “Car Talk” would end this fall. Most NPR member stations are expected to leave reruns of car repair yucksters Tom and Ray Magliozzi in their prime Saturday-morning slot.
But Ira Glass, the popular host of “This American Life,” created a stir when he suggested that the car repair comedy show should be relegated to off-hours — opening the coveted weekend morning so that newer acts would have a chance to shine. Although he praised the Magliozzis and Keillor for their groundbreaking voices and formats, Glass said older shows (including his own 16-year-old program) should go off the air rather than into reruns. He called for “new shows, new talent, new ideas.”
Among the programs on the horizon as possible next-generation breakouts for public radio are comedian Marc Maron’s interview and commentary show, the NPR quiz show “Ask Me Another,” the crowd-generated storytelling show “The Moth Radio Hour” and actor Alec Baldwin’s interview program originating at New York’s WNYC.
“We are afflicted in public radio with keeping the audience we have and not so concerned with getting the audience we don’t have,” said Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif., which doesn’t carry Keillor’s show. “I don’t criticize anyone for that. It’s a tough challenge. But growth generally comes from change.”
In an interview peppered with wit and leavened with melancholy, Keillor did not disagree with those calling for new faces in public radio, though he also argued that old franchises like “Prairie Home” deserve a chance to innovate and thrive. He said he hoped Glass’ show, “Car Talk” and his own folksy program would go on and on. “‘Car Talk’ is a small slice of the week,” Keillor added. “People love those voices, that Boston honk, and the way they laugh, it’s so un-public radio.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard on more than 600 public radio stations, usually on Saturday evenings. It draws a weekly audience of roughly 3.5 million people. The live show still packs huge venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Tanglewood in Massachusetts.
Keillor had talked last year about retiring in 2013, then backed away from that plan. He now says he wants to find a replacement to keep the show going but has no timetable for a transition. “I see a lot of people who could do this,” he said. “The problem is persuading managers of public radio stations (to accept a new host). And like managers everywhere, they tend to be very conservative. That is our conflict.”
Inside “Prairie Home’s” tight-knit family there has even been discussion of a rotating cast of guest hosts, a la “Saturday Night Live.” But for now Keillor, who turns 70 in August, remains firmly at the helm. Plans for the 33-program, 2012-13 season are being laid and the host looks forward to a 40th-anniversary show in 2014. He envisions a big folk festival in his native St. Paul, Minn., the show’s enduring home base.
The program’s trademark eclecticism will be on display at the Bowl, with opera soprano Ellie Dehn on the schedule, along with gospel sisters Jearlyn and Jevetta Steele and actor Martin Sheen, who previously sang on the show and will appear in a couple of sketches this time.
“He is someone who is really noble, an idealist and an activist,” Keillor said of the actor, “so I like to write small-minded, cheesy parts for him to play. He does amazingly well with small-time swindlers and crooks and with irritating, pushy people.”
Keillor has a way of gently bending the conversation that way — from earnest to subversive. Noting that some of his friends who lived on the Westside of L.A. have moved on, he added, “I have to make new friends, which is not easy for someone who grew up fundamentalist. I’m earnest, silent, disheveled, on the very verge of turning 70 and not that good at friend-making.”
Asked why big-city audiences so appreciate his stories of obscure small-town rites, Keillor said his humor has little to do with location. “These are stories about everyday life, about raising children and getting along with people you know too well,” he said. “A small town is the perfect literary device for exposing the lives of people and peeling away their thin veneer of self-regard and pretension…. Can we still like each other knowing the worst about each other?”
His age and occasional health scares — he suffered a minor stroke in 2009 — have not slaked Keillor’s ambition. He has written a “raucous musical comedy” for Broadway (“I don’t like serious musicals, and there have been a spate of them.”) and is talking to possible collaborators. He has almost finished a screenplay, “The Lives of the Cowboys.” He adds, “There is no market, whatsoever, for a screenplay about cowboys.” A couple of anthologies of his writing are in the making, “which is what a person does when one turns 70.”
He’ll be sailing on the Queen Mary to Europe when the birthday hits next month. (Once there he will host a “Prairie Home Companion” cruise “for 1,200 of my closest friends,” who will tour Spain and Portugal.) He said he welcomes the milestone. “To be in your late 60s is to live in trepidation,” he said. “It will be a relief to get over the line.”
Not that the veteran performer isn’t conscious of other people watching him for signs of decline. During a recent show at Tanglewood, he was in the midst of a traditional walkabout through the audience when he wavered slightly on the uneven ground. “I didn’t fall or even exactly stumble,” Keillor said. “It was just a little hitch, and I had to grab the railing. You could hear the whole audience inhale. It’s ‘Oh, dear, this old galoot is about to take a tumble.’”
He said he has no intention of pressing on past his due date. “I don’t ever, ever want to be in front of an audience and feel them pitying me,” he said. “That is the worst.”