The radio show had a new host, a new name. But for three years, Minnesotans could still claim “Live From Here,” successor to “A Prairie Home Companion,” as our own. No longer. This spring, the show announced a new home: New York City.
The news bruised longtime listener Christian Nielsen’s Minnesota pride.
“The show had little pieces of that ‘Prairie Home’ energy to it,” he said. “To see that go away ... to see the show hosted out of New York of all places, it’s just kind of sad.”
The signature show’s move comes at a time when some Minnesotans — long proud of the state’s outsize public radio presence — are feeling a little shaky in their reign. “The Splendid Table” traded its St. Paul host for a New Yorker. “Wits,” an ambitious Minnesota-made show that hoped to build a younger national audience with its blend of music and comedy, was canceled after a five-year run.
But the folks at St. Paul-based American Public Media, which produces and distributes “Live From Here,” argue that basing the show in New York, where host Chris Thile now lives, will make it better for audiences here and elsewhere.
“We are excited about what ‘Live From Here’s’ move to NYC means for our audience experience,” said spokeswoman Kelly Reller, “more world-class guests, more variety and livestreaming from every show.”
Tom Papa, last season’s head writer, argued that even as the show evolves and moves, it won’t lose its Minnesota sensibility. It remains grounded and folksy, with a lot of heart. That’s intentional, Papa added, as he and Thile talk regularly about striking the right tone.
“The host has changed. The name has changed,” Papa said. “But the spirit of the show is very much the same.”
In a phone interview last week, the comedian previewed other switches. The show is getting rid of comic sketches performed by a resident cast, though guests might perform skits. “That’s probably the biggest change,” he said. Papa will continue his “Out in America” segment, populated by the Uber drivers and flask-offerers he meets on his travels.
For the people working on the show, the move to New York is a big deal, of course, he said.
“But I think people listening at home, I wonder if they’ll even notice.”
All up in our feelings
Papa might be underestimating Minnesotans.
The changes were gradual, but they noticed. First, there was the new host. A Southern Californian by birth, sure, but one who grew up listening to “Prairie Home” with his parents and was hand-picked by Garrison Keillor.
Then, when Keillor faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the show took a new name. New staffers. “Live From Here” was broadcast from the Twin Cities just four times last season.
And that new host? He got a fill-in for one of those gigs.
So when “Live From Here” announced in May that it would leave its longtime St. Paul home for New York City when it launches its fourth season under Thile, some longtime listeners weren’t surprised. Minnesotans inundated the radio show’s Facebook page, lamenting that the show was being “ripped from the heartland.” It was losing its “hometown feel,” they argued, its “understated Midwest vibe,” its “offbeat” identity.
But also, the news just hurt our feelings, a little.
“I am a huge fan of the show, but as a lifelong Minnesotan, I’m deeply disappointed,” Nielsen wrote. “You couldn’t have at least mentioned Minnesota here in this announcement? This show belongs here.”
Speaking by phone, Nielsen wanted to make clear: He isn’t one of those “Prairie Home” fans still pining over Keillor. A musician and music therapist, Nielsen, 50, has long admired mandolinist Thile, of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame, as a versatile player and performer. He applauded the new host’s diverse slate of musical guests, goofy sense of humor and ability to pay tribute — in myriad musical styles — to musicians on their birthdays. “I actually really liked where the show’s been going,” Nielsen said.
So each Sunday, on the way back to his Chanhassen home from a church gig, Nielsen continued tuning in. But, he noticed, “the Minnesota is fading out.”
He went to buy tickets for a Twin Cities show and was astonished by how few of those shows there were. Then came the New York City news.
It’s a blow to the Minnesota arts community broadly, Nielsen said, and to local musicians specifically, who might be less likely to be featured on the show. He understands that Thile, who now lives in New York, is busy with recording and touring, and that the Midwest is likely out of his way.
“I’d rather have it move to New York than have it not happen,” Nielsen said.
‘A whole new universe’
Two years back, “The Splendid Table” traded St. Paul resident Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s lusty laugh for the sweet he-he-hes of Francis Lam, a cookbook editor, food journalist and New York City resident.
Rossetto Kasper’s topics and guests were global, thanks in part to a D.C.-based producer and co-creator, but over her two decades at the show’s helm, she sometimes tucked Minnesotan chefs and food into its folds. The show, still produced in St. Paul, continues that tradition. While Lam regularly hosts chefs in his New York City kitchen, Minnesotans pop up in its studios.
“The Splendid Table” airs on more than 400 public radio stations nationwide, according to American Public Media, which is Minnesota Public Radio’s national distribution arm. APM will continue producing the New York-based version of “Live From Here,” carried by about 540 stations.
“APM’s programs have had a global footprint for many years with offices and bureaus in cities across the country,” Reller said in an e-mail this month, “including St. Paul, Los Angeles and New York.”
APM is behind some of public radio’s biggest podcasts, too. Among them: “In the Dark,” “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and “The Hilarious World of Depression,” launched by “Wits” host John Moe after his show was canceled in 2015. Producing a podcast takes “a fraction of the effort” that a live touring show like “Wits” does, Moe has noted.
But Minnesota’s national radio presence is rooted in “Prairie Home,” the show Keillor created, which at its peak drew some 4 million listeners each week into the world of Lake Wobegon. In 2017, MPR cut ties with Keillor after a woman who worked for the show told MPR that he subjected her to “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents.”
Speaking of New York: At one point in the late 1980s, Keillor ended the show and then staged it there, under a different name. “But there’s no place like home,” the Prairie Home website recounts. “So in 1992, it was back to Minnesota and, soon after, back to the old name: ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’ ”
“Radio has gone on to a whole new universe from what ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ lived in,” Keillor says now.
In an e-mail this month, he pointed out that the show’s infrastructure included “a big uplink dish,” a massive staff including actors and stagehands and an entire theater, the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, which Minnesota Public Radio recently sold to First Avenue.
“None of that matters anymore,” he wrote. “You can do it in your basement with one mic and a laptop, and it’s a podcast … You’ll have fun, you’ll have an audience of thousands, and you can quit whenever you like and do something else. So it doesn’t matter that those shows originate from New York. It sure doesn’t matter to New Yorkers.”
Keillor guessed that “the reason those shows left town for New York is Celebrity.”
“You can get Paul Simon or Jerry Seinfeld to come do your show and they’ll do it for nothing,” he said. “Hard to get them to come to Minneapolis.”
Changes to the show’s format, which Papa said might give it “a little more of a variety-show feel,” have already affected at least one Minnesotan. Eagan native Serena Brook announced that, after three years and 65 shows of live radio, the June 15 season finale was her last as a regular cast member.
“It was especially fun to share the show with local audiences when we were in St. Paul or Minneapolis,” the actor, who earned a BFA at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said by e-mail.
She loved that “Live From Here” was rooted in her home state. “To me, that magic quality of ‘Let’s be together for two hours on a Saturday’ has carried through. I’m proud to have represented those Minnesota roots on stage.”