A Prairie Home Companion and Our Public Media Future

On July 6, 1974 A Prairie Home Companion presented its first live radio show; 12 people attended. At the time, public radio was in its infancy—an assortment of stations was emerging and a national organization, National Public Radio (NPR), was just getting on its feet. While there was a shared sense of hope, I doubt anyone would have predicted the public radio of today…more than 1,000 stations with 35 million radio listeners each week, and millions more downloads, streams, page views, friends and followers.

A loyal core of that large audience was built by a Saturday night appointment with Garrison Keillor. Still today, nearly 3.5 million fans – 10-percent of all public radio listeners – enjoy APHC every week! A Prairie Home Companion is an iconic program that has helped to define and build public radio.

Tens of millions of Americans have listened to APHC and many of them have children who were raised on the program. Now the kids from Lake Wobegon have graduated from college and they’re living in the city. Their lives, interests, passions and expectations are different than their parents’— they’re younger and have different media habits—but we believe they care deeply about the values that have long-defined our collective public service.

When Garrison announced his retirement, the easiest choice for American Public Media would’ve been to simply offer program repeats for as long as stations will carry them and loyal audiences will listen. But building and serving audiences is never accomplished by taking the easiest route.

Instead, we asked ourselves what we could do to excite our fans and help new ones discover us. Our audiences rely on us (public radio) to find and present world-class music, to introduce them to talented artists and musicians, to showcase the depth and breadth of creative performance in the country, to create unique experiences that take our listeners to new places. It’s what APHC has done so well for 42 years. Given our imagination and ambition to serve more Americans, we must do more than merely offer repeats. The easy route would not best serve our 3.5 million fans, and it would not help to secure our future by drawing in new ones.

So, we’re making a bold investment to reinvent A Prairie Home Companion and create a new reason for large and diverse audiences to be excited and to listen. This is our opportunity to recreate APHC for Gen-X-and-Y, millennials and future generations. The Tonight Show imagined a new future and new fans with Jimmy Fallon as its host, and we can do the same with APHC. We, in public radio, are creators and innovators, journalists and entertainers, storytellers and conveners; we are leaders, and our audiences expect us to lead.

We’re inviting you to work with us in a new way and to create a new path forward. Together, as a network of local stations, we have immense power to shape, influence and lead. APM will produce the new A Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile. We’re asking you to share our belief in the potential and the importance of the program…and to help accelerate its success.

Chris Thile is a genius; a MacArthur Genius, in fact. He’s young, energetic and gifted with a range of talents that no one can imitate. He’s proof that the best talent attracts the best talent. As a guest host this season, Chris booked fantastic guests including Paul Simon, Andrew Bird, Brandi Carlisle, and Maria Bamford. Chris will draw new, diverse talent – musicians, comics, poets, storytellers and more – to public radio and he will draw new audiences.

The show will still be broadcast live on Saturday nights and will showcase amazing guests, new digital content, new social network opportunities for your local audiences, new fundraising opportunities and new marketing tools. We’ll also create new ways for fans to tell us about themselves, and we will share that audience intelligence and data with you.

We’re asking you to actively promote the program—on the radio throughout the week and on your digital and social media platforms. This new programming holds great potential for new audience growth, and we need your help to make it happen.

This is a critical time for our local stations and our national organizations. Our vital field of public service is facing new and mounting pressures, and our shared success depends on finding the best talent, building on strengths and working together to draw new audiences to us. To succeed, we will rely not only on your support, but on your feedback as we develop the new program. We are excited by the responses we’ve already received from some public radio leaders.

Hawk Mendenhall (KUT, Austin) said:

“Taking the spirit of what has made the show an American treasure and infusing it with Thile’s enthusiasm, his love for the current show and his connections are, I think, a winning combination. I look forward to more music, more comedy, more audience engagement across platforms and more Thile. Reinventing the Prairie Home brand is the best possible way to honor this public radio institution. I eagerly anticipate the ride.”

“If we want to develop new programs that will take public radio forward, stations are going to have to be active participants in the process. No more sitting back and waiting for others to create hits. Stations need to put some skin in the game and get behind what they want their listeners to support. I don’t think that this is the perfect new business model, but it’s a start in the right direction and I applaud APM for having the courage to start the conversation in a real way.”

Maxie Jackson (Ideastream, Cleveland) said:

“I believe APM is offering a partnership model that is forward-thinking and could prove beneficial to public media’s need to develop a modern ecosystem for national program development. [The APM] teams are positioning themselves as thought-leaders in a dynamic and fluid arena. I’m most excited to see if this “next generation” APHC can emerge as a vehicle within public media that satisfies our audience’s curiosity with, recognition of, and co-existence within the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial America to date.”

There’s an African proverb that says:“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s time to create something new, together. I urge you to join APM in creating the next chapter of APHC for our current audiences and for the audiences that are waiting for us to do something surprising and awesome for them.

Thank you,
Jon McTaggart
President & CEO

P.S. We’re excited to share the specifics of next season’s APHC offering with you and have outlined the details on APMStations.org. For even more information or for answers to your questions, please contact your APM Station Representative.