Michael Miner is skeptical about the Tribune‘s new chief innovation officer, Lee Abrams, based on the wild and crazy memo he sent to the company’s staff. And I poked some fun about the idea of news as the new rock. But the more I read the more I think it could be a brilliant hire, and one made at the right time.
His memo might sound bonkers, but he’s very, very smart, having started early as a media-management prodigy. His first audience research was done by exit-polling audience members outside a south-side club after his own band’s gig; while still in his teens, he started a mimeographed radio newsletter, and conducted DIY focus groups by hitchhiking and paying attention to what the drivers listened to.
At 19 he cofounded Burkhart/Abrams, a now-famous consulting group that pioneered the AOR format, in particular the now-infamous “Superstars” subformat. Basically, he took the adventurous musical tastes of underground radio and applied the business principles of the moribund top-40 format (same link as above):
“We were stuck with these underground deejays who thought they knew more than the listeners,” he says. “They were elitists. They wouldn’t play Led Zeppelin because they had already ‘sold out.’ We wanted deejays who were in Top 40 and had that discipline. But these were people who would go home and listen to Pink Floyd and Genesis. They would bring the discipline and the idea of being part of a plan, but they brought more passion than the underground deejays because they were playing Top 40 now, and this was the first time they could play all this cool music and get paid for it. No more Donny Osmond and Bobby Sherman. They were going to get to play Frank Zappa.”
Abrams made his audience research he’d started as a kid infinitely more sophisticated, and the AOR format exploded–his work is why radio sounded like it did from the 1970s through the rise of “urban” (i.e. hip-hop and R&B) stations.
So, yeah, he got passed by culture and ended up in a bit of a professional funk; the last gasp of AOR was pretty much the grunge years. But he rebounded impressively with XM Radio, which has been a considerable success based on similar business principles. It’s got a host of big names and reliable quality, but musically it’s more interesting than anything outside of college radio. Like his first big success, it combines the depth of indie radio with the consistency and professionalism of corporate radio. Reading between the lines, it seems like it was a shot at redemption for the damage he’s been accused of doing to FM (the homogenzation of which Abrams blames on the misuse of techniques he pioneered).
And–this is important–he’s a content guy. Even critics like Ben Fong-Torres, the longtime editor of Rolling Stone (“I blame him for the death of FM free form progressive rock radio, a death which is still mourned by music lovers around the country and probably beyond, wherever people have memories of radio in its finest hour”) acknowledge his encyclopedic knowledge and real love of music. Abrams is one of the prime movers behind Bob Dylan’s wonderful Theme Time Radio Hour, which is a good sign.
Given all this, it makes sense that Abrams would leave XM for the Tribune Company. Presuming to put myself in his head, I’d be willing to bet he sees the state of news and information as being similar to radio in the late 60s. Newspapers, TV, and news radio are spinning their wheels for a restless audience, and meanwhile there’s a tremendous amount of talent on the Internet that editors and executives (hello, Cyrus Freidheim) claim to fear. Abrams built his career mainstreaming and monetizing that kind of talent. The Tribune needs to keep playing to a mass audience while leveraging such talent, and he’s got a good resume for that.
Plus, at XM he seems to have learned the importance of good technology and the benefits of an audience with deeper, more specific tastes–a sort of mainstreamed long tail. TribCo has a ton of resources that they’ve never been able to integrate very well, and some of the same principles might give them more value from their existing resources.
His cultural touchstones are straight boomer culture, kind of like Sam Zell’s, and the Tribune could stand to be a little less focused on that group if it’s going to keep up with demographic change (the real growth in the radio industry of late has been in Latino-oriented stations) and compete with the Sun-Times in the city. But if the principles trickle down to the staff–and maybe if the staff gets younger–they’d still be just as effective in different contexts. R0XX0R. By the way, you can read Abrams’s blog here.