Even though ``A Prairie Home Companion'' - Minnesota Public Radio's loyally followed national program - will end its live weekly broadcasts after June 13, lots is happening in the meanwhile: A new variety show is being created. The remaining live broadcasts, starting March 7, will be televised on the Disney Channel, a pay-cable service. And there's a rich archive of tapes not yet aired nationally that can be used afterwards on radio.
Al Hulsen, president of American Public Radio (APR), is the first to acknowledge the feeling of loss. ``There's only one Garrison Keillor,'' he said by phone, referring to the program's host, who announced on the Feb. 14 broadcast his intention of leaving at the end of the current season.
With some 4 million listeners on 275 stations, ``A Prairie Home Companion'' is public radio's most widely heard show, according to Mr. Hulsen. It is also a potent fund-raiser, which public radio stations across the country will be losing. ``The response is particularly due to the uniqueness of Garrison. That's what generates the immense loyalty and following.``But I don't think there is only one person in this world who can touch people. We've just got to out there and find them.''
Actually, one has already been found: Noah Adams, the mellow-voiced co-host of National Public Radio's evening news program ``All Things Considered.'' He has been hired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) to host a new show - initially as a local Minnesota offering - designed to attract the same kind of listeners and currently scheduled for the same time slot - 6 to 8 p.m., EST.
``Our intention is to do a show in the [World] theater [St. Paul, Minn.] with a live audience with good music,'' explained MPR president William Kling by phone from St. Paul. ``It will be different from `A Prairie Home Companion' and obviously will not have Garrison Keillor. But it's [a format] that will be familiar to the audiences that loved that show.
``More and more we see that there's an audience for a certain kind of quality, a certain kind of entertainment,'' he notes, ``and we hope it's going to be possible to create another program that touches that audience.''
Meanwhile Kling says there's ``an incredible demand for tickets from people who want to see the [current] show in its final season. We had thousands of requests by phone since Garrison's announcement by phone - and that's before the mails opened. It shows no sign of letting up. The computerized service lines are jammed and our lines here are catching the overload. So the outpouring from all over the country is just astonishing. The projections are that we could fill the theater for the next several years.''
While most listeners will never get to see it, many can catch it when the Disney Channel begins carrying it on March 7. Up to now the radio show has been televised only once, and Kling says the Disney program will be a chance ``for those who want desperately to see it and cannot get into the theater.'' Up to now, there's only been one What impact will TV production have on the radio studio operation?
``Almost none,'' Kling asserts. ``It ... will be unchanged as a radio show. But it's a very visual show. In fact, there really are two shows - a stage show and a radio show. It's just that the stage show is seen by so few people. The Disney show will be done more the way you'd see it from the audience rather than as your usual highly produced television show.''
When the live radio broadcasts end, Al Hulsen cites a backlog of programs that national listeners haven't heard yet. ``They go back 13 years,'' he says, ``and there's an immense amount of wonderful material. The program will be kept alive through those repeats. The stations I've talked with are interested in making use of the archive.''
And Kling notes that ``even if you've been listening since Keillor was on the cover of Time in November of '85 - which is when the big boost in audience came - there's a lot prior to that time that's very interesting material.''
For Hulsen, long-term hope for the return of Keillor's well-loved radio voice hasn't disappeared. ``Everybody respects what Garrison said about its being time for him to stop doing it. But that doesn`t mean that he won't come back.
``Everyone has made it very clear that the door is open. Any time he wants to return with a radio program, he's welcome.''