GREAT BARRINGTON -- I recently had the real pleasure of spending some time at the WAMC studios with Garrison Keillor who, of course, is a public radio rock star. He’s very tall and shows a little wear and tear around the edges. He has tremendous intellect and is sardonically funny.
As you know, he hosts the Writer’s Almanac every day and I love the show. It’s always so interesting; a little bit of history, a little bit of poetry and always thought-provoking. Every once in a while, he likes to push the envelope and if it involves something naughty, it can present radio problems for us but so far, we’re still breathing. You know those poets, always crossing boundaries.
He sat down in my office and asked me a series of questions. He’s written lots of books so it wasn’t surprising that he asked me how many I had written. Straight faced, I told him that I had written two. He asked what they were and I responded, "Strengthening the Wisconsin State Legislature" and "Me and Mario." He was fascinated with the Wisconsin book, and I thought I detected a satisfied smile on his lips when I said it.
He said that he does his work at 4 in the morning. I told him that I got up at 3 a.m. but that when I have to write I do it the first thing. That’s when I wrote my doctoral dissertation. He wanted to know the subject and I told him, Mental Health Policy Making in Three American States. He said that wouldn’t do at all and he suggested something hysterically funny and wildly politically incorrect as an alternative title. I’ll just let you fill in the blanks.
Everyone wanted their picture taken with him and he made it clear that he would put his arm around the women supplicants but not the men. I was so disappointed. I had one picture taken with Garrison and Joe Donahue. They are both way, way over 6 feet tall and I’m 5-foot-5, so it’s pretty funny stuff.
I told Garrison that I had a question he must get asked all the time. Why, I asked, did he pronounce the word "almanac" as "AL-manac" rather than "ALL-manac"? He made it clear that this was the first time he had heard that question. I said he had to be putting me on. Nope, he said that in the Midwest, the word is pronounced AL-manac and that there is an Albany in Minnesota and that it is pronounced AL-bany, not ALL-bany. We Berkshirites know the drill when someone pronounces Alford (ALL-ford) as AL-ford. When he left, he said, "Good-by ALL-an." Ah well, I guess you had to be there.
He really won my heart when he said that he loved the way that WAMC looked and compared us to some of the emporiums of public radio that are humungous show places but can’t compare with the WAMC output.
He was also very interested in the limitations on opinion and freedom of speech that have been placed on radio broadcasters that, he said, would certainly have to change.
Make no mistake about it -- Keillor has changed radio for the good. He offers us a comforting and good place to be on Saturday night. Sometimes we hear him in the car going somewhere, sometimes coming back and sometimes we turn the radio on and have a good time. He is blindingly bright.
He talked about his one movie about A Prairie Home Companion and what it was like to work with the likes of our Meryl Streep and the more complicated Lindsay Lohan. While it was no blockbuster, the movie was fun. Efforts to make PHC a TV product have not really worked out but maybe the movie and the TV experiment demonstrate that some of us have faces made for radio.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.