A Reflection of 25 Years: Garrison Keillor Speaks on the Spirituality of Radio

Twenty-five years is not so long for a marriage - people reach that milestone pretty regularly - but in the Darwinian world of radio broadcasting it's an eon, and the long life of "A Prairie Home Companion" is a real accomplishment, just like the World's Largest Ball of Twine. You keep on winding your twine, and it gets bigger and bigger, and pretty soon your home town erects a sign, "Home of Wilfred Sneed and His Twine Ball - 100 yds straight ahead on left," and I suppose you should feel some pride, but you should know that it was not for brilliance or sheer imagination that you accumulated this monstrosity. It was lack of imagination masquerading as perseverance. Most people would've tired of winding twine back when the ball was ten feet in diameter and taken up license-plate-collecting or joined a polka club or gone off on a bus tour of Civil War battlefields. But I am a horse, which you need to be in radio, I guess. You stay in harness and remain focused on the end of the row you are plowing - focus, in my case, on Saturday, and as your colleagues drop out of radio one by one and go into arts administration or public relations, and the creepy little guy who used to mix the show starts up an Internet company and takes it public for a couple hundred million, you plod up and down the rows whinnying, and suddenly one day, they present you with a plaque. It is a chunk of Lucite with the number 25 etched into it.

I have almost no memory of those twenty-five years because I'm on a weekly schedule. I can tell you about Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning, but I don't recall annual stuff, like 1982. On Friday, I write scripts, Friday night I rewrite them, Saturday we go on the air and stumble through the drill, I do my dance and sing my song, and do the News from Lake Wobegon, which is mostly about muskrats and pouring concrete and annuities and my boyhood pal Skippy and his hilarious mispronunciations, and meanwhile a white mist of powdered sugar falls around me from the doughnut of the stagehand on the catwalk above who is retying the sandbag hanging over my head, and now I have forgotten the end of the Skippy story so I wind it up, and there is a big commotion in the wings and a clatter of hooves as the Guy's Shoe Band rushes onstage and strikes up a tune and the stage manager brings me a note ("Go to Credits") and now I cannot remember the names of the guests I should thank, I can only remember the end of the Skippy story (he kept the chicken, whom he named Fred, in the garage, and gradually it became just like a member of the family), so the show peters out on a long drum solo and tepid applause, and I go back to the dressing room and weep bitter tears. Sunday morning I forget the whole thing. In this way, a man avoids melancholy and regret and stays forever young.

Ignorance is the key to longevity. You have to ignore the audience most of the time: the dial is right there on the front of the radio and they're going to turn off the show, they just are, and it doesn't pay to ask yourself why. They just do it, that's all. And reporters and critics are going to write about you and say that the show seems tired and lacking that wry insouciance that it had in 1987 when they last heard it, and you have to ignore them, too.

I used to resent the show because it was keeping me from realizing my destiny as an Important Writer, the sort whose books reviewers describe as "lyrical...audacious...stunning and yet nurturing," and then in 1987, I made the mistake of quitting the show and giving myself every opportunity to be a I.W. and after a year of waiting for importance to strike, I couldn't get back to radio fast enough. So here I am.

I've learned to accept radio as a spiritual experience, like sitting and watching the river, which I did all the time as a kid, living along the Mississippi downstream from Anoka. While my friends worked their way up through the ranks of Scouting and Junior Achievement and Job's Daughters and earned badges and accumulated terrific resumes that would later get them into Carleton and Stanford, I spent more hours than I care to admit sitting on a bank under some trees watching the river flow over a stretch of shallow rapids, sometimes under the pretext of fishing. If you have nothing to do, there's no better place to not do it than beside a river. I sat in a dreamy meditative state and felt the pure fact of time passing, felt this sunny day in 1953 slowly recede into the past and contemplated the fact that my father had once been my age and now was elderly, almost fifty, and that someday it would be 2000 and many people alive would then be dead. I found this meditative state so pleasant and satisfying, I sometimes wondered how I'd ever earn a living except perhaps as a parking lot attendant.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is much the same experience except every week you have to paddle upstream for a couple hours. It has been a great blessing for a lazy man. To camp by the river where old horses come to drink, to sit with your musician pals on the bank, like the one in Merchant of Venice - "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!/Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony." - and enjoy the moment and try to ignore the shadow of that immense ugly ball of twine like an ugly toad behind you.

APHC 25th Anniversary Home

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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