When Garrison Keillor, writer and now-retired radio host, was caught in the sexual harassment storms that have altered if not ended a growing number of careers, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) decided to take strict action.
Among other things, the organization changed the name of A Prairie Home Companion, the radio variety show that had run for decades and was already under the ministrations of a new host, Chris Thile. MPR wanted a new brand that might break a last tie with Keillor. To say nothing of the practical reality that he owned the right to the name and the ability to broadcast archived content. (And MPR's initial announcement of Keillor's dismissal made it sound that the name change and cessation of distribution of old content was part of its curative steps. So much for a PR spin.)
But brands are fragile and this one just hit the ground and shattered.
As Thile mentioned last night at the show's opening, the new name is Live From Here. A more anodyne and empty brand would be difficult to achieve. This is the sort of concoction that a satirist mocking such a production might adopt.
A brand should stand for and even say something. Prairie Home Companion was cleverly crafted. The "Prairie" portion spoke to the Midwest, a critical element. As Sam Anderson wrote in Slate more than a decade ago, it was smart market gap analysis.
When he started as a writer and radio host in the early 1970s, America's major regions had all been thoroughly mythologized--there was Faulkner's Mississippi, Steinbeck's California, and everybody else's New York. But the Midwest was, relatively speaking, a blank slate. Like Faulkner, Keillor invented a fictional territory--a mythical Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve"--and dedicated his career to exploring it.
The "Home Companion" portion evoked the old publication Woman's Home Companion that ran from the 1870s to the 1950s and provided fiction, general interest stories, and other things for interest and amusement. Keillor's choice invoked a setting so atavistic to a modern audience that it became timeless and allowed the show to flourish for many years.
A companion also is dependable, something to count on, even when at times dull.
Not that there weren't problems. The average listening age was 59 at the end of his reign, which meant they were losing younger audiences and future longevity. Audience size was also down by then to 3.1 million, a loss of half a million in five years.
However, the new version is down to 2.6 million since 2016. Clearly someone was looking for a different companion
A strong new brand might help, but brands aren't just collections of letters. They should stand for something -- say something. Live From Here doesn't, other than to indicate that it's produced in front of a live audience somewhere or other, which is true of many shows. Last night, Thile said, "Live from Here is about people making beautiful things and sharing them with our audience in real time. The fact that the show is live -- where anything is possible -- is part of what makes it so special."
Because anything isn't possible if a show isn't live. And, technically, because this one is rebroadcast, it's also recorded.
But that's neither here nor there, much as the new brand name, which doesn't give a sense of what you might hear and, thus, breaks one of the cardinal rules of branding: the need for association with something the target market can expect and anticipate.
In the process of trying to clean this one of association with a reticent and talented Midwesterner, MPR dropped the bauble and left the pieces on the floor.