Lee Abrams

From Radio Wasteland To the New Frontier

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Monday, June 18, 2007

It was nine years ago this month that I arrived in Washington to join XM, fresh off a 16-hour drive from Dallas and inspired by the incredible lack of imagination on the plethora of radio stations I listened to on the ride.

In fact, I ended up listening to AM 1590-type local stations more than anything, as at least they were somewhat interesting, even though the signals lasted for about 12 miles. Then it was over to old tapes for inspiration. Things like Arthur Godfrey, Daddy-O-Dailey, Alan Freed and Bob and Ray from the '50s; KFWB, WQAM, Radio London (Big L), CHUM, WLS, WCFL, KLAC, WVON, WWRL, WABC, KJR and WKNR from the '60s; Y-100, WDAF, LOOP, WMMS, KMET, WBCN, WEBN and WBLS from the '70s and pretty much nothing from the '80s or '90s (other than some cool Australian, Japanese and Euro stations) because you could already hear most of that -- and it wasn't very inspired anyway. It was '80s and '90s style radio we were out to change.

There was a feeling of sadness and anger at how pathetic the newly consolidated terrestrial radio business had become -- tempered with a feeling of responsibility to do something about it and a sense of "don't screw this up, Lee."

I was blessed with an opportunity to help change the sound of radio.

I think XM has changed the sound of radio, or at least has gotten more people thinking of new ways to deliver it. Even the denial-driven big terrestrial groups are starting to talk about "reinventing" themselves, bringing creativity back into the equation. There are even some stations trying to make a difference. I credit the people here at XM, who had the guts to actually do it. It takes time, but it is very rewarding for all.

Upon arriving at the Westin Hotel on 24th Street, I immediately checked in with CEO Hugh Panero across the street at the ANA Hotel. Hugh got there a day or two earlier. We hung out in his room and watched the Chicago Bulls win, both kind of exhausted from the trip but pregnant with promise and anticipation of this incredible new idea.

The next morning I checked in at our temporary office with WorldSpace, a satellite company focusing on overseas. I had no office because some lady promenading as the Princess of Zamunda conned WorldSpace into thinking she was royalty. During the interim before she was discovered and busted, I camped out in an unused conference room.

Every night Hugh and I, both solo, would go to a nice restaurant to bond and brainstorm -- the classic notes-on-a-napkin thing. We tipped heavily to counteract the guilt of ruining napkins and tablecloths with plans.

Armed with a license, ideas and some start-up money, we were off to the races. The conversations were great. One night at Marcel's, we pondered what-ifs like: Bob Dylan doing a radio show . . . baseball in digital sound . . . a channel that played nothing but "earth sounds" (waves, crickets and storms) and on and on. Some ideas we did. Others sounded good at the time but were too whacked or simply not realistic. Others are still on legal pads in the archives.

We talked about liberating American ears, about rethinking an omnipresent but tired medium, the enormous challenge of starting with no radios vs. 500 million FM radios and getting people to pay for the service. Over a bottle of $7 French water, it was clear that people will pay -- for quality.

There are so many stories abut the early XM. Those were magical times. I miss the free-form creativity. I miss the selling of this new medium and the pressure to create new attitudes, a language and ways of doing things. To balance history with a new blueprint, on the streets and over the air -- quickly, efficiently and thoroughly.

Lee Abrams, a veteran of radio for more than 30 years, is the chief creative officer at XM Satellite Radio in Washington. This commentary was adapted from a recent entry on his blog, which can be found athttp://leeabrams.blogspot.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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