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Arts & Culture

Well, Here's The News From Lake Wobegon: Keillor's Coming To San Antonio

After 40 years of doing his program, he’s become, kind of, the grand old man of public radio. Meet Garrison Keillor, the person behind the legend. TPR’s Arts and Culture Reporter Jack Morgan reached him by phone Friday.

Prairie Home Companion is a public radio staple. But it sure didn’t start out as the powerhouse it now is.

“No, it was just, just having fun with radio. I had put in my time doing news and announcing classical music.”

Keillor started his broadcast career at Minnesota Public Radio.

“I just wanted to have fun with musicians whom I knew, and once you know a few musicians, then you know a lot more. And so we stood out there on a stage in front of a tiny audience in July of 1974 and we launched into it. I grew up listening to these old barn dance shows. In the winter you could hear the Grand Old Opry in Minnesota. And so I had some faint idea of what it was supposed to sound like."

He borrowed some of the vibe of the old time radio he heard on the Grand Old Opry to create his Prairie Home Companion. He doesn’t think his early days at the microphone were terribly good.

“But of course I was completely unequipped to do it. Y’ know, I was a writer, full of pretensions.”

I actually lived in St. Paul in the winter of 1975, and went to see him in his very early days. I asked Keillor "As I recall, you wore a white suit. Is that right?"

“I wore a white suit and a big white hat. I just thought that’s what you’re supposed to do, and I had a big, black beard and horn-rimmed glasses. It was not an auspicious beginning.”

I told him "I suspect the performance was free back then. I was about as poor as I’d ever been." He set me straight.

“No, you paid money, actually. I think you paid a dollar and a quarter.”

If you think that Keillor’s creation of a fully developed fictitious place — Lake Wobegon — and the people who live there, allows him the ability to coast creatively from week-to-week, he suggests you think again.

“When you hear the stories on the radio, you’re hearing a man who’s trying to find his way through the fog. And it doesn’t get any easier with the passage of time.”

So that which may sound effortless to listeners’ ears is actually the product of a great deal of effort.  

“I’m a writer. I sit down on Wednesday and Thursday and I write Guy Noir and the Lives of the Cowboys and whatever else needs to be written, and some songs, and have a little rehearsal on Friday, and re-write all of it. And on Saturday it’s fairly fun. But the real fun is on late Friday night when you see your way clear and you solve the problems that you’ve set out for yourself.”

So how much does weather have to do with week-to-week for him?

“[The] weather is the beginning of everything in Minnesota, because we have so much of it. Cold is a stimulant. The winter is when a writer does his best work. Summer is lassitude and languor, and weeks pass, and nothing happens. 

Keillor is coming to the Tobin Center on Wednesday night.

“Well, I’m coming around to see who listens to the radio. Every audience is different.”

I asked about “public radio” as a concept.

“When you’re in your early 20s I think it’s okay to spend some time with radio that yells at you. But I think when you grow up, you come back to Public Radio.”

So he’s optimistic about public radio.

“I’m very optimistic, yes.”

And he will, for the foreseeable future, be a part of it. Jack Morgan, Texas Public Radio News.

For more on the Tobin performance go here.