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Where the radio hosts are above average: Thank you, Garrison Keillor

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Twenty-five years ago, I sat in my father’s rusted out, $100 jalopy in my high school parking lot. Because I was perpetually worried the car would cough out somewhere on the eight-mile drive from home – it did often – on good days when she performed without complaint, I arrived with time to kill. Usually I would pop in a cassette tape of the Pop Diva du jour and measure time in Top 40 chart toppers. However, that Saturday morning, Celine Dion’s latest lay in the pocket of a jacket I’d left behind, forcing me to scan radio stations. On the west end of the dial, I stumbled on to something unlike anything I had ever heard before.

I didn’t grow up in a house where public radio was a known entity, let alone a central part of life. I knew of two kinds of programming: music and talk radio (WJR, which occasionally ventured into sports programming as well). Whatever I had found was neither of those. Transfixed in a cultural reverie, I had my first driveway moment-albeit in the parking lot of high school – as I listened to Dusty and Lefty discuss transcendentalism and its relationship to cattle prodding. The news from Lake Woebegone made me wish I’d lived somewhere where the men were strong, the women were good looking, and the children were above average. Guy Noire’s city full of dark secrets reminded me how boring I found my little town, where two biggest events of the year were homecoming and the last day of school for seniors, when those with combines would drive them to school. (This tradition is still upheld annually.) In the days before the internet, Garrison Keillor’s performances gave me the first hint that there were things in the universe for me to discover beyond the gas station at the end of town. By the time the episode of Prairie Home concluded, I’d missed half of practice, but realized how much more I’d been missing out on all my life. I listened to that station for rest of the day,the next day, and for many, many years to come.

Through the years, I have had various Public Radio loves, from Science Fridays, to All Things Considered. This American Life, to On the Media.  Car Talk was (and is) a consummate favorite, though it exists now only in reruns and a column in the Sunday paper.  I never realized just how effected I was by the NPR and PRI voices until I learned of the passing of Tom Magliozzi, one of the co-hosts of Car Talk, and felt like I had lost a family member. 

Through the years, I’ve introduced my own children to the wonders and importance of public radio, but I’ve never forgotten that magical day when strong Norwegian farmers first opened my ears and my eyes. Even though PHC isn’t going away, and a new host will be taking the reins next fall, I can’t help but feel like an epoch in my life has come to an end with Garrison Keillor’s retirement. But having experienced an awakening before, I can’t help but believe there’s another one just around the bend, where perhaps the women are strong, and the men are good looking, and the children are doing the best that they can.

Thank you, Mr. Keillor, for being the gateway drug that made me a public radio junkie, and for being such a central part of my life.