Chris Thile tunes up for second season of ‘Prairie Home’

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Nate Ryan

Chris Thile performs during his debut episode as host of "A Prairie Home Companion," staged last October at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.

Stories from Lake Wobegon may be gone from A Prairie Home Companion, but fans of the show have found other reasons to keep listening.

During PHC’s first year on the air, with bluegrass musician Chris Thile as host, distributor American Public Media said ratings and carriage exceeded expectations.

APM is now doubling the number of episodes in the new PHC’s second season. Thile will perform 26 live episodes this year, six of which will be staged in the Twin Cities region and another six in New York. Guests lined up for the first episodes, announced by the distributor Sept. 14, include Chris Stapleton, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, author George Saunders and Randy Newman.

“We’re just excited and delighted we have a really great talent who’s leaned into this and is doing well,” said Dave Kansas, chief operating officer of APM. The Minnesota-based distributor had been hoping for 2 million listeners and significant carriage in the top 100 markets during Thile’s first season as host. After only 13 new episodes, Thile’s Prairie Home is pulling down 2.6 million weekly listeners on terrestrial radio and airing in more than 80 of the top 100 markets.

In contrast to Keillor, who does not use social media, the 36-year-old Thile, a MacArthur Foundation Grant–winning musician, entered his hosting gig with a sizeable young fan base weaned on digital marketing. Accordingly, APM has used Thile’s first season to experiment with more digital outreach, and audiences for live video streams of performances are up, according to Kansas. PHC is also releasing a podcast featuring original songs composed by Thile and other highlights, and organizing other social media goodies, such as a Twitter contest built around the chestnut “Powdermilk Biscuits” jingle.

Keillor hand-picked Thile to take over as host when he ended his 42-year run in 2016. Though Thile’s inaugural season produced far fewer episodes, APM charged the same carriage fees. Some stations dropped the show, unwilling to pay the same amount for 13 episodes. But APM also lifted the exclusivity provisions that had allowed only one station per market to air it. That change gave stations like WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, the option to pick up PHC for the first time.

“We added it because of Chris Thile,” said Mike Thompson, WOSU chief content director, who introduced PHC to his schedule last October. For decades, Columbus’s WCBE had held exclusive rights to air the show.

“We had a great optimism that it was going to be a good show with a new personality,” Thompson said.

The transition has not been completely smooth. Thile’s creative team struggles especially to incorporate the humor and storytelling that was Keillor’s bread and butter. Most of Keillor’s signature bits, including the Lake Wobegon monologue and the Guy Noir sketches, are no longer part of the program. A new writing staff conjures the skits, while guest comics like Jen Kirkman and Tom Papa round out the performances.

Thile performs in the sketches, often alongside new cast member Serena Brook, who takes many of the romantic-foil parts that used to go to Sue Scott. Without the grounding in routine and familiarity that Keillor often applied to his own comedy segments, Thile’s sketches sometimes feel like they’re searching for a groove. Thile is less adept than his predecessor at rambling to fill clumps of dead air in the scripts.

The spotty nature of the comedy portions stands in stark contrast to the musical guests, who include some of the biggest names in alternative rock. Thile has invited acts like Jack White, Jon Batiste, Lucius and the Avett Brothers onto the show — performers who largely work in the same instrumental, usually bluegrass-influenced space that Keillor preferred. But they are noticeably more attractive to younger audiences.

“We think the music part of the show is really strong, and we think the spoken-word comedy part of the show will be stronger in the coming year,” Kansas said, adding that PHC spent most of the season hiatus “beefing up” its comedy portions.

Even this seeming flaw was a plus for some. Thile’s focus on music over spoken word allowed PHC to fit more naturally into WOSU’s weekend bluegrass lineup, Thompson said.

Some in, some out

Though APM said carriage numbers for Thile’s PHC have remained consistent since the Keillor years, some frustrated stations have bailed out.

“It was a great show and Garrison is a great storyteller, but he moved on, and so have we,” said Joe Vincenza, director of content and operations for WUWF in Pensacola, Fla. After some internal deliberations, his station decided to pull PHC from the schedule after Keillor took his final bow.

The decision did not come lightly to Vincenza, who grew up on PHC. “When I first started in public radio, in 1984 as a lowly board operator, I would try to work Saturday nights so I could listen to the program,” he said.

Finances played a big role in WUWF’s move — especially APM’s decision to charge the same fees for Thile’s 13-episode season as the Keillor-era output of 40-plus episodes. APM drew from past seasons of Keillor’s show for reruns that supplemented Thile’s off-weeks.

“We just felt that was not acceptable, to charge full price for 75 percent retreads,” Vincenza said. “We were not able to financially take that leap of faith with them.”

To stick with the musical variety theme for Saturday evenings, WUWF picked up NPR’s Mountain Stage. Listener feedback has been positive, Vincenza said. Even with the bump in new PHC episodes, it’s unlikely that he will consider picking it up again.

Never gone?

It’s always difficult to transition from a longtime host to untested talent, but Keillor’s continued activities keep him in the public eye, and keep his longtime fans happy, as Thile adjusts to center stage.

While Thile’s team was preparing their upcoming season, Keillor staged a very PHC-like variety lineup entitled “Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Love & Comedy Tour” during a five-week roadshow that began Aug. 8 in Appleton, Wisc. Backed by his standby PHC production team, Keillor performed sketches such as Guy Noir and “Lives of the Cowboys,” while updating his audiences on the news from Lake Wobegon. The tour concluded Sept. 15 in Cary, N.C., three weeks before Thile’s Oct. 7 season premiere in St. Paul.

In addition, Keillor hosted two PHC-themed cruises for APM last year, and continues to host the daily module The Writer’s Almanac. On Sept. 1 he performed “The Minnesota Show” at the Minnesota State Fair, the same venue APM used in 2016 to introduce the California-born Thile to the hometown crowd that claims ownership to PHC’s sensibilities.

APM broadcast Keillor’s “Minnesota Show” live locally, and later made the recorded version available to stations through PHC.

“Garrison’s important to our company,” Kansas said. “He’s obviously a creative dynamo and likes to do a lot of things, and we want to be supportive of that, and we don’t think it detracts or causes any challenge for Chris and his work on Prairie Home on his own.”

But as Thile looks to strum his mandolin for an even larger audience, he will have to prove he can indeed make PHC “his own.”

  • Bill Sims

    Lies, The show isn’t nearly as good as it was with Garrison Kielor.