What is it with live radio shows and St. Paul this month? A couple weeks after Garrison Keillor announced his retirement from “A Prairie Home Companion” and just a few days after the cancellation of “Wits,” organizers of “The Real-Phonic Radio Hour” now reveal that their upcoming season is in limbo after they lost their funding and agreement with the historic J.J. Hill Reference Library in downtown St. Paul to host the shows there.
Although not a genuine radio show like “Prairie Home” and “Wits” -- both syndicated public radio series from St. Paul-based American Public Media -- “Real-Phonic” is staged like one, with a similar variety-show vibe that made it a cult-loved monthly to-do for Twin Cities roots music lovers. National artists such as Mary Gauthier, Amanda Shires, Augie Meyers, Pieta Brown and Anais Mitchell and local favorites such as the Pines, Dead Man Winter and the Cactus Blossoms have joined “Real-Phonic” hosts Erik Koskinen, Molly Maher and the stellar house band once a month in the ornate three-story library going back to 2010. Both the Star Tribune and City Pages often raved about the series.
“One of the things that made it work was the fact that it was such a unique, beautiful space that both the artists and the audiences loved,” said Maher.
She and Koskinen are “looking for a foster family” to offer to host the show, she said – but finding one as likable as the Hill Library is going to be tough. The “Real-Phonic” shows, conversely, served to promote the library, which has seen its usage as a reference hub dwindle in the Google and Wikipedia era and now relies heavily on weddings and 225-capacity private event rentals.
Apparently the fall-out began with some disagreements between the musicians and the Hill Library board over Koskinen’s great new album off the series, “Live at the Real-Phonic Radio Hour,” which led to discussions about the show’s future. Library board member Thom Middlebrook, who also served as the narrator of the “Real-Phonic” shows, said the decision from the board was ultimately made out of “a desire to cut costs.”
“In the end the lure of a dollar proved to be a greater distraction than the laughter and delight of vibrating the air [in there],” Middlebrook said via email. “But if a lifetime in the arts has taught me anything, it is that ‘Real-Phonic’ was just the first act. There will be many more shows to follow.”
However, another Hill Library board member, Barry Gisser, said the "Real-Phonic" musicians themselves "have chosen to leave our venue." He did not elaborate but said the board has plans to launch a new music series in "Real-Phonic's" place.
"While we are disappointed to see the band leave, we are very excited about providing live music at what we think is an amazing venue," Gisser said.
Maher has already booked about half of the shows for the next season, September-May, and may have to cancel on some “amazing musicians” (she didn’t want to name names). “Real-Phonic” could still be staged at the Hill Library as an outsider rental event, but the economics of doing so would be tough, she acknowledged.
“It’s heartbreaking for us," Maher said, "and I think it's bad news for St. Paul, too. We brought a fair amount of people downtown and made them fall in love with that place."