The Spirit of the Midwest

A national public radio network began 30-something years ago as a stubbornly out-of-the-mainstream medium. For a long time it was like college radio in corduroy or the alternative press with foundation grants. But over the decades, public radio has passed a series of mile-markers on its path to the middle of the road. Its news correspondents have become mainstream media talking heads. And a no-strings mega-bequest from McDonald’s hamburger heir Joan Kroc has helped transform National Public Radio from a network offering maybe 40 hours of programming per week to a full-service network.

Another sign of public radio’s ready-for-prime-time status came this summer when Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion transcended the airwaves entirely and became a movie with actual movie stars and an above-average promotional budget.

For readers who have never heard the show upon which the movie was based (a group comprised mostly of recent immigrants and the very young), look left of the dial at 5 p.m. Central time some Saturday, or go to prairiehome.org any old time. (And, yes, I know that Prairie Home is not an NPR show; it goes up on the parallel “American Public Media” network.)

Keillor’s big-city version of small-town culture has been building audience-share and cultural heft for 34 years now. The show was inspired by Keillor’s visit to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, which he was covering for The New Yorker. In its prime, the Opry was a two-hour, three-ring radio circus of homespun humor, commercials for down-home products such as Martha White Self-Rising Flour, and down-home music, which was always in the center ring.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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