In its first season without Garrison Keillor, “Prairie Home Companion” broadened its musical horizons with an eclectic guest list, ranging from rock star Jack White to singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, and a rookie host who’s seemingly mastered every instrument known to man. It seems the strategy clicked with younger listeners, convincing St. Paul-based American Public Media to distribute another round.
But even young maestro Chris Thile admits the show’s comedy could use some fine-tuning. “I felt confident the music was heading in the right direction, but less sure about the spoken-word aspect,” Thile said earlier this week, speaking by phone from his new Brooklyn office, where he prepared for Saturday’s season premiere at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre.
To compensate for the void left by Guy Noir’s exit, the show beefed up its writing staff this season by hiring veteran stand-up comic Tom Papa and Rachel Axler, a four-time Emmy winner for her work on “Veep” and “The Daily Show.” It’s a sharp departure from the first four decades when Keillor was responsible for roughly 90 percent of the dialogue, some of which was written on envelopes and magazine margins 24 hours before airtime.
Neither Papa nor Wexler hails from the Midwest, but Papa, who will serve as head writer, specializes in clean-cut, I’m-OK-you’re-OK comedy that should appeal to public-radio listeners hungry for a break from the bleak news cycle.
“Tom’s love and appreciation for the show is as deep as mine,” said Thile, who first invited Papa (aka Jerry Seinfeld’s best bud) on the program in February.
Executives at affiliates across the country agree that last season’s scripts were not as polished as they hoped. Some also felt that Thile could dial down his enthusiasm.
“Chris is great and clearly a very talented performer, but he should stop drinking coffee,” said Darrell Brogdon, Kansas Public Radio’s program director. “I think he’s a little hyperactive.”
But Brogdon and most of his peers are willing to give the new kid on the dial more time to make adjustments.
“I don’t think the show has been fully co-opted yet by Chris’ aesthetic,” said Daniel Gilliam, director of radio at Louisville Public Media. “I mean, Keillor is a huge shadow to be under. And that’s fine. These things take time. It’s also possible that the show will go through growing pains and emerge with a different audience and following. That’s the best-case scenario.”
Gilliam refers to public radio’s desire to reach younger listeners, something “Prairie Home” seems more likely to achieve with red-hot musical guests. Chris Stapleton, one of country music’s most popular artists, will wander down the street Saturday for a “Prairie Home” appearance before his headline gig at Xcel Energy Center.
Oklahoma Public Radio (KOSU) is so enthusiastic about the show’s new direction, it’s hosting its first ever “Prairie” listening party (complete with locally crafted beer) at a contemporary arts gallery in the college town of Stillwater, Okla.
“I think there’s tremendous potential for the show to evolve through music to reach younger audiences,” said KOSU’s director Kelly Burley.
Dave Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, which distributes the show, said the average age of ticket buyers for last season’s Fitzgerald shows was a dozen years younger than in the past.
The number of affiliates carrying the show this year is close to 600, up slightly from last season, which averaged about 2.6 million listeners per episode. That’s roughly 400,000 less than during Keillor’s last run, but significantly more than the 2 million Kansas originally forecast.
“Chris was always confident, but I would say he became more comfortable and more commanding as the season went on,” Kansas said. “He put those host clothes on more snugly.”
Even so, APM had to recognize they didn’t have a runaway hit on their hands, in some cases negotiating reduced rates. For example, Boise State Public Radio, which broadcasts throughout Idaho, is paying the same rate it did last year — about 12 percent less than when Keillor was at the mike — despite the fact that they’re being promised 26 new episodes, double the amount from Thile’s inaugural season.
A second year was never a sure thing — until it was.
“I know it seemed inevitable, but it wasn’t,” Thile told the on-air audience when announcing the new season this past February.
Thile sensed that affiliates gave him a 50/50 chance of survival at the start of last season. “I was a little more optimistic than that, but was also as skeptical as the rest of the fans on whether we’d survive without Garrison’s direct involvement.”
At one point, Thile reached out to his predecessor for a pep talk.
“He felt it wasn’t time to panic, that it would come,” Thile said. “He listened to the shows and said, ‘It’s so close, so close.’ ”