Live from Lake Wobegon; WILL NPR'S 'PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION' BRING RADIO OF AGE AGAIN?
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The third ingredient in the ''Prairie Home'' mix seems most appealing to listeners: Keillor's weekly monologues about what happened last week in his ''hometown.''Skip to next paragraph
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A cynic would say Lake Wobegon is just a figment of Keillor's imagination. Frequent listeners will have none of that: His richly detailed profiles of the personalities and activities of ''residents'' such as Senator Thorvaldsen, the wealthy Ingquvist clan, and even expatriates such as Barbara Ann Bunsen (who now lives on a llama and walnut ranch in Wisconsin), have made them friends of the family.
Even when Keillor shows someone's foibles, he also underlines their essential goodness. As William Whitworth, who has bought several of Keillor's essays since he became editor of The Atlantic last year, says: ''His humor is particularly Midwestern: satirical but never mean or savage. He's a very funny man.''
According to his staff, Keillor usually just outlines the monologues, then speaks without notes. The listener would never know it. The richness of detail and his ability to wrap up seemingly forgotten digressions at the conclusion invariably hush the audience. They bend forward to listen intently, and then loudly applaud when Keillor closes the monologue with ''And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.''
Admittedly, these components do not make for overnight success. In fact, when Keillor launched the show in July 1974 the live audience totaled around 20. The inspiration for ''Prairie Home'' came when The New Yorker sent Keillor to Nashville for an article about the granddaddy of live radio, ''The Grand Ole Opry.'' ''Its liveness appealed to me then -- it charged the show with an excitement above and beyond the music, the old magic of radio as a connection to distant places,'' he said. Two months later ''Prairie Home'' was on the air.
It is impossible to describe the offbeat appeal of the show and a disservice to Keillor to try to paraphrase his writing. There's hard evidence, however, that the public is recognizing that it's a special show with a special message. The number of stations carrying it since NPR's satellite service began in May 1980 increased to 118 by its first anniversary, 150 by fall, and 175 by Christmas. It has also become the centerpiece of most stations' fund raising. In urbane, urban Boston a fund-raising appeal taped by Keillor resulted in a record high in donations. WKAR in East Lansing, Mich., went from a normal $38 a minute in pledges to $135 during the show.
Keillor says he aims the show at his contemporaries, those in their mid-30s to 40s, ''who grew up late, at a time of terrible violence. Now they are resolutely trying to build their lives, settle down, and raise families.'' The middle-class family life the show exalts ''really is an accomplishment.''
Whatever Keillor's aims, the actual listenership seems to defy the categorization: urban and rural, low- and upper-income alike. ''We cherish the fact that our audience includes a great variety of people who disagree about everything, but enjoy the show,'' he said.
That's reflected in the fan mail, postmarked from New York as well as from North Dakota. As one fan said, ''This city of Washington, I suspect, can use a good bit of Lake Wobegon. It would help us over some of the rough spots.'' The writer: Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.
The show does have its critics. Jack, the Lake Wobegon tycoon, has canceled his sponsorship to protest the show's success. Keillor is forced to read letters from Jack criticizing him for going big-time and asking rhetorically, ''What happened to the tall, moody kid who used to stuff potatoes in the stovepipe?''
Keillor is quick to debunk what he sees as a false aura of sweetness and light about the Lake Wobegonese that attracts so many. He pointed out that the ''residents'' appear so shy and reserved that it seems to others they are aloof, and ''there's a failure of generosity on their part.''
As for the pangs of nostalgia many urbanites feel every Saturday night, Keillor said to forget them. ''You couldn't live there: All the people there know the same things and the same people. Their purpose is not to know new things, or encounter challenges, but to weave these ties so they can express themselves to others subliminally.''
After debunking any attempts to ascribe significance to his show, Keillor was asked which of the Lake Wobegon residents he felt closest to. His choice was Senator Thorvaldsen, who was given the name not by the voters, but by his parents, ''because it had a certain ring to it. He grew into the name and became an imposing figure,'' the 6 ft., 4 in. Keillor says, ''even though he didn't do much work. He will give you a big hello, and make a big fuss over you.''