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Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Dec 1, 2011 1:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

A look backstage at one of America’s most-loved radio programs

Tom Keith, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Megan Fischer and Garrison Keillor on stage during the broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion.” (� 2011 Prairie Home Productions)

“A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s a radio program that just about everyone knows. The show’s creator and host Garrison Keillor launched the show in 1974 in St. Paul, MN. The idea was to create a live stage show for radio in the style of the “Grand Ole Opry.” In that time, “A Prairie Home Companion” has easily reached (and surpassed in the opinions of some) the same level of public recognition.

I attended a performance of the program on Sept. 24, 2011, and I was able to arrange a visit with the production crew for most of the day of the performance. David O’Neill, station relations and media manager, provided me with access to all areas backstage and on-stage. I spent a great deal of time with Sam Hudson, producer/audio engineer, and Tom Scheuzger, broadcast/transmission engineer, as well.

On the surface, final production of the show looks like a group of people just having a good time, which we know is part of the magic of a good production. The performers and technicians don’t make it look like work.

Show production is actually an on-going process. While Keillor writes ideas for the script on an on-going basis, the final elements are decided by the rehearsal on Friday. Guests are also arranged on-going; some are booked months in advance, others are booked the week of the broadcast. It’s this flexibility that requires everyone involved to be aware at all times, and be ready to make on-the-fly adjustments as needed.

Keillor leads a talented troupe of performers, including actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott and Fred Newman. Tom Keith handled the sound effects, done in the old style with shoes, hardware, bits of random debris and his own voice at times. (Keith unexpectedly died in October 2011.) The music is provided by The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, led by keyboardist Richard Dworsky, with Pat Donahue (guitar), Gary Raynor (bass) and Peter Johnson (percussion).

Garrison Keillor goes over program changes with Sam Hudson (right to left), while Tom Scheuzger and Noah Smith continue preparations for the broadcast.

At stage left is the broadcast equipment set up. This is where Hudson and Scheuzger, along with engineer Noah Smith, spend their time. Entrenched behind a Yamaha PM1D, they mix the audio for the radio feed, and they handle the monitor mix for Keillor and the band. Front-of-house mixer Tony Axtell handles the monitor mix for the rest of the performers.

– continued on page 2

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Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Dec 1, 2011 1:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

A look backstage at one of America’s most-loved radio programs

With the broadcast mix engineers sitting on stage – right next to the production – much of the broadcast mix is prepared while listening to headphones. There are monitors over the console, but they can’t be turned up too loud during the show. Some monitoring and mixing is handled on the speakers, mainly so Hudson and Scheuzger can save their hearing from non-stop headphone use. But their experience also comes into play to create the broadcast mix. The broadcast engineers have been involved in the production long enough to have a good feel about where to set levels.

However, headphones do have one advantage: They are a consistent point of reference. When the production takes to the road, the listening/mixing environment changes. In these cases, the headphones provide a known listening environment.

Final preparations are made before the doors are opened and the audience enters.

There is a sound booth in the back of the hall, and for years, the broadcast mix was created in this booth. While this provided a more ideal mixing environment, it restricted communication between Keillor, who makes changes as needed on the fly, and the broadcast feed. The broadcast mix position was moved to the stage for one production because of some specific set up need, and it has stayed there ever since.

During the rehearsal, I watched an ongoing stream of program revisions come through. There’s a printer in the racks behind the broadcast mix, and production assistants have temporary setups on stage right during rehearsal to accommodate the regular changes. The fine-tuning goes on continuously.

The crew rehearses on Friday to run through the material for the Saturday night broadcast. Those segments are not in order of the final show, but they provide the technical crew a chance to hear segments and set preliminary mixer scenes. After this run-through, scripts are edited and tweaked for the rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, and a rough program order is created. But even during the Saturday rehearsal, the scripts are tweaked up to (and even sometimes during) show time.

Sound effects man Tom Keith at work.

The final broadcast program order is set about an hour before air time. And while the order is set, it’s not easy to know how a live audience will react. Also, the pace of a scripted piece may go faster for the live audience. Sometimes elements are cut, sometimes elements are added back in. The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band has a song or two at the ready if needed. For the broadcast I attended, the show’s musical guest, Nick Lowe, had four songs prepared, three of which were sure to be on the program. The fourth was a standby if it was needed. Lowe ended up playing all four songs.

