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He has become public radio's No. 1 fund-raiser, the hero of a growing national cult, and he single-handedly made this little town (pronounced ''woebegone'') and its ''residents'' famous.

Yet Garrison Keillor spends a disproportionate amount of his time trying to avoid the limelight and trying to convince people that he is only having fun.

The 39-year-old Minnesotan hosts National Public Radio's increasingly popular ''A Prairie Home Companion.'' Athenaeum has just released a collection of his humorous New Yorker and Atlantic pieces entitled ''Happy to Be Here.'' Can the cover of People be far behind?

Not if Keillor can help it.

After all, he is also the man who composed the stirring ''shy rights'' manifesto to President Carter (''It is clear to me that if we don't get some action on this, it could be a darned quiet summer. . . . Whatever you decide will be OK by me'') and then in typical ''shy person'' fashion, didn't mail it. He also steadfastly declines to speculate that there is any significance to ''A Prairie Home Companion'': It is just two hours of fun.

In fact, when he brought the show to the East for the first time last fall, Keillor chided reporters for ''wanting to know a demographic profile of the audience and whether the show represents a search for the simple verities of the past.'' He good-naturedly twitted the press for ''taking too many humanities courses in college.''

With all due respect for Mr. Keillor's rights as a shy person, if someone can make people of all ages, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, switch off the TV for two hours and huddle around the radio for a celebration of small-town life and courtesy toward others, it's. . . . well, nothing to be shy about. It's news.

''A Prairie Home Companion'' is produced by Minnesota Public Radio's National Program Service and airs live each Saturday night on most National Public Radio member stations. In 1980 it won broadcasting's most distinguished award, the George Foster Peabody Award, but even its fans admit it is an unlikely candidate for success in the slick, video-oriented '80s.


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