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Keillor says at 75 'not interested' in arguing about inappropriate behavior

Garrison Keillor looks out toward the audience from the back of the Knutson Campus Center Centrum before the start of his Gratitude Tour Friday, April 28, 2017, at Concordia College. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Public Radio has cut ties with Garrison Keillor in response to allegations of inappropriate behavior involving at least one person who worked with him on “A Prairie Home Companion.”

In a  statement issued Wednesday morning, MPR and American Public Media announced it was ending rebroadcasts of the “A Prairie Home Companion” episodes Keillor hosted, as well as distribution and broadcasts of his show “The Writer’s Almanac.”

The station also will change the name of “A Prairie Home Companion” with current host Chris Thile and cut ties with  the prairiehome.org website and Pretty Good Goods online catalog.

Keillor, 75, released several statements to the media Wednesday, and wrote on his personal website: “I’ve been fired over a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard. Most stories are.”

In a message to MPR News, Keillor said two employees had raised questions about his actions: “I have to respect the privacy of the two employees who made the allegations,” he said.

“I have my own recollection of events, but I don’t want to take issue with (MPR president) Jon McTaggart’s decision. I think the country is in the grip of a mania,” Keillor wrote, calling the misconduct allegations against Sen. Al Franken “an absurdity … but I expect MPR to look out for itself, and meanwhile I feel awfully lucky to have hung on for so long.”

HIS ACCOUNT: HAND ON BARE BACK

And later on Wednesday, he publicly posted and then later removed a Facebook message that included: "It's astonishing that fifty years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation. ... Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances."

Keillor detailed one of the encounters to the Star Tribune, writing that he was fired because he put his hand on a woman’s bare back as he tried to console her.

He said in an email to the newspaper that he was trying to pat the woman’s back after she had told him “about her unhappiness.” Keillor wrote that the woman’s shirt was open and his hand went up about 6 inches.

He said he apologized when the woman recoiled, and also emailed the woman an apology. She replied she’d forgiven him and “not to think about it,” he told the newspaper.

Keillor said he considered her a friend and they remained friendly “right up until her lawyer called.”

MPR declined to give any detail of the allegation and had no further comments beyond its statement, said communications director Angie Andresen. Keillor’s own publicist did not respond to several messages seeking further information.

MPR’s announcement came a day after Keillor, an avowed Democrat, wrote a Washington Post syndicated column that ridiculed the idea that Franken should resign over allegations of sexual harassment.

MPR LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION

The public radio broadcast giant was notified last month of the allegations, which took place during Keillor’s time with “APHC,” according to the statement. McTaggart immediately informed the MPR board chair and a special board committee was appointed to investigate.

In addition, MPR has retained outside legal counsel to conduct an independent investigation. “Based on what we currently know,” the statement read, “there are no similar allegations involving other staff.” MPR is also encouraging anyone with additional information to call a confidential hotline at 1-877-767-7781.

“A person could not hope for more than what I was given,”  Keillor wrote on his website. “It’s some sort of poetic irony to be knocked off the air by a story, having told so many of them myself, but I’m 75 and don’t have any interest in arguing about this. And I cannot in conscience bring danger to a great organization I’ve worked hard for since 1969.”

COLLEAGUES ‘SHOCKED’

Keillor retired as the “Prairie Home” host in 2016. His hand-picked successor, mandolinist Chris Thile, is in his second season as “Prairie Home” host. He’s now in New York, where the next three episodes of “APHC” will air from the Town Hall. “I’m in shock,” Thile wrote in a Twitter post.

“I know nothing beyond what’s contained (in MPR’s statement), but I trust that the proper steps are being taken.”

Sue Scott, an actor who worked with Keillor on “APHC” for 24 years, echoed that sentiment. Scott described the work environment as “hyperfocused” on getting the show on the air each week. “There was always a sense of urgency and no time for socializing,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to hang around and get in trouble.”

Keillor’s radio career began in 1969 when he joined an early version of what would become MPR just two years after it was founded. “A Prairie Home Companion” debuted in 1974.

Rick Shefchik covered Keillor when Shefchik was St. Paul Pioneer Press media columnist for eight years beginning in 1980, when “APHC” began broadcasting nationally. He said he never heard any specific allegations against Keillor.

“When I heard Garrison Keillor’s name … and that he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio it momentarily caught me up,” Shefchik said. “It was not a name I was expecting, given the amount of time he has been in the public eye, the length of time he was with MPR and that he is 75. If someone has gone that long and up to that age and (we) never heard his name connected with that kind of behavior, then you probably think he is going to finish out his career without being accused.”

Shefchik said his time on the media beat coincided with the flowering of Keillor’s career as a writer, which took off in 1985 with the publication of “Lake Wobegon Days,” a bestselling novel that landed Keillor on the cover of Time magazine.

He has since written dozens of novels and short-story collections, including “A Christmas Blizzard,” “Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance” and “WLT: A Radio Romance.” He’s also written essays, nonfiction and collections including “Good Poems,” an anthology of poetry he’s read on “The Writer’s Almanac,” and “77 Love Sonnets.”

Keillor, who is married to his third wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, a violinist, owns St. Paul’s Common Good Books, an 11-year-old independent bookstore in St. Paul noted for its wide range of poetry and for hosting readings by major national and local writers.

When the store moved in 2012 to its current location, Keillor told visitors he wanted to own a bookstore because he grew up in the stacks of the Anoka public library. “I want a place where kids can hold books in their hands and find things you can’t find browsing the Amazon site,” he said.

WEDNESDAY SHOW CANCELED

Despite leaving “APHC,” Keillor has not left the stage. Over the summer, he embarked on a 28-city tour, which he claimed would be his last and included a stop at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. He’s currently on the road headlining theaters and clubs with musicians Robin and Linda Williams. He was booked to play Pittsfield, Mass., on Wednesday night, followed by stops in Connecticut and New York through Sunday. Pittsfield’s Berkshire Theatre Group announced late Wednesday that Keillor’s show was canceled.

Keillor is scheduled to continue the tour in February, including a Feb. 20 performance at Minneapolis’ Cedar Cultural Center, although it’s unclear if those shows will still take place.

Keillor is closely associated with Minnesota Public Radio, and MPR owns St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, the longtime home of “APHC.” But one industry observer said Wednesday that he didn’t think Keillor’s termination would specifically hurt MPR’s image in the general public. Mike Janssen is digital editor for The Current, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit news service that covers public radio and television. He said many listeners don’t make the distinction between MPR, APM and the various other public radio entities.

“I think a lot of people just consider it all (created by) National Public Radio,” Janssen said.

Janssen said there will be an issue with filling the broadcast hours once occupied by repeats of Keillor’s “APHC.” Thile’s first season featured 13 installments, and that number doubled for his second season, with encores of classic shows filling in the gaps for the weekly broadcast. “A Prairie Home Companion” is carried by 580 public radio stations in the U.S. with an estimated weekly audience of 2.5 million, down from 4 million at its peak of popularity.

Changing the name of the show, Janssen said, gives producers the opportunity to further distance themselves from Keillor. “You see a lot of talk on social media, particularly among younger people, that it’s been on the air too long and it’s not funny. I’m speculating, but this opens the door to change aspects of the show. It could be seen as an opportunity to make some big changes.”

Mary Ann Grossmann contributed to this report.

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