The earliest radio program to have the name bore little resemblance to the present Saturday-evening show. A Prairie Home Companion was originally a morning show, running from 6 to 9 a.m. on Minnesota Public Radio.
After researching the Grand Ole Opry for an article, Keillor became interested in doing a variety show on the radio. On July 6, 1974, the first live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion took place. That show was broadcast from St. Paul in the Janet Wallace Auditorium of Macalester College. Twelve audience members turned out, mostly children. The second episode featured the first performance on the show by Butch Thompson, who became house pianist. Thompson stayed with the program until 1986 and still frequently performs on the show.
In 1978, the show moved into the World Theater in St. Paul, which was renovated in 1986 and renamed the Fitzgerald Theater in 1994. This is the same location the program uses today.
The show went off the air in 1987, and Keillor married and spent some time abroad during the following two years. For a brief time, the show was replaced – both on the air and in the World Theater – by Good Evening, a live variety show designed by ex-Prairie Home and All Things Considered staffers to retain the audience Keillor had cultivated over the years. However, many stations opted instead to continue APHC repeats in its traditional Saturday time slot.
In 1989, Keillor returned to radio with The American Radio Company of the Air (renamed Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company in its second season), broadcast originally from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The new program featured a broadly similar format to A Prairie Home Companion, with sketches and musical guests reflecting a more New York sensibility, rather than the country and folk music predominant in APHC. Also, while Keillor sang and delivered a regular monologue on American Radio Company, Lake Wobegon was initially downplayed, as he felt it was "cruel" to talk to a Brooklyn audience about life in a small town. During this period, Keillor revived the full APHC format only for "annual farewell performances". In the fall of 1992, Keillor returned to the World Theater with ARC for the majority of the season, with Lake Wobegon and other APHC elements gradually but unmistakably returning to prominence. The next year, the program officially reverted to the A Prairie Home Companion name and format.
While many of the episodes originate from St. Paul, the show often travels to other cities around the U.S. and overseas for its live weekly broadcasts. Common road venues include The Town Hall in New York City; Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts; Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia; Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee; the Greek Theater in Los Angeles; and the State Theater in Minneapolis. There is also a show each year at the Minnesota State Fair.
The show was originally distributed nationally by Minnesota Public Radio in association with Public Radio International. Its current distributor is Minnesota Public Radio's distribution unit, American Public Media.
From the show's inception until 1987, its theme song was Hank Snow's hit "Hello Love". After 1987, each show has opened with Spencer Williams' composition "Tishomingo Blues" as the theme song, with lyrics written especially for A Prairie Home Companion.
Music is a main feature of the program; the show is a significant outlet for American folk music of many genres, especially country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel, but it also has guest performers from a wide variety of other styles of music, including classical, opera, and music from a number of different countries. The country musician and former record company executive Chet Atkins has appeared on the show many times, as have singer-songwriters Mark Knopfler (lead guitarist and frontman of the bands Dire Straits and the Notting Hillbillies) and Jeff Lang. Folk/gospel duo Robin and Linda Williams have been regular guests since 1976, and often join Keillor and another female performer, often Jearlyn Steele, to form "The Hopeful Gospel Quartet". Peter Ostroushko, Greg Brown, Jean Redpath, and Prudence Johnson, among others, were recurring guests on the program between 1974 and 1987. The Wailin' Jennys and Andra Suchy are current recurring guests, and when the show travels, Thile generally features local musicians and acts.
Greetings from members of the audience to friends and family at home (frequently humorous) are read each week by Thile just after the show's intermission, at the top of the second hour. Birthdays and anniversaries of famous composers and musicians are also observed.
Thile and the ensemble perform comedy skits. Notable skits and characters often recur, such as the satirical "Guy Noir, Private Eye" during Keillor's tenure, which parodied film noir and radio dramas. Guy Noir's popularity was such that the first few notes of the theme or the first lines of the announcer's introduction ("A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets ...") often drew applause and cheers from the audience. Also regularly featured were the adventures of Dusty and Lefty, "The Lives of the Cowboys". Thile has discontinued some of Keillor's skits, while maintaining others.
