Garrison Keillor, whose soothing voice and gentle humor helped define the world's view of Minnesota, has been dropped by Minnesota Public Radio for "inappropriate behavior" toward a co-worker.
MPR said Wednesday it is severing all ties to the longtime host of radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." The show, which he handed off last year to hand-picked successor Chris Thile, will be retitled — Keillor holds the trademark — and his old broadcasts no longer will be aired.
Officials at the network would not comment beyond a statement saying they were notified last month of allegations relating to Keillor's conduct while he was responsible for producing "PHC."
"I put my hand on a woman's bare back," he told the Star Tribune by e-mail minutes after MPR's statement. "I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called."
The 75-year-old humorist who helped make MPR a powerhouse seemed more hurt, resigned and defensive than apologetic.
"It's astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation," he said in a Facebook post Wednesday evening. "I always believed in hard work and now it feels sort of meaningless. Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances."
He later deleted that public comment and then, in a post to Facebook friends (including some journalists), said he had just had a good conversation "with my dear friend who I am married to, on the subject of What Do We Really Need in Life. It's very simple. I need her and I need to have work to do and I need to live someplace where we can both be happy. I have about ten years of work to do, sitting in my computer. I want to write a couple movies, write a weekly column (preferably humorous), write a book called Gratitude. I think we should move east and leave the past behind."
MPR details its decision
Although he stepped away from "Prairie Home," Keillor retained a producer credit and continued to record his daily feature, "The Writer's Almanac," for syndication by MPR's distribution arm, St. Paul-based American Public Media.
MPR said it would halt that feature. It also will separate itself from the Pretty Good Goods online catalog, which sells Keillor merchandise, and the website PrairieHome.org.
"I'm in shock," new host Thile wrote on Twitter. "I know nothing beyond what's contained in the MPR statement but I trust that the proper steps are being taken."
The "Prairie Home" team is in New York City for three weekends of live shows beginning Saturday. Representatives refused to comment, but a Hawaii Public Radio e-mail said the working title is now "The Chris Thile Show" and its host will address the situation in his monologue Saturday.
MPR said it was aware of no similar allegations involving other staff, but "the investigation is still ongoing."
"While we appreciate the contributions Garrison has made to MPR and to all of public radio, we believe this decision is the right thing to do and is necessary to continue to earn your trust and that of our employees," MPR President Jon McTaggart told members in an e-mail.
Keillor later posted a statement on his website.
"I've been fired over a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard," he said. "Most stories are. It's some sort of poetic irony to be knocked off the air by a story, having told so many of them myself, but I'm 75 and don't have any interest in arguing about this. And I cannot in conscience bring danger to a great organization I've worked hard for since 1969.
"I am sorry for all the poets whose work I won't be reading on the radio and sorry for the people who will lose work on account of this. But my profound feeling is that of gratitude, especially to my wife Jenny, and for this painful experience that has brought us even closer together."
He and Jenny Lind Nilsson, a violist for the Minnesota Opera, have been married since 1995. It is his third marriage.
Garrison Keillor speaking in 1994 about sexual harassment.
'Prairie Home' history
MPR was just two years old in 1969 when its founder, Bill Kling, hired Keillor as an announcer. Together they launched "Prairie Home" on July 6, 1974, with a live broadcast from Macalester College witnessed by a handful of people.
The show began airing nationwide in 1980 and grew into a hit that fueled MPR's growth into one of the nation's largest public radio operations. At its peak, Keillor drew 4 million listeners every week while serving as Minnesota's cultural ambassador, with tales of the mythical Lake Wobegon that skewered the state's work ethic, good-hearted earthiness and humble nature. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His book "Lake Wobegon Days" sold more than 1 million copies in 1985. Playgirl named him one of the sexiest men in America.
In his e-mail to the Star Tribune, he said "anyone who ever was around my show can tell you that I was the least physically affectionate person in the building. Actors hug, musicians hug, people were embracing every Saturday night left and right, and I stood off in the corner like a stone statue. If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the belt line, I'd have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order."
A tireless writer, Keillor authored more than two dozen books, hosted cruises, contributed to major magazines and scripted a 2006 film, "A Prairie Home Companion," a fictionalized story about the show with an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson and Lindsay Lohan.
He continued a busy schedule after leaving "Prairie Home," touring the country with a similar live show — a performance Wednesday night in Pittsfield, Mass., was canceled — and writing occasional columns for the Washington Post News Service & Syndicate. The service said it was taking the allegations "seriously and is seeking more information about them."
Column defending Franken
Coincidentally, Keillor defended Minnesota Sen. Al Franken in a syndicated column this week after Los Angeles radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden reported that Franken kissed and groped her without her consent during a 2006 USO tour.
"He did USO tours overseas when he was in the comedy biz," Keillor wrote. "He did it from deep in his heart, out of patriotism, and the show he did was broad comedy of a sort that goes back to the Middle Ages. … Miss Tweeden knew what the game was and played her role and on the flight home, in a spirit of low comedy, Al ogled her and pretended to grab her and a picture was taken. Eleven years later, a talk show host in L.A., she goes public with her embarrassment, and there is talk of resignation. This is pure absurdity and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness. No kidding."
Keillor mentioned the Franken controversy in an e-mail to MPR News on Wednesday.
"I think the country is in the grip of a mania — the whole Franken business is an absurdity — and I wish someone [would] resist it," he wrote, "but I expect MPR to look out for itself, and meanwhile I feel awfully lucky to have hung on for so long."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @NealJustin