Exactly what caused Minnesota Public Radio to sever all ties with Garrison Keillor remains a mystery, but one thing is clear: Both the legendary broadcaster and the powerhouse he was instrumental in building are taking a hit.
MPR has come under fire from some listeners threatening to withdraw their financial support. And although Keillor stepped away from “A Prairie Home Companion” 16 months ago, he continued to juggle a full schedule of live shows, various writing projects and his status as a neighborly icon. All now are in peril after allegations of inappropriate behavior toward a co-worker went public Wednesday.
Keillor’s performances for the rest of 2017 have been scrapped, along with his only scheduled Twin Cities appearance, next February. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has donated $5,350 in contributions from Keillor to a center for abuse victims. The Washington Post dropped his column. An airport in Eugene, Ore., has removed his picture from an exhibit. Popular podcast host Nora McInerny slammed the 75-year-old humorist in an essay for Time.com called “Let’s Leave Garrison Keillor in the Past Where He Belongs.”
Macalester College, which hosted the first broadcast of “Prairie” in 1974 and owns the space occupied by Keillor’s Common Good bookstore, won’t comment on the future of its lease. Grove Press declined to say whether it still plans to publish Keillor’s latest book, a collection of limericks slated for May.
On Thanksgiving, Keillor told Facebook followers that he was going through the final proofs of a new book — perhaps his long-anticipated memoir — and that he had just returned from the Mayo Clinic with “good statistics for an old guy.”
“I am lucky beyond words,” he wrote.
His words Friday were not so rosy. “I’ve been going through my memoir and removing Minnesota Public Radio from it,” he wrote in a post he later deleted. “I never went to work there in 1969, never did a morning show, and Prairie Home Companion simply existed without any organization. Removing MPR makes room for other happier things and if I never worked for them, they can’t fire me.”
A book updated to include details of his downfall could end up being a bestseller. But sales of anything else with Keillor’s name on the spine may suffer.
“I can’t help but think it’s going to affect his future as an author,” said Claire Kirch, a senior correspondent for Publishers Weekly. “There are just too many questions about what exactly happened.”
Bill O’Reilly, fired from Fox News after numerous sexual allegations, has kept his name on the bestsellers list. But “Killing England,” his first book since his ouster, moved 64,723 copies in its first week, far below the 100,000-plus heights achieved by his previous five “Killing” titles.
But loyal fans are probably more concerned about Keillor’s emotional state.
“I am so sorry. I am a wreck,” he said Thursday in response to a Facebook posting from a woman disappointed that a performance had been canceled. “I could not imagine walking onto a stage with people watching. It’s heartbreaking and I worry about my family and it’s painful to walk through an airport and people look and whisper and don’t speak to me. I need to put my life back together.”
If Keillor comes across as a victim, it’s largely because the public has heard only his side of the story. “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” he said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune Wednesday. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I sent her an e-mail of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”
MPR has declined to offer an alternative version of events or to make its top executives available for interviews, leaving some to believe the punishment outweighed the crime.
On social media and elsewhere, longtime MPR supporters are expressing confusion or anger. As of late Thursday afternoon, the network had received 153 cancellation requests from its 133,000 members, according to MPR News.
Jackie Quiram, a listener from Chisago City, called the decision a disservice to Minnesota. “I think they’re hurting all of us by throwing him under the bus,” she said. “This could be a knee-jerk reaction, but if I won the lottery tomorrow, they wouldn’t be on my list.”
A few voiced support for the decision. “I’ll be contributing to MPR for the first time in many years because of this decision,” wrote one commenter on MPR News’ Facebook page.
MPR’s director of communications, Angie Andresen, said Friday that her organization would like to share more information, but to do so would be a breach of confidentiality that might deter potential victims or witnesses of abuse from coming forward. “We understand that some listeners are upset,” she said. “We’ve also heard from listeners and members who appreciate the decision and understand the importance of confidentiality.”
As part of the divorce from its marquee figure, MPR has canceled Keillor’s daily feature “The Writer’s Almanac” and will no longer offer rebroadcasts of “Prairie Home.” That program, for the moment at least, is being called “The Show With Chris Thile” — putting even more weight on Keillor’s hand-picked replacement.
Georgia Public Radio vice president Tanya Ott hopes her audience will understand the changes. “I’m personally excited about the opportunity this provides Chris to really brand and reshape the show in a way that will allow it to grow audience and reflect a diversity of perspective that is so valuable in these times.”
George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, predicts that MPR will be just fine. “It’s a short, sharp negative thing and people come out of it,” he said. “It’s not a heavy stone around your neck that you drag around for years.” John said he’s even optimistic that NBC’s “Today” show will recover from its ouster of co-host Matt Lauer last week over what appear to be more serious allegations.
“These transitions are not as hard as we think, even when it’s people at the top, provided whatever bad action has been rectified,” he said. Keillor “is an individual. Individuals do all kinds of stuff. You don’t normally hold the organization responsible for an act of an individual. He’s not even the CEO. He’s a talent. They can seal it off and they can recover from it.”
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Staff writer Jackie Crosby contributed to this report.