One of the show's best-known features under Keillor was his "News from Lake Wobegon", a weekly storytelling monologue, claiming to be a report from Keillor's fictitious hometown of Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average". The opening words of the monologue usually did not change: "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie." Keillor often poked fun at central Minnesota's large Scandinavian-American and German-American communities, and many of his fictional characters have names that reflect this. The "News from Lake Wobegon" did not have a set structure, but featured recurring characters and places such as the Chatterbox Café, the Sidetrack Tap, Pastor Ingqvist of the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and his successor Pastor Liz, Father Emil of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Roman Catholic Church (a parody of Our Mother of Perpetual Help), the Lake Wobegon Whippets sports teams, various members of the Bunsen and Krebsbach families, and an assortment of nearby "Norwegian bachelor farmers".
Once a year the program featured a special "joke show", which generally included the Lake Wobegon monologue and musical acts, but with other skits replaced by the performers taking turns telling jokes. Humorists such as Paula Poundstone and Roy Blount Jr. often made guest appearances on those shows, and listeners and audience members were encouraged to submit jokes for use on the air.
In-jokes are also sprinkled through the show, such as "Piscacadawadaquoddymoggin", a made-up word that's been used both for places and for people's names. The components of this made-up word are portions of Native American place names in the New England region of the United States, most of them in Maine (i.e.: Piscataqua, Passamaquoddy, and Androscoggin).
Because A Prairie Home Companion airs on noncommercial radio, the program is forbidden to carry real advertisements. Instead, the show produces advertisements for fictional products, performed in the style of live old-time radio commercials. The show acknowledges its actual underwriters at the beginning, end, and middle (break) of the show.
Prairie Home's most prominent "sponsor" is the fictitious "Powdermilk Biscuits". Before he and the band performed the product's jingle every week ("Has your family tried 'em, Powdermilk?"), Garrison Keillor would extol Powdermilk's virtues in this way:
Among its other "sponsors", Bebop-A-Reebop Rhubarb Pie (and Frozen Rhubarb Pie Filling) has been prominent, with ads featuring the Bebop-A-Reebop jingle, performed to the tune of "Shortnin' Bread":
One little thing can revive a guy
And that is a piece of rhubarb pie
Serve it up, nice and hot
Maybe things aren't as bad as you thought
Momma's little baby loves rhubarb, rhubarb
Bebopareebop rhubarb pie.
The jingle is usually sung after a bombastic, sound-effect-enhanced tale of woe, and is immediately followed by Keillor asking, "Wouldn't this be a great time for a piece of rhubarb pie? Yes, nothing gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of your mouth quite like Bebop-A-Reebop Rhubarb Pie."
Other prominent "sponsors" include Bertha's Kitty Boutique, whose locations in the fictional "Dales" shopping centers ("Roy 'n' Dale, Airedale, Teasdale, Clydesdale, Chippendale, Mondale, and all the other fine shopping centers") allude to various real people and things, and The Catchup Advisory Board — its name a mashup of the common "catsup" and "ketchup" spellings — which has the tagline "Catchup: For the good times."
Other "sponsors" have included:
In addition, the recurring segment "The Lives of the Cowboys" featured its own Western-themed sponsors, including Prairie Dog Granola Bars ("healthier than chewing tobacco and you don't have to spit") and Cowboy Toothpicks ("the toothpick that's guaranteed not to splinter").
While much of the show is directed toward radio comedy, a portion is usually devoted to some more sentimental and sometimes dark stories put together by Keillor and others. The program occasionally also features political satire. At the beginning of the June 5, 2004, show (broadcast from Meadowbrook Musical Arts Center in Gilford, New Hampshire), Keillor announced that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had died. A member of the audience hooted and cheered loudly, but Keillor, a staunch Democrat, gave the Republican Reagan a warm tribute in the form of a gospel song. Similarly, in a 2002 show airing the weekend after the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Keillor changed the format of the show, starting it off with Wellstone's favorite segment, Guy Noir, skipping even the show's theme song.
