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Dispatch from St. Paul: Old Time Radio Drama

Bwog staffer Brendan Ballou’s musings from his great state…

If you live in Minnesota, you waited for Robert Altman’s new film A Prairie Home Companion with mixed emotions—specifically, fear and dread.


After all, The Land of 10,000 Lakes came off very poorly in the Fargo (explaining that Fargo is actually in North Dakota has become something of a minor hobby). We don’t (for the most part) say ‘dooonchaknow’ like it’s one word. Nor do we (for the most part) feed people into wood chippers. But the stereotypes stuck, and no one was really looking forward to another movie about Minnesota.


Besides, just as bad as misrepresenting the state, what if the Prairie Home Companion movie misrepresented the radio show? Everyone here basically likes Garrison Keillor and his weekly variety program of folk, bluegrass, radio drama, and monologue (The News From Lake Woebegon). On a Saturday evening it’s pretty standard to hear the Powder Milk Biscuit Song coming from the kitchen (it gives shy people the get up and do what needs to be done). The predictability of the show makes it possible to tune out for a few months or years without ever losing a sense of familiarity with Dusty and Lefty or Guy Noir. Most people I know listen to it, and if we don’t talk about it, it is at least assumed knowledge. Prairie Home is sort of the background music of the region.

So I was pretty scared that a movie would turn the show into caricature, or at least suck all the humanity from it. I was pleasantly surprised. The movie wasn’t great; it wasn’t even good. But it still had the free-form energy of the show, and that was about as much as I could expect.

My big hope is that the Prairie Home Companion movie will get some people interested in old time radio. Keillor’s show itself isn’t old time radio; its first show was only 32 years ago, when PHC performed for a 12-person audience (mostly children). But the older programs PHC imitates can still be found online, and they are (mostly) worth listening to. Here then, are a few suggestions for people interested in the Golden Age of Radio:

– Wisconsin Public Radio broadcasts its Old Time Radio Drama every Sunday night from 8-11:00 CST. You can listen to the online stream here. WPR plays a variety of programs from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, including Johnny Dollar (“The man with the action packed expense account”) and X – 1 (“From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space.”).

Old Time Radio Now streams old shows 24/7. The service is free and can be played through iTunes.

– Bob & Ray were a comedy duo out of New York, and some of their skits can be heard online for free (though their complete programs have to be bought).

I don’t think PHC will revive interest in old time radio, but it should serve as a reminder that such an industry once existed. And as might be said in Minnesota, that’s about as good as it can get.

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  • this post says:

    @this post is getting no love. how sad, a comment on drive-thru alcohol starts a debate on regionalism and snobbery, but this reflection draws no attenion.

    I weep.

  • Shira says:

    @Shira I think the PHC movie might’ve been a bit more like old-time radio than the show is, but that might be totally off-base. Either way, nice dispatch, Brendan, though I prefer the all-you-all-the-time Brog. Old-time radio is pretty awesome, too.

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