Woe Be Gone, Taxpayers

"A Prairie Home Companion," creator Garrison Keillor’s paean to rustic simplicity and old-time music, vaulted from its weekly slot on National Public Radio to big screens throughout the United States, Canada and Europe last summer — and was recently released for home video. Cruising on gentle reviews, the Robert Altman film promises to turn a pretty penny for investors, who will likewise cash in on the hit soundtrack and slew of other spin-off merchandise. But woe is to anyone who dares suggest ending taxpayer subsidies to Mr. Keillor’s gourmet meal ticket.

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Some 4 million listeners tune in weekly to "A Prairie Home Companion," and the film of the same name captures much of the humor and eclectic — often exhilarating — music that’s made the show among the most popular aired on public radio. Indeed, there is much to recommend the film, from Altman’s singular vision to the performances of A-list actors such as Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin and, yes, even Lindsay Lohan. Keillor plays himself as the master of ceremonies overseeing the final broadcast of the radio show, which is the heart of the movie’s storyline.

One can safely assume that Keillor negotiated a hefty sum for his star turn and screenwriting credit, quite likely including a cut of box office receipts and video sales. He also owns the merchandise trademarks. The film cost investors a mere $10 million to produce, which was recouped through a distribution deal long before the movie premiered. Everything else is gravy (like that poured over the Powder Milk™ biscuits in PHC’s fake ads).

It’s doubtful, however, that Keillor will take a page from last year’s "Cinderella Man," the comeback hero of Ron Howard’s film who, after winning a heavyweight match, repays the public assistance he "borrowed" during the Depression.

Keillor’s radio show is produced by American Public Media, which is the production and distribution service of Minnesota Public Radio. Eleven percent of MPR’s operating income comes compliments of taxpayers through payments from the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Moreover, each of the 589 public radio stations that carry "A Prairie Home Companion" pay broadcast rights based on audience size. For example, a radio station with a potential audience of 400,000 listeners, such as WCMU out of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., pays $14,000 annually to air "A Prairie Home Companion." Stations with larger audiences pay more. Station budgets are funded, in part, by taxpayers through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, federal grants and contracts, as well as subsidies from state colleges and universities.

Public radio stations also must pay membership dues ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 annually to American Public Media. Tickets to a live taping of the show run between $55 and $175.

It is also worth noting that Keillor has been using his taxpayer-subsidized radio show to plug the film.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is also underwritten by Toyota, Select Comfort and Watkins. It is ironic, then, that the movie plot revolves around corporate bigwigs canceling the radio show out of greed. The axe-man, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, is a Texan businessman (read "cultural boob") who is depicted as so clueless, for example, that he doesn’t recognize the likeness of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the theater’s namesake.

As often happens in Hollywood depictions of art versus commerce, "A Prairie Home Companion" parades as high culture while biting the hand that feeds it. Executives of Toyota et al can decide for themselves how to expend their shareholders’ dollars, but it’s long past the time to free American taxpayers from subsidizing Keillor and his public radio companions.


Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.