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The new voices of radio

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There is radio. And then there is Radio. Listen carefully.

Radio (with a small r) is what you turn on when you neither want nor need the television set going. Only occasionally is it more than a glorified record player laying down sonic wallpaper for your home or office.

But Radio (with a big R) is a medium made for creative personal expression. We aren’t speaking here of phone-in, talk-radio stuff. And don’t confuse Radio with those raucous head-bangers and human squeak toys who wake you up in the morning. Radio — -big R — has brains, aspirations, and heart. It dares to take what was old and generally forgotten about radio — the variety-show format embraced by Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and the Grand Ole Opry — and apply to its quaint surface a fresh coat of cool intellect and arch sensibility.

Garrison Keillor was among the first to discover that if you polished up a dusty old radio genre, you could make it glitter like gold. For 13 years he presided over A Prairie Home Companion from a series of theaters in St. Paul, Minn. He now has a big, brassy, two-hour show, American Radio Company of the Air, broadcast live before an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and carried on 248 public radio stations every Saturday night.

Working in a smaller arena than Keillor’s, and playing to a smaller crowd, comedian Harry Shearer has been breaking ground of his own as host, writer, and producer of an intriguing hour-long weekly showcase called Le Show. Now in its seventh year, it is broadcast from KCRW-FM’s studios in Santa Monica, Calif., to about 40 other public radio stations nationwide and Chicago’s commercial WGN. (Broadcast times vary.)

So far, this impulse to bring new life to radio variety has found safe haven only on public radio. The End of the Road, a Keillor-like take on life in Homer, Alaska, that starred Tom Bodett, the voice of the Motel 6 radio ads (”We’ll leave a light on for ya”), was canceled in February after less than a year and a half on the air. Bodett’s show tried to establish Radio on commercial stations. But the show reached fewer than 500,000 listeners and couldn’t hang on to a major sponsor. For the moment, Radio seems destined to work its peculiar magic away from the commercial mainstream, which is too bad — for commercial radio.

Known best as an actor (This Is Spinal Tap, The Right Stuff) and gifted as a mimic, Shearer may well be the smartest humorist working in the medium. He used to listen a lot to Jean Shepherd and Bob and Ray, whose influences are apparent in his free-form monologues and shrewdly paced comedy skits. In between, he likes to jam as many types of music as he can into a show. A typical playlist will include a Broadway show, a Jackson 5 oldie, a salsa number, and a classic from Herbie Hancock’s early acoustic period.

Where Keillor uses big auditoriums to speak gently of intimate, local concerns, Shearer brings the whole world into his small studio, where he works alone. And Shearer’s humor isn’t what you’d call wistful and sweet. He bites. Take, for instance, his impersonation of Frank Sinatra, complete with a Nelson Riddle-esque arrangement, in which he slurs his reasons why ”I’m Gonna Play Sun City!,” the entertainment complex in South Africa: ”The drinks are so strong/The pit bosses are so witty/Who said things/should be fair?/Cop your share!” Then there’s his unctuous, insecure Dan Rather, fretting over why his network’s ratings are down, and whether the collar of his trenchcoat should be up. Shearer beautifully weaves together some of the mercurial anchor’s stranger tics, like his peculiar way with a metaphor (”Better than bourbon in the toothpaste”) and his struggle to find a perfect sign-off (”We’ll see you later. . .Have a good day. . .And a good game. . .We’ll see you later. . .. ”)

What is almost as remarkable as his achievements on Le Show is the fact that he couldn’t find the room to do humor of a similar range in his stints (in the 1979-80 and 1984-85 seasons) as a writer and performer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. ”It got so I lost track of the times they’d cut my stuff,” he says. He doesn’t even watch the show now. He spends his Saturday nights stitching together the kind of thoughtful satire heard only on radio. Shearer’s so good, you wonder whether he’s done it forever. Not quite, he says.

”I had done radio on and off in the early ’70s and it had been a long time since there was any place (in radio) hospitable to what I’m doing now. When KCRW first proposed this idea, I thought for about eight nanoseconds and said, yeah, I was up for it. I gravitate to where the freedom is. And right now, it’s here.”

If Shearer is radio’s sporty, exotic model, then Keillor, with his name recognition and widespread acceptance in America’s heartland, may well be its General Motors.

Like his Prairie Home Companion (1974-1987), Keillor’s American Radio Company, which premiered last November, offers an eclectic mix of comedy and music. (”All kinds,” Keillor says, ”all American. Scott Joplin, Aaron Copeland, Richard Rodgers, Chuck Berry — we could go on for weeks listing them all.”)

To the 4 million listeners attached to the old Prairie Home-spun mix of bluegrass, country, folk, and whimsy, Company must sound the way a cozy easy chair looks in a big new loft. Keillor’s deep pillow of a voice still gently guides listeners through musical standards and comedy bits, but now a 16-piece orchestra lays down a thick, lush carpet of band marches and ragtime standards.

Keillor brought along Prairie fixtures such as Butch Thompson, a pianist whose repertoire features such masters as Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, and sound-effects whiz Tom Keith, who does car-on-wet-pavement noises as adroitly as he does George Washington’s coin splashing into the Rappahannock.

In between introducing such performers as Eileen Farrell, Chet Atkins, and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, Keillor reads greetings from friends to relatives and other friends, some of which — ”To Janet and all the Joneses in Indian Harbor, Fla., from Katherine and Mike. Two years in Brooklyn. Still alive and well” — are informed by the sense of a small-town mind-set coming to grips with the perils of the Big City. There’s probably more than a little of Keillor in these; he’s making his own adjustment to the Manhattan sidewalks after years on the Minnesota tundra.

He also has a new repertory company — the Broadway Local Radio Theater — that each week performs ”The Story of Gloria,” a musical-comedy serial chronicling the trials and tribulations of a New York career woman.

The script — cowritten by Denise Lanctot and Keillor, though he uses the on-air name of ”Elaine Lois Blintz” — is charged with whimsical observations on New York life, including a reference to ”this Cajun-Greek restaurant that these Haitians run in Chinatown called Antonio’s.” There is even — is it possible, coming from Keillor? — an occasional dig at the Midwest, described as being ”full of extremely polite, extremely calm people like trees with hair.”

As Gloria, Ivy Austin sounds like Gracie Allen with a bracing shot of bitters, especially when she gives her reasons for preferring New York to, say, Seattle, where her boyfriend lives. One thing she likes about New York, she says, ”is that New Age philosophy missed us completely. It was headed this way but then it veered north to New England.”

Keillor concedes that much of what he has come to feel about New York creeps into a lot of ”Gloria” scripts. But, beyond that, he says, ”There’s a lot less of me so far” in Company than there was in Prairie. He has taken a couple of excursions back to Lake Wobegon since the show started. But you wonder whether he’s gone back enough to satisfy his fans.

Returns from the show’s first months are scattered. The only way public radio stations measure the success of a show is how well it does in drawing contributions during fund drives. Some stations have reported disappointing returns from Keillor’s program. Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM, for instance, drew only $1,700 when it solicited funds during a Feb. 16 broadcast of American Radio Company. Mark Vogelzang, the station’s program director, says Prairie drew $7,000 to $10,000 in its heyday.

”What I’ve been hearing from listeners,” Vogelzang says, ”is that the program has taken a hard edge that people aren’t responding to.”

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