Regularly appearing actors include Tim Russell (beginning in 1994) and Sue Scott (beginning in 1989). When the show resumed as The American Radio Company of the Air in November 1989, radio comedian Bob Elliott, half of the longtime radio and comedy television duo Bob and Ray, became a regular cast member. Actor Bill Perry was a member. Walter Bobbie made frequent appearances, as early as 1989, and continuing through 2006-2007. Ivy Austin was a regular contributing comedian (and vocalist) in the early '90s. Prudence Johnson has performed frequently on the show as an actress (and a singer). Mark Benninghofer joined the cast as a substitute actor for a brief time after Russell broke his ankle in February 2009, forcing him to take a month of medical leave. Erica Rhodes has been an occasional guest on the show, beginning in 1996 when she was 10 years old. Serena Brook joined the cast in October 2016 when Chris Thile became host.
The late Tom Keith, also known as Jim Ed Poole, appeared in all of the home-based shows. Keith died on October 30, 2011 at age 64. Fred Newman filled this role in the away shows. Steve Kramer and Leslye Orr have also provided sound effects for the show.
Regular musicians in Guy's All-Star Shoe Band include Richard Dworsky, a composer who appears weekly as pianist, bandleader, and music director, Gary Raynor on bass and bass guitar, Peter Johnson on percussion, Jevetta Steele on vocals, and Andy Stein on violin, tenor and bass saxophones, and vocals. When the Shoe Band had a horn section, Keillor referred to them as the Shoe Horns.
Other frequent, occasional, former, or one-time musicians on the show include:
Chris Thile added bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Brittany Haas, and others to the musicians of the program and his stewardship of the show has seen some departures as well.
Production staff, who work onstage, offstage, backstage, or behind the scenes, are led by Albert Webster, the show's stage manager, the only staff person who appears in front of large audiences, and who frequently appears onstage during performance, speaking off-air with Keillor or other performers.
On January 15, 2011, the program was hosted by singer Sara Watkins of San Diego, California. The format was the same, but Keillor appeared only as a guest actor and to deliver the News from Lake Wobegon. He claimed he had taken the chance to see the show being performed for himself. It was reported that this could be the beginning of a trend toward Keillor's eventual retirement, and on March 16, 2011, Keillor stated in an interview with the AARP that he would most likely retire from the show by the time he turned 70 in August 2012. On January 29, 2011, Erica Rhodes expressed frustration over not being picked to guest host.
In September 2011, Keillor told The Tuscaloosa News that his last broadcast would be recorded in "early July 2013", and that instead of a permanent replacement host, there will be "a whole group of people. A rotation of hosts", but in December 2011 Keillor said he had changed his mind and reconsidered his plans to retire because he still enjoyed hosting the show.
On February 7 and 14, 2015, the program was hosted by mandolinist Chris Thile (like Sara Watkins, a member of Nickel Creek). As when Watkins hosted, the format remained largely unchanged, but Keillor did not make an appearance. Instead, storyteller Tristan Jimerson appeared on the February 7 show and comedian/storyteller Elna Baker on the February 14 show. Thile's band Punch Brothers performed on the February 7 show. Thile was named permanent host of the show in late June 2015. Keillor's last show as host was recorded on July 1, 2016, and broadcast the following day. Thile took over as permanent host on October 15, 2016.
As of 2005, APHC with Garrison Keillor was distributed by Minnesota Public Radio's distribution arm, American Public Media, to more than 700 public radio stations in the United States, with an estimated 4.3 million U.S. listeners each week. The program is also carried around the world by the American Armed Forces Radio Network and America One. Sirius XM Satellite Radio carries the show via its XM Public Radio and NPR Now channels. Live video of the broadcast in progress is also streamed on YouTube and on the show's website.
