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Pass Me the Chicken Chests, Please: Keillor Cancelled in Kentucky

In yet more proof that we are descending into a living version of The Handmaid’s Tale, a radio station at the University of Kentucky cancelled Writer’s Almanac, that nice daily tidbit, for using such gross obscenities as the word “breast.” Hello, UK SLIS: are you posting?

I know it’s fashionable in some circles to snub or at least gently mock Mr. Keillor. He’s not edgy enough, or something. Prairie Home Companion is too wholesome, and Keillor’s choice of poetry doesn’t make the blood race. Jeff Jarvis calls him “tapioca” (as if Entertainment Weekly were The Rambler); August Kleinzahler says that for his trespasses Keillor must be “burned.”

Yes, Keillor’s choices for the Writer’s Almanac may be broadly popular. But is the world worse off for learning, as I did today, that “For a long time, people in England called printed books Caxtons”? Is a little Dickinson going to prevent the next poetic revolution (and if it does, is it Keillor’s fault)?

Yes, I’m outing myself as a Keillor fan. I’ve been listening to Keillor’s voice for twenty years, and he has been a companion to my life and travels. I found Prairie Home Companion in a cornfield in Illinois, late one Saturday night in 1985. The skits were pleasantly silly, the “News” reminded me of people I knew, and Garrison’s deep voice tied everything together with a great big booming bow. After that, I waited for Keillor’s voice all week, every week. Saturday nights usually found me driving back from a concert at Krannert Center, and when his voice began rolling out of my car radio into the summer air, I felt home in a way I had not for many years as I headed toward the shack I lived in while the Air Force prepared me for my next job. For better or worse, his “treacly” voice, it comforts me.

But that’s the point: Keillor is so tame he requires I justify myself. If Keillor is deemed indecent (for a word routinely printed in grocery store flyers), we could all be in trouble. On the other hand, maybe the only thing that’s in trouble is traditional radio, thinking it can save itself through censorship when it will only drive more readers to the Web, where the Writer’s Almanac can be experienced both in text and audio whenever you want to listen to it, rather than presented once a day at 11 a.m. Presented, that is, until it is no longer presentable, and is yanked from the air by a station that prattles on its page, “This audio stream, just like our on-air signal, is made possible by the support of listeners like you! So, while you’re here, why not become a WUKY member?” Why not indeed support these fine champions of public broadcasting and free speech? After all, in addition to knowing you paid for that bright yellow website with the broken images and the prerequisite duplication of national news you could already hear on the Web or XM radio, every Friday you can listen to “UK Perspectives with President Lee Todd,” and it’s not too late to submit your favorite chicken chest recipe to the station’s contest.

Kentucky was my fourth choice for library school, but Illinois came through with a generous graduate assistantship. Six years after I first heard Keillor, after three stints overseas, I was back in the cornfields again. On many a Saturday night, while puzzling my way through reference-desk stumpers and Pascal programming code, I enjoyed the company of Keillor’s voice, the gales of audience laughter, and the foot-tapping, folksy music. NPR was so appreciated in that neck of the corn-fed woods that during pledge drives you could hear farmers calling in their pledges from tractors. I have always been proud to have attended Illinois, and right now, not having attended Kentucky is one more reason to revel in my jingoism.

Meanwhile, I wonder if this is part of the tipping point for public radio. Between podcasting, XM radio, and timid broadcasters, it’s possible radio may simply die.

(Garrison, where’s your feed? I suppose I could set up a Bloglines email-to-RSS subscription, but can someone please sit down and ‘splain RSS to the folks at American Public Media?)

Thanks to the Lexington Herald-Leader for publishing that article, and for BuzzMachine for cracking that vial of smelling salts under my nose this morning.

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