I have no inside information, but here’s what I think happened with and to Garrison Keillor. After an inimitable run of nearly half a century, he agreed with his broadcast patron station, Minnesota Public Radio, that he would step aside and retire from “Prairie Home Companion.”
Whether by habit or contract or fear, Minnesota Public Radio continued a relationship with Keillor, broadcasting and distributing his “Writers’ Almanac,” and with Keillor’s production company. Maybe the terms of that arrangement were especially favorable to Keillor, in deference to his legacy for the state and the station.
Chris Thile took over “Prairie Home Companion” in 2016, but Keillor never really went away. According to Wikipedia, he retained artistic, distribution, and trademark rights to the show’s name and to retail items connected with the show.
What’s more, Keillor didn’t really retire. He continued touring a show that reminded many long-time fans as a stripped-down version of his radio program. Music, stories, audience repartee — it was as if Keillor had never left.
But without Keillor leaving, Thile’s show never stood a chance. Saddled with the legacy name, favorable terms for Keillor, and ongoing confusion based on Keillor’s touring, “Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile” (its official new name) failed to attract audiences anywhere near what Keillor had delivered.
It also might not have helped MPR’s mood that Keillor used his fame to disparage the current president. He did the same when George W. Bush was president, but his style was more careful a decade ago, and Bush didn’t almost win the state’s electoral college votes.
Although Donald Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton, he received more votes than her in all but nine counties. Trump’s strength across the country was in rural areas. Keillor’s commentaries for the Washington Post Writers Group proved a poor companion in those prairie homes.
But MPR had no recourse. Whatever form it took, the station and Keillor had an agreement. The station may have believed that Keillor had agreed to honestly retire from the public eye — not tour in a way that fed the discontent of his nostalgic fans.
Then two things happened that may or may not have been connected until two weeks ago. At least one person who worked with Keillor expressed some concern about some indiscretion that may or may not have been limited to what Keillor later described — a hand on skin, apologies, forgiveness, and maybe an internal review of the matter at MPR.
Around the same time, Keillor used his weekly newspaper column to suggest that Minnesota Senator Al Franken was being unfairly blackballed for what must have been an innocent mistake.
Maybe Keillor’s aggrieved coworker thought he had taken a road too high in his commentary. Maybe somebody at MPR saw an opportunity to terminate an unfavorable contract. Maybe one led to the other — we don’t know.
Keillor heard from that coworker’s lawyer. MPR terminated all contractual ties with Keillor, possibly citing a boilerplate clause for moral turpitude, and announced an imminent name change for Chris Thile’s radio program.
Washington Post Writers Group also terminated Keillor’s contract for distributing his newspaper columns, since he failed to disclose that he was himself subject to an investigation similar to what Franken was facing with the Senate Ethics Committee. And Franken stepped forward to “take one for the team” and announced his resignation.
How all these strands tugged on one another is not yet clear. Maybe it never will be. Keillor seems determined to clear his name and not actually retire, but the unnamed forces that rule the world are always doing what is necessary to help dotage find a soft but dark place to land.
Maybe that’s what’s really happening here. “Old school” males are being schooled on being old, by others who have more energy and a greater stake in the future. History would say that’s a good thing, even if those being shunted aside would rather they not.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.