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Minnesota Public Radio: What's next in post-Keillor era?

Garrison Keillor at his St. Paul book store, Common Good Books, on Snelling Avenue. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL—Now that longtime "A Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor's relationship with the radio network he helped build has been severed in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, how will the network's finances fare?

Keillor was heavily intertwined with the Minnesota Public Radio's growth, according to founder Bill Kling and industry analysts. And some of what was built — the coveted double grails of donations and membership — are funding sources for MPR that analysts will be watching closely over the next year.

In hard terms, the financial ties between Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio, along with its parent company American Public Media, appear to have been reduced to contractual rights.

Keillor's own company, Prairie Home Productions, stopped producing his flagship show — whose audience was diminishing — when he retired last year.

MPR, in the wake of the recent scandal, has announced plans to change the show's name. But it had to — Keillor owns the name "A Prairie Home Companion."

Additionally, APM shut down its portal to Pretty Good Goods — a paraphernalia outlet trademarked by MPR, from which Keillor received royalties.

"There are trademarks and copyrights and contracts between Garrison and MPR," said Kling, noting that in some cases Keillor has rights but has contracted them to MPR. If you break off relations, those right "automatically revert to him."

Thus, APM hasn't taken anything away. "They just no longer have the right to use anything that he has the copyright on," Kling said.

But in terms of the future, with those malleable membership, underwriting and donation numbers, it helps to understand Keillor's impact on the station over the years.

"I wouldn't say that MPR wouldn't have been a success without him, but he certainly made it a much bigger success because of his talent and the attention he brought," said Kling, who retired from NPR in 2011.

Neither Keillor nor a representative at his company, Prairie Home Productions, responded to requests for comment for this report.

CRITICAL ACCLAIM

Keillor's quirky variety show — which began in the 1970s as the first major public radio program produced by somebody other than National Public Radio — drew critical acclaim and a huge audience. It attracted underwriters such as Cargill, among others.

Eventually, Kling said, Keillor's star power helped enable MPR to invest in transmission technology and build a distribution network to reach stations across the country.

"Garrison played an important role in the formation of the public radio system, and we are grateful for those contributions," Angie Andresen, spokeswoman for American Public Media, the parent company of MPR, said in a written statement last week.

Take one aspect of the show that brought a lot of money to the company: merchandising.

In 1998, Rivertown Trading Co. — an early iteration of MPR's catalog, which sold a wide range of products including those related to "A Prairie Home Companion" — was bought by Dayton-Hudson Corp. (now Minneapolis-based Target Corp.) for $120 million. The majority of that money went into MPR's endowment fund.

The catalog offered whatever a public media supporter might want to buy — with items ranging from birdhouses to cat toys.

" 'Prairie Home Companion' became the basis for the catalog," said Jack Mitchell, a a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was a longtime executive director of Wisconsin Public Radio.

The catalog — in part built on ads Keillor printed on the backs of thank-you posters he sent to listeners — "turned into a goldmine for MPR," Mitchell added. "That's where it cleaned up."

The station has since grown from its humble roots at an old St. John's University building to, according to its most recent independent audit, a network with $158 million in assets and $43 million in liabilities.

Certainly, with news and classical music departments and a national production division, MPR was much more than just Keillor.

"But a lot of that was enabled by the revenue that the catalogs made, for example. A lot of it by the attention that Garrison got. Doors would open," Kling said.

There's speculation over how much "A Prairie Home Companion" made directly through what other stations were charged to air it.

"Kling always claims ("A Prairie Home Companion") never made money, because expenses were so high. Don't know if that's true, but that's his claim," Mitchell said.

When Keillor retired, the show was carried by 670 stations, which each paid between $5,000 and $55,000 to play it — with the larger markets paying more, according to Andresen. That number dipped to 586 stations as of spring 2017. Peak carriage numbers were the spring of 2015, at 690 stations.

DONATIONS

But whether the show itself broke even, analysts agree that it brought a singular indirect benefit to the network, and even the state of Minnesota: Prestige. And that prestige often translated into donations and underwriting.

On paper, a financial audit isn't going to tell why people make donations. But such funding, as listeners often hear during fundraising drives, has been a huge part of MPR's growth and stability.

And over the past decade, the proceeds MPR pulls in from donations and membership have sprinted past the inflation rate.

Back in 2007, MPR pulled in $13.1 million in gifts and membership dues; what would be $15.4 million this year, after inflation.

But the audit ended in June 2017 showed the organization bringing in $23.8 million from those sources — a revenue growth of more than four and a half times the rate of inflation.

Underwriting is on par: The organization pulled in $18.6 million in 2007, which would be $21.2 million today. The last audit showed $31.6 million in regional and national underwriting, a growth five times the inflation rate.

On the other hand, money from government sources has shrunk, not even accounting for inflation. Back in fiscal 2007, MPR received $10.9 million in governmental support; during its last fiscal year, it received $8.8 million.

Thus far, the split with Keillor doesn't appear to have dented membership: As of last week there were 153 cancellations, out of 133,000 members, according to Andresen.

Media reports revealed anecdotal instances of donors offering mixed reactions, with some saying they would rethink donations, and others maintaining their commitment.

As for whether MPR's decision to cut ties with Keillor will drive away donors, "you can't predict how people will react," Kling said.

When asked whether executives at APM had any speculation on the financial impact relating to Keillor's severance, spokeswoman Andresen wrote in an email, "It's difficult to forecast, but the Garrison Keillor-related businesses represent a very small part of our overall portfolio of activities."

LISTENERSHIP DOWN

It's worth noting that by the time Keillor retired in July 2016, the show had lost listeners.

When Keillor handed hosting of the show to musician and frequent guest Chris Thile, MPR reported that the show's audience had dipped to 3 million, from 4 million the decade before; that the show's listeners had a median age of 59; and that it was offering stations discounts to keep running it.

This week, Andresen said the show now has 2.5 million listeners.

Keillor "had a wonderful run, but the audience was slipping," Mitchell said. "It was getting a little tired."

And either way, Mitchell believes listeners, in their own minds, had already divorced Keillor from the new format of "A Prairie Home Companion."

"I would've changed the name at the beginning, because it's a quite different show," Mitchell said.

As far as financial impact, Mitchell said, "I think most of the impact has already happened in that he (Keillor) is no longer hosting the program."

Scott Libin, a former Twin Cities TV news director and chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association, noted that Keillor just didn't seem to mean as much to MPR anymore.

Libin said he believed "The Writer's Almanac" — a Keillor show that MPR also announced it is cutting — didn't have much of a following, and MPR seemed to re-air Keillor's greatest hits from "A Prairie Home Companion" when no one was listening.

But Tom Thomas, president of Station Resource Group, a Maryland-based industry analyst, says "Writer's Almanac" was both ubiquitous and well-received.

"It was on a surprising number of stations. I think the stations who carry it found it to be a nice grace note in their morning programming," Thomas said. Still, as far as financial impact, "it's a grace note, not a feature," he said

As for the merchandising, when asked this week how profitable the Pretty Good Goods products — or other ancillary "Prairie Home Companion" products, such as cruises — were for APM, Andresen said by email, "We don't break out financial activity of any subgroup."

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