Iconic public radio programs are synonymous with their hosts. When you hear "Fresh Air," you think "Terry Gross"; "This American Life" and Ira Glass; "A Prairie Home Companion" and Garrison Keillor.
Well actually, it's now "A Prairie Home Companion" with Chris Thile. Longtime fans of “Prairie Home” recognize Thile as a frequent guest artist as well as a rare substitute host in recent seasons. Outside of “Prairie Home,” Thile is known for his cross-genre mandolin musicianship in bands like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.
In addition to being a full-time touring and recording musician, Thile is a husband and a young father. In an interview with Lois Reitzes on “City Lights,” Thile recounted how he added “public radio host” to his resumé.
It all started with “a call out of the blue.” Thile said “I just listened in stunned silence” as Keillor, who had not yet publicly announced his retirement, outlined a detailed plan of trial and transition.
“I think he suspected that I would say yes,” he said.
Thile now faces a daunting challenge – to balance updating the show and making it his own, while still maintaining the original appeal that’s made “Prairie Home” synonymous with “public radio” for some 40-plus years.
“The thing is, Garrison created a brilliant and immortal piece of art … that is the format of this show.” As a fellow artist, Thile said his “dearest hope” is creating art that has a life beyond its originator. In other words, that your work lives on without you. “Garrison has provided us this place that we can go weekly to take inventory of our lives. I feel a very keen responsibility to maintain that place.”
That said, Thile does have some shake-ups planned.
“I’m 35 and I grew up in Southern California and then moved to Murray, Kentucky, so I won’t be telling the Lake Woebegone Story," he said. "It just wouldn’t come across sincerely from me.”
Listeners can expect more diversity in the guest lineups and interviews with guest musicians. And while Thile enjoys talking, he feels his storytelling isn’t on par with Garrison’s. Thile says that each week will feature a spoken word guest, like comedians, poets and storytellers.
Thile thinks he’s struck a balance on the new “Prairie Home” that’s “as recognizable as it is new.” But will people tune in?
“I can’t wait! I can’t wait to see what happens. I’m like everyone else. ‘Is this gonna work? Can 'A Prairie Home Companion' work without Garrison Keillor as the host?’ I think it can. I’m not sure, but I’m ready to give it the very best shot I can.”
The new season of "A Prairie Home Companion" debuts Saturday evening at 6 p.m. on 90.1 WABE, and streaming online at WABE.org.