The program is carried through a variety of distributors to listeners in Europe and the British Isles. As of this date, the full program is broadcast in Europe by WRN Europe, Sundays at 1100 UTC, and at the same time in Germany on NPR Berlin, an FM station, via NPR's international radio channel. As of this date, an alternative edition of the show is broadcast in the United Kingdom by BBC Radio 4 Extra and in the Republic of Ireland by RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, under the name Garrison Keillor's Radio Show. This version runs approximately one hour—without the station breaks usual to APHC—and features the News from Lake Wobegon and selected musical acts and comedy sketches. The program's fictional sponsors are credited when associated with segments appearing, and there are otherwise no in-broadcast credits, because as of this date the BBC does not use underwriting to fund broadcasts.
As of this date, Radio New Zealand National periodically carries the radio program. As of this date, Australia's ABC Radio National carries the BBC Radio 4 Extra alternative version of the program as described above, also under the name Garrison Keillor's Radio Show, likewise presenting fictional sponsors and no other in-broadcast credits (because, like BBC, it does not use outside underwriting to fund broadcasts).
Owing to licensing considerations, most musical performances cannot be released outside of a broadcast or streaming agreement from music publishers, so the show is not podcast by itself, except for the "News from Lake Wobegon" segments. Shows including musical performances are on the website in the Archive, but are playable only as a media stream for this reason.
Released on June 9, 2006, A Prairie Home Companion is a film about "a dying radio show that bears striking similarities to 'A Prairie Home Companion,'" with the actual APHC home venue, the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul chosen to serve "as set piece, soundstage and framing device". It was written by Garrison Keillor and directed by Robert Altman, and shot digitally, with camera by Altman's son, Robert Altman Jr.; the film stars Keillor, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, and L.Q. Jones. APHC regular Rich Dworsky appears as the bandleader, and served as the film's pianist, conductor, arranger, and composer. The film depicts the unnamed radio program's behind-the-scenes activities, and the relational dynamics within the cast over its anticipated, imminent cancellation. The antagonist, Axeman, "who has come to shut the show down", is played by Tommy Lee Jones. As described in a 2005 on-set piece by David Carr for The New York TImes, the film set's atmosphere had
a kind of Spanky and Our Gang let's-put-on-a-show quality, with crew, marquee talent and "Prairie Home" acolytes and extras mixing freely. The dailies, the traditional day's-end look at finished footage, usually include[d] about 75 people, a vivid reminder of Mr. Altman's penchant for collaborative filmmaking. And because music is such an important part of the movie and the radio show, the set always seem[ed] to be lifted by the pluck of a mandolin or a three-part harmony rehearsal.
The film, which makes no reference to Lake Wobegon, is of feature length, with its financing provided by GreeneStreet Films, River Road Entertainment, and local Minnesota sources. Its award nominations (2006, unless noted) include the Berlin International Film Festival-Golden Bear award for best film, the National Association of Film Critics-Bodil Award for Best American Film, the Film Independent (film association) Independent Spirit Award for Best Director, the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Screenplay, the International Press Academy-Satellite Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, the Independent Filmmaker Project-Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Ensemble Performance, the Broadcast Film Critics Association-Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Cast, and the Casting Society of America-Artios Award for Best Casting for Feature Film (Comedy); its wins include the Yomiuri Shimbun (film association) Hochi Film Award (2007) for Best Foreign Film. In addition, Meryl Streep was nominated for an International Press Academy-Satellite Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Motion Picture), and won the National Society of Film Critics Awards for the same category.A Prairie Home Album [LP] (Minnesota Educational Radio)
Pretty Good Jokes [2 CD] (2000, HighBridge Audio)
Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (1992, Sony)
Lake Wobegon Loyalty Days (1993, EMI)
Garrison Keillor's Comedy Theater: More Songs and Sketches from A Prairie Home Companion [3 CD] (1996, HighBridge Company)
Horrors! A Scary Home Companion [2 CD] (1996, HighBridge Company)
A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album [2 LP] (1980, Minnesota Public Radio Inc.)
