LOS ANGELES – It makes perfect sense that a horned Vikings helmet sits atop the piano at Largo, one of L.A.’s hippest venues, now that a group of ambitious Minnesotans have made the club their second home.
“Wits,” a comedy/music program produced by St. Paul’s American Public Media and usually taped at the Fitzgerald Theater, has been hitting the road as part of a national push to prove that public radio can be party central for the millennial generation.
At stake is the APM/Minnesota Public Radio empire, which was built on a still-strong but aged cornerstone, Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” but has struggled financially in recent years.
“They may make fun of MPR’s laid-back, talky image on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but I don’t know any station that carries the same weight because of the system they’ve built across the state and the nation,” said Mark Fuerst, former general manager of Philadelphia’s WXPN and now a public radio consultant.
Shows like “Wits” and MPR’s cutting-edge music station the Current are pointing the way forward. While only 13 percent of MPR members are under 35, one of every four new members is coming from that demographic.
One of those new members is Katie Sisneros, a 27-year-old doctoral student and English instructor at the University of Minnesota. She has attended more than two dozen tapings of “Wits,” including three in Los Angeles.
“ ‘Wits’ is changing how millennials are encountering public radio,” said Sisneros. “If there’s one complaint people often leveled against public radio, it’s that it takes itself a little too seriously. ‘Wits’ takes itself about as seriously as that weird uncle you have who inexplicably knows how to make balloon animals and plays a mouth harp.”
We are young
Launched locally in 2010 as an experiment to bring more contemporary comedy to public radio, “Wits” has been picked up in over 100 markets since APM began syndicating it a year ago.
That’s still a far cry from the 679 stations who bring “Prairie Home Companion” to 4 million listeners, but even with an average weekly listenership of 131,500 the show has become a popular destination for big-name comics and adventurous musicians eager to play improv games.
“Wits” is not the only player in APM’s youth campaign.
“The Dinner Party Download,” an offbeat interview show that tapes out of New York and Los Angeles, currently draws 341,100 listeners on more than 130 stations.
The Current, MPR’s indie-music station that has been an increasingly influential player on the Twin Cities scene for nearly a decade, is raising its national profile via the Web and a presence at the recent South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Dave Kansas, chief operating officer for APM and MPR, said executives are in “active discussion” on how the Current brand could be used in other markets.
MPR is even attempting to make classical music more popular among young people. Classical Minnesota Public Radio, which airs on 40 stations, is recruiting music educators in an attempt to bring Bach and Beethoven into the classrooms.
“It’s important for all media organizations to attract the next generation,” said Kansas. “Assuming younger audiences will come along like their parents did is a very dangerous assumption. You have to be very intentional.”
MPR also has established a fellowship, named for longtime newsman Gary Eichten, that is bringing younger people into the newsroom to help veteran staffers build digital-media expertise.
“The important new step for public radio is engaging a multi-platform audience,” Kansas said. “That’s the world young people are living in.”
Bringing in a new audience is critical for APM, a nonprofit that has been running deficits since 2007. In fiscal 2012, the most recent year for which public reports are available, the organization recorded a $13.9 million deficit, on revenues of $110.8 million. APM declined to provide more recent numbers, but Kansas said revenues have been growing, in large part because national underwriting is getting better after some very lean years.
Public radio in general is “surprisingly strong” in comparison with commercial radio and public television, where programming is more expensive and the field is much more competitive, said consultant Fuerst.
“I think it’s because public radio provides much needed objective, insightful discussion at a time when our country is becoming more polarized,” he said.
They love L.A.
“Wits” has yet to turn a profit, but APM sees a promising future.
“We’re looking for world domination,” the show’s host, John Moe, joked after a sold-out taping at Largo that featured Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, Grammy winner Dan Wilson and “The Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis.
Comedians have been the show’s best ambassadors, said senior producer Larissa Anderson.
“Jim Gaffigan told us we had lightning in a bottle and Patton Oswalt said that if we needed help getting anyone to let him know,” she said. “That goes a long way.”
But APM isn’t about to completely abandon its folksy reputation. “Prairie Home” is carried by more stations than ever before, and Kansas said there are no signs that Garrison Keillor, who turns 72 in August, is ready to slow down as his show approaches its 40th anniversary.
“We talk about what will happen if Garrison eventually retires, just out of prudence, but we don’t have a black box” with a secret plan to replace him, Kansas said.
As for the team behind “Wits,” they have no intention of turning Lake Wobegon into Lollapalooza.
“People speculate that the show is trying to take his place, which is a complete impossibility,” said musical director John Munson, a veteran of the popular bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. “We want Garrison to go as long as he wants to. We want to grow up alongside him, not instead of him.”