By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Ten years ago, Lee Abrams helped revolutionize radio. Now, he's hoping to do the same to journalism.
He will be the chief innovation officer for Tribune, based in his hometown of Chicago, the company said yesterday. In the newly created job, Abrams will attempt to develop strategies and business plans for the company's newspapers, television stations and online properties.
In an interview yesterday, Abrams said he has been thinking about the news industry as analogous to American music in 1955, just before rock-and-roll exploded.
"Over the past couple of years, I've been fascinated with the concept of news and information as being the new rock-and-roll," Abrams said. "There had always been music, but rock-and-roll took it to a whole new level, broke the rules, wrote a whole new playbook."
Abrams, 55, said news and information can undergo a similar revolution with creative leadership. Abrams has a long history as a radio and music innovator but has no experience in journalism. He did