New youth-flavored variety entries move genre out of its Prairie Home

By Andrew Lapin

After musing about a 2013 retirement, public radio’s iconic variety emcee Garrison Keillor put public radio on notice that it’s well past time to consider what will happen to American Public Media’s flagship entertainment program A Prairie Home Companion and its audience of four million weekly listeners. Although 70-year-old Keillor later deferred decisions about stepping out of the limelight, program directors and fans were left to wonder: Can variety continue once it’s moved out of Lake Wobegon?

Wits host John Moe, right, with musical guest Rhett Miller, left, and comic Tim Meadows, recently began working on the show full time as APM considers a bid for national distribution. (Photo: Eamon Coyne)

Perhaps the genre could thrive if there were a different variety of variety — shows that eschewed Keillor’s old-timey aesthetic for caffeine-addled discourse, indie rockers, hip comedians and young, engaged audiences. Three similarly structured programs are vying for the chance to become the variety show of public radio’s future: Wits, Live Wire and John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. And more, including South Dakota’s Rock Garden Tour, are making waves locally.

Wits host John Moe, who helped conceive the show for Minnesota audiences, is stepping into the role full-time this month, leaving his other job as host of Marketplace Tech Report. Moe’s program, which debuted in March 2010 and gained traction with its written sketches and improv games that pit comedians against musicians, is upping its production after short runs of seven or fewer episodes in its first three seasons.

Like APHC, Wits is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and broadcast out of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn. With APM putting its considerable resources and expertise behind the show — and APM content chief Judy McAlpine talking up the “enormous potential for Wits to go national” in a press release this summer — there’s a  buzz about Moe more or less replacing Keillor. This is speculation that Moe himself shrugs off.

“It’s fine — people can say what they want. I don’t give it a lot of thought, honestly,” Moe said. “If the company intends that to be the case, then they certainly haven’t told me.”

One feature that distinguishes the new crop of variety shows from A Prairie Home Companion is the target audience. The upstarts want (and, in many ways, need) to cultivate a younger following. Wits, in particular, has jumped into the digital realm whole hog, allowing fans to watch a live video stream of the show online during its Friday performance and tweet about it a day before it reaches the radio in edited form.

Audience members at the Fitzgerald are encouraged to tweet during the live performance as well, and the messages are displayed onstage (and occasionally read aloud by the host). The Twitter push employs the hashtag “#Wits”, which has led to unexpected yet amusing brand confusion with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa — students there are known to tweet their grievances with the school under the same hashtag.

“So there’s like, ‘Hey, Paul F. Tompkins is hilarious,’ ‘Hey, I can’t wait for Bobcat [Goldthwait] to come back,’” Moe said, describing a typical Twitter feed. “And then, ‘The food in the cafeteria sucks!’”

Moe insisted the intent is not to promote online viewing and interactivity over the radio show itself. “We’re not pushing the social media experience over any other experience,” he said.

Wired Up

Live Wire host Courtenay Hameister is angling to bring her program’s Portland quirk to a wider audience. (Photo: Anthony Pidgeon/Live Wire)

For Live Wire, recorded in front of a live studio audience in Portland, Ore., finding a younger audience is a matter of channeling an irreverent sense of humor. With a strong focus on sketch comedy and standup routines, the show flaunts its Portland quirk with off-color bits, like a fake talk show for book lovers called “Let’s Get Lit” (get it?). Oregon Public Broadcasting has carried the show since 2004, and distribution through Public Radio Exchange has extended its reach to stations in nine other markets.

“We’ve been told before by program directors, ‘Oh, our listeners aren’t going to love you, but the people who we want to be our listeners are going to love you,’” co-creator/Executive Producer Robyn Tenenbaum told Current.

Live Wire employs an unusual production schedule, taping back-to-back live episodes every other week at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre for an annual output of 32–34 episodes. The show, which employs only three full-time staffers, hit its 100th episode in March.

Outside of its relative longevity, Live Wire’s other key asset may be its decidedly non-radio pedigree: Producer, head writer and host Courtenay Hameister worked with New York–based comedy group The State and as an advertising copywriter before joining the show. Creative consultant Bill Oakley was a prominent writer on The Simpsons and is an executive producer of Portlandia.

Stations desperately want fresh blood for their weekend slots, but will they be interested in multiple variety shows with similar aesthetics? The producers of Live Wire are hoping for just that — in fact, they’re counting on it.

“We’re specifically looking at the stations that are programming other variety shows,” Tenenbaum said. “Those are the stations we go to and talk about carriage with. We don’t try to be the only variety show on their network.”

Local and beyond

The renewed interest in variety extends to South Dakota Public Radio, which broadcasts its own Rock Garden Tour, a monthly live mash-up of gardening banter and musical performances. Creator and host Ted Heeren goes by the name “Flowerman.”

Ted Heeren, host of Rock Garden Tour, is “keeping it rural” exclusively in South Dakota. (Photo: Walter Hessert)

“I don’t know if it really works,” Heeren said of his show’s experimental format. “It makes sense in my head because these are all things I’m interested in.” The show’s aesthetic wouldn’t appear to have much prospect outside of communities where listeners are interested in conversations about tomatoes, but Heeren nurtures ambitions to reach other agricultural markets beyond South Dakota.

Heeren, a journalism and horticulture major in college, began the show while working as an intern at a commercial radio station, jumping to SDPR in 2008. Heeren’s goal was always to land on public radio, which he sees as the perfect place to celebrate local culture: “Keep it rural” is a favorite slogan of his.

Whether all these programs can take root and blossom remains to be seen. With so many sprouting up, there may be limited room for them in stations’ schedules.

NPR’s new variety entry, John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, was the lone entry among the network’s crop of three weekly shows that won’t go into regular distribution in 2013. A hybrid of music, poetry and comedy, Cabinet of Wonders had a limited run this summer. The network announced Sept. 6 its decision to produce weekly installments of the lecture series TED Radio Hour and pub trivia quiz show Ask Me Another. NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher told Current that Cabinet did well in its six-part pilot season, and NPR is interested in exploring future options.

Despite the uncertain future for Cabinet, variety is still mounting its case as a genre for reinventing public radio, tapping into the interests of younger audiences weaned on three-minute YouTube videos and other bite-sized entertainments.

“I think that, more than ever, variety is the appropriate genre,” Hameister told Current. “Variety actually fits much more into the way that our brains work now.”

  • Lisa

    All I really need to know about gardening I learned from Rock Garden Tour.

  • garydpdx

    Live Wire definitely gets my vote but it will likely appeal to a very different audience than PHC (I may be an oddball for liking both?). Live Wire is more risque and less subtle than PHC, for which many dismiss PHC as an old fogie show rather than a post-modern and sometimes ironic take on that old format. In that context, Live Wire would likely cause a rejiggering of schedules as I can’t see it going live like PHC at 3 PM Pacific. Not even at 5 PM in Chicago or 6 PM in New York City, Boston, etc.

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