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Halfway through his first season hosting "A Prairie Home Companion," mandolin maestro Chris Thile still feels "like a kid in a candy store" taking over the long-running popular public radio show created by Garrison Keillor but knows he has to do one big thing.
"I can be so much more of a relaxed host," Thile said, sounding ebullient over the phone as he prepared for Saturday's show featuring Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and comedian Marina Franklin from The Town Hall in New York.
Keillor, who turned 74 in August, stepped down in July after four decades of entertaining millions of listeners with tales of the residents of Lake Wobegon, Minn., delivered in his soothing baritone on Saturday evenings. He tapped 35-year-old Thile, who grew up listening to "Prairie Home" and first appeared on the old-timey musical variety show in 1996 when he was 15, to replace him.
Thile said he hasn't reached out to Keillor since taking over the show, which airs locally on KUER-FM 90.1 Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. And Keillor, who said he would remain as "Prairie Home" executive producer, said he has taken his name off the show's credits and hasn't listened to any of this season's shows.
"I had complete freedom when I started the show back in 1974 and [Thile] should get the same consideration from me. The people he needs to connect with are the listeners, not the aging emeritus," Keillor said in an email to The Associated Press.
While Keillor said he misses doing the show, "it makes perfect sense for [Thile and producer American Public Media] to aim the music and comedy at millennials and not at my fellow septuagenarians."
Thile said program directors were understandably nervous about the switch. In the first season of his three-year contract, he is scheduled to perform 13 live shows, about half a normal 26-show run. (He hopes to do 26 shows next season, and an announcement might come before the season finale at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul in February). But Thile has managed to hold on to a good chunk of Keillor's audience, even without such "Prairie Home" staples as hard-boiled private eye Guy Noir.
"Prairie Home" was drawing 3.1 million listeners weekly at the end of Keillor's tenure. With Thile as host, the audience is projected at more than 2 million, said Dave Kansas, executive vice president and chief operating officer of APM, parent company of Minnesota Public Radio.
About 670 stations in the U.S. carried "Prairie Home" when Keillor was host, Kansas said. Initial projections were that 450 stations would carry Thile's show, but the number is up to 586, he said.
"I think we did a lot of work explaining how Chris could both attract Garrison's audience and bring in a new audience," Kansas said. (The show's audience is younger. With Keillor the median age was 59; this year the average age is estimated to be about 10 years younger.)
General manager Randy Eccles of NPR Illinois in Springfield said some listeners were hoping Keillor wouldn't leave. Eccles said his station decided to keep "Prairie Home" after APM negotiated "a fair rate," but hasn't decided whether to sign up for another season.
"Eventually you want it to be Chris' show," Eccles said, noting that shows such as "The Tonight Show" have survived a change in "an amazing host."
Heidi Goldfein, program director at WBEZ-FM in Chicago, said her station has seen "no drop-off at all" in listenership from a year ago.
"Right now, I think people are giving it a shot," Goldfein said.
Thile, who recruited bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Chris Eldridge from his band Punch Brothers to join the house band, is luring hipper musical guests. Jack White, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and singer-songwriter Jason Isbell have performed; future guests include singer-pianist Regina Spektor, Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver and alt-country star Ryan Adams.
Composer and pianist Rich Dworsky, 63, the show's longtime music director who is going into his 24th season on "Prairie Home," said Thile is getting more comfortable each week.
"He's impressing me and surprising me each week with his talent," Dworsky said.
Fan Adam DeBeck, 32, of South Bend, Ind., said he likes the new musical talent.
"That means a lot to me in the new era of 'Prairie Home' that there were going to be guests that appealed to my sensitivities," DeBeck said.
To replace Keillor's weekly monologue "The News From Lake Wobegon," Thile is writing a weekly, topical song and saluting musicians' birthdays. "Prairie Home" is bringing in comedians and spoken-word artists, and six writers are crafting the sketches that used to be written by Keillor alone.
"People are coming around. They're understanding this is a continuation of the show. It's a different energy and a different feel," said actor Tim Russell, 69, who has been with "Prairie Home" for 22 years.
Former Wisconsin Public Radio director Jack Mitchell, 75, calls Thile a "very appealing person on the air."
"There is a youthful enthusiasm, that kind of excitement," Mitchell said. "It's not the same," he added. "The lack of Garrison is pretty evident."