Shaking The Blues Away, Rob Fisher and The Coffee Club Orchestra with Garrison Keillor (1992, Angel Records in association with EMI Records Ltd.)
Pretty Good Bits From a Prairie Home Companion (2003)
A Prairie Home Companion: English Majors: A Comedy Collection for the Highly Literate [2 CD] (2008, HighBridge Company)
Church People: The Lutherans of Lake Wobegon (2009)
Gospel Birds and Other Stories of Lake Wobegon (1985). Includes the stories "Pastor Ingqvist's Trip to Orlando", "Mammoth Concert Tickets", "Bruno, the Fishing Dog", "Gospel Birds", "Meeting Donny Hart at the Bus Stop", "A Day at the Circus with Mazumbo", "The Tolleruds' Korean Baby", "Sylvester Krueger's Desk", and "Babe Ruth visits Lake Wobegon".
News from Lake Wobegon (April 1990). Includes the stories "Me and Choir", "A Day in the Life of Clarence Bunsen", "Letter from Jim", "Fiction", "The Living Flag", "The Tollefson Boy Goes to College", "Tomato Butt", "Chamber of Commerce", "Dog Days of August", "Mrs. Berge and the Schubert Carillon Piano", "Giant Decoys", "Darryl Tollerud's Long Day", "Hog Slaughter", "Thanksgiving", "The Royal Family", "Guys on Ice", "James Lundeen's Christmas", "The Christmas Story Retold", "New Year's from New York", and "Storm Home".
More News from Lake Wobegon (April 1990). Includes the stories "Rotten Apples", "O Death", "The Wise Men", "A Trip to Grand Rapids", "Truck Stop", "Smokes", "The Perils of Spring", "Let Us Pray", "Alaska", "Uncle Al's Gift", "Skinny Dip", "Homecoming", "Pontoon Boat", "Author", "Freedom of the Press", and "Vick's".
Lake Wobegon USA (September 1993). Includes the stories "The Krebsbachs' Vacation", "Prophet", "The Six Labors of Father Wilmer", "Fertility", "Aunt Ellie", "Duke's 25th", "Job-Hunting", "You're Not the Only One", "Blue Devils", "Nostalgia", "O Christmas Tree", "Pageant", "Messy Shoes", "Rhubarb", "Sweet Corn", "The Sun's Gonna Shine Someday", and "Yellow Ribbon".
Summer (May 1997). Includes stories from disc 2 of News from Lake Wobegon.
Fall (October 1997). Includes stories from disc 3 of News from Lake Wobegon.
Winter (December 1997). Includes stories from disc 4 of News from Lake Wobegon.
Spring (April 1998). Includes stories from disc 1 of News from Lake Wobegon.
Life These Days (October 1998). Includes the stories "Gladys Hits A Raccoon", "The World's Largest Pile", "My Cousin Rose", "The Risk Takers", "Pastor Ingqvist at the Mall", "Hunting Stories", "Sorrows of January", "Clarence Cleans His Roof", "Miracle of the Pastor's Dog", "War of the Krebsbachs", "Graduation", and "Spring" (printed insert).
Mother Father Uncle Aunt (May 1998). Includes the stories "Ball Jars", "Love While you Dare To", "Saturday Morning in The Bon Marché", "Family Trip to Yellowstone", "The Flood", "Bob Anderson's Last Dance", "Children Will Break Your Heart", "Ronnie and The Winnebago", "Carl's Christmas Pageant", and "The Tombstone".
Humor (October 1998). Includes the stories "Skinny Dip", "Homecoming", "The Freedom of the Press", and "Vick's" from More News from Lake Wobegon.
Love (February 1999). Includes the stories "Truck Stop", "Uncle Al's Gift", "Rotten Apples", and "The Wise Men" from More News from Lake Wobegon.
Home on the Prairie (July 2003)
Never Better (2007)
Faith (April 2008). Includes stories from disc 1 of More News from Lake Wobegon.
Hope (April 2008). Includes stories from disc 2 of More News from Lake Wobegon.