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Jesse Thorn of Bullseye: Keillor's departure could clear space on the dial for other voices

NPR's "Bullseye" host Jesse Thorn in the recording booth, with producer Colin Anderson in the foreground and producer Julia Smith seen in the reflection in the glass.
Ibarionex Perello/Bullseye

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Millions of Garrison Keillor's fans will mourn when he quits hosting "A Prairie Home Companion" after the finale Friday at the Hollywood Bowl (the KPCC broadcast is Saturday, July 2 at 6 and Sunday, July 3 at noon). But there will be many who will shrug, or celebrate.

Jesse Thorn, the host of "Bullseye," which we air Saturday at 3 p.m., is in one of the latter camps. "I have to speak from self-interest," he halfway laughs. "As someone who for the last 10 years or so has been trying to get an hour-long national show onto public radio stations, it's good news for me that he's retiring. For much of my career, and I mean no disrespect towards Garrison Keillor, [my distributors] have been saying to me every six months, 'Don't worry, Garrison Keillor is about to retire.' I see this an an exciting opportunities for new voices on public radio."

Thorn acknowledges that Keillor was a groundbreaker, a game-changer, that he has had an extraordinary career, that he gave voice to a part of the country that is often ignored or mocked and that he was an early and loud supporter of roots music. He even likes Keillor's writing. But he candidly just doesn't like the radio show.

"I'm 35, and Garrison Keillor's been doing his show since before I was born. For me as a teenager, when I turned on the radio and heard 'This American Life,' what I thought was, 'Oh my gosh, this is something that includes me.' When 'A Prairie Home Companion' was on the radio, I did not feel welcomed by it."

"A Prairie Home Companion" occupies prime real estate on the radio, at least two hours every weekend, he says — "Four hours in a lot of places. Many places play APHC twice per weekend." He's right. If you figure roughly that the prime listening hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., that's 24 hours per weekend, and Keillor is using 1 out of 6 of them on many or most stations.

Thorn says, "The truth is that the structure of public radio, because it's donor-supported, makes it very difficult for program directors to change their schedules, and that makes it very hard to grow new hit shows."