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" revealed 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" — 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 monthly to-do for Twin Cities roots/Americana music lovers.
National artists such as Mary Gauthier, Amanda Shires, Augie Meyers, Pieta Brown and Anais Mitchell and Minnesota favorites such as the Pines, Dead Man Winter and the Cactus Blossoms have joined "Real-Phonic" hosts Erik Koskinen, Molly Maher and the local all-star house band once a month in the ornate three-story library going back to 2010. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was a known fan, and 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 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.
Former 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 e-mail. "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 library board member, Barry Gisser, pinned the decision on the "Real-Phonic" musicians themselves. He did not elaborate but said the board has plans to launch a new music series in place of "Real-Phonic."
"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."
"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."
Chris Riemenschneider 612-673-4658