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Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Dec 1, 2011 1:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

A look backstage at one of America’s most-loved radio programs

The entire production uses 40 to 84 mics at any given show. The mixing console has 96 inputs, so there is a limit to how many audio feeds can be taken. In addition to the mics to capture the performers, there are also audience mics to pick up the applause and laughter, which complete the aural canvas of the broadcast production. All the audio sources are split between the two Yamaha consoles (one for broadcast, one for house).

Performers on stage have open monitors and headphones. In-ear monitors were considered, but Keillor often talks to performers directly, and pulling out an in-ear monitor was not practical. The headphones are fed from final stereo broadcast mix. There is no IFB in the monitor. The broadcast mix also feeds some speakers on stage that are provided for the audience seats behind the performers.

The broadcast begins at 5 p.m. CT. About 15 minutes before show time, the band takes the stage and begins to play. Minutes before show time, Keillor comes out and says a few words. The audience listens and waits for the top of the hour. The organized chaos of the past two days comes together and the broadcast begins.

The Guy”s All-Star Shoe Band provides the music for the broadcast. (� 2011 Prairie Home Productions)

The live broadcast is recorded in multitrack to Protools, and there is also a stereo mix recorded as a backup. There are also two DVD recorders running; one gets the show with all the intros and credits, the other is clean without the intros. A CD player provides the show’s intros and credits for playback.

During the broadcast, the stereo broadcast mix is sent across the street to the studios of Minnesota Public Radio via an equalized copper pair. From there, the program is satellite uplinked from MPR for distribution. As a backup, an ISDN feed also carries the program via a Worldcast APT Eclipse codec. These codecs are also used when the show is broadcast from other locations. In the still rare situations when ISDN is not available, a C-band satellite uplink truck will be used.

After 37 years, “A Prairie Home Companion” recalls the days of the classic radio variety show, but takes advantage of modern tools to create a unique listening experience. Classic radio lives on from its regular home in St. Paul, MN.

– continued on page 4

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Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Dec 1, 2011 1:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

A look backstage at one of America’s most-loved radio programs

Equipment List

Some of the equipment used in the production of “A Prairie Home Companion”
? Audio-Technica AT4031, U855
? Crane Song STC-8
? Lexicon MPX 500
? Mackie SRM150
? Neumann KM184
? Shure KSM32, KSM9, SM57, SM58, SM86
? Tascam CD-O1U
? Tascam DV-RA1000
? TC Electronic M3000
? Worldcast APT Eclipse
? Yamaha PM1D

About the Fitzgerald Theater

Built in 1910, the Fitzgerald Theater holds the claim of being Saint Paul”s oldest surviving theater space. It was originally called the Sam S. Shubert Theater to honor the brother of entertainment-industry leader Lee and J. J. Shubert. It was patterned after the Maxine Elliot Theater in New York.

The first production staged at the theater �The Fourth Estate,� a Joseph Medill Patterson and Harriet Ford play about a reporter working for a major metropolitan newspaper who found himself in court fighting the influence of powerful advertisers. Opening night was Aug. 29, 1910. The theater was also extensively used to produce vaudeville productions.

When the theater opened, author F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in St. Paul and was about to celebrate his 14th birthday. Fitzgerald would later write �The Great Gatsby.�

Over time, the theater evolved with the times. In 1933 it was renovated to be a movie theater and renamed the World Theater. In 1981, Garrison Keillor brought �A Prairie Home Companion� to the World Theater. Keillor led the charge to rename the theater in honor of St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald.

– more photos on page 5

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Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion

Dec 1, 2011 1:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

A look backstage at one of America’s most-loved radio programs

Looking out to the audience during the broadcast.

Tony Axtell handling the house sound in the balcony.

The broadcast mix console is on stage with a clear view of the performance.

December 2011

Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion, a look at Ethernet-based audio routing systems, details of MPLS networks, and Field Reports on the Orban Optimod-FM 8600 and Harris PR&E Netwave….

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