Hit Parade: The NEA Funds A Prairie Home Companion

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: A closeup of writer Garrison Keillor.

Humorist Garrison Keillor has hosted Minnesota Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion for more than 30 years.
Photo by Jason Bell

"It was May in Minnesota and the ice was slowly receding into the woods. It was still cold. Some tulips who jumped the gun had to be rescued and some migratory songbirds had to be stopped at the Iowa border. Crime was pretty low, people were just too depressed to even think about it. An enormous bald man in black Spandex shorts was found wandering around town talking to himself . . ."

--- Garrison Keillor as Guy Noir
A Prairie Home Companion

1976For millions of Americans, the names Guy Noir, Lake Wobegon, and Powdermilk Biscuits are part of their cultural lexicon, thanks to the long-running Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) show A Prairie Home Companion. Hosted by writer and raconteur Garrison Keillor, the show is a medley of music, stories, skits, faux commercials, and jokes. One of the show's most popular segments is "The News from Lake Wobegon," Keillor's improvised monologue about current events in a fictional Minnesota town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average." In addition to a regular cast of actors and musicians, Keillor's guests range from musicians to newspaper columnists to Hollywood favorites.

Keillor, whose folksy wit sets the tone for A Prairie Home Companion, credits a 1976 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting the growth of the program, which started as an MPR morning show in the early 1970s.

"A grant from the NEA enabled us to start A Prairie Home Companion in Minnesota. Help which was crucial, because the show was not that great to start with, we had 12 people in the audience for our first broadcast, and we made the mistake of having an intermission and lost half of them," he recounts.

From left to right, Fred Newman, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor perform a skit from (ital) A Prairie Home Companion (close ital) against a backdrop featuring a housefront and vintage advertising signs. Each perfomer stands in front of a stan

Fred Newman, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor perform a skit during an episode of A Prairie Home Companion.
Photo by Jason Bell

Keillor was familiar with the benefits of Arts Endowment funding, having earned his first paycheck as a professional writer with a $300 Writers in the Schools residency grant from the agency in 1969. According to Keillor, the grant convinced him that it was possible to make a living as a writer. Since then, in addition to A Prairie Home Companion, his career has included a staff writer position at The New Yorker and the publication of several books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

In 1987, Keillor briefly decided to end the show, but resurrected it two years later as the American Radio Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. In 1992, the flourishing show returned home to Minnesota and its original moniker. Today A Prairie Home Companion has more than four million listeners worldwide on more than 580 public radio stations as well as America One and the Armed Forces Networks.

Most recently, acclaimed director Robert Altman helmed a film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor wrote and starred in the film, which featured Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, and Lindsay Lohan.