‘Prairie Home’ channels radio biz


Garrison Keillor’s real-life public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” may be thriving, but in the upcoming big screen film of the same name, he sketches out its death.

The show ends, in the movie, because a big Texas conglomerate has bought the show’s theater and throws everybody out.

The shutdown is executed by a character called the Axeman, played by Tommy Lee Jones as a bloodless corporate automaton who is above any form of moral reckoning or mortal justice.

Watching this, it’s hard not to think of Clear Channel, the real-life Texas conglomerate that owns 1,200 radio stations and is often seen to value corporate efficiency over local flavor.

Keillor laughed when asked if this blows his shot at getting “Prairie Home Companion” syndicated through Clear Channel. But he said he’s less struck by Clear Channel’s management style than its fiscal vision.

“I just think they made a terrible investment,” he said. “What do you do with all those stations when broadcasting seems less and less to play a part in our lives? If you’re over 30 and have a settled body of music you love, you have no reason to listen to the radio. You have an iPod.”

But he didn’t write this script as a warning to the radio biz, he says. It just seemed like an entertaining way to dramatize the story while giving Keillor and his charmingly offbeat characters a chance to chat and sing delightful songs that drive the movie the same as they drive the show.

Where else would Keillor get a chance to duet with Meryl Streep on the Carter Family favorite “Gold Watch and Chain”? Where else would Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly get to do a goofy number called “Bad Jokes” or Lindsay Lohan rip through “Frankie and Johnny”?

On a movie screen or on the radio, “A Prairie Home Companion” offers things found on no iPod.

The movie, directed by Robert Altman, has the same tone as many Keillor stories – sad tales through which people carry on.

“Melancholy comes naturally with age,” said Keillor. “A person who doesn’t have a sense of the sadness is not in possession of his faculties.”

“But the purpose of all true art is to give courage. Older people have no right to impose their sense of defeat or pessimism on the young. They have enough burdens to carry.”

So Keillor goes on, as radio goes on and “A Prairie Home Companion” goes on.

“I wouldn’t want to attend my own funeral,” he said. “A memorial service is deeply repellent to me because it imposes on family and friends the burden of inventing an elaborate fiction about the deceased, while everyone else is feeling vaguely lucky they are still around.”

The soundtrack to “A Prairie Home Companion” came out Tuesday. The movie is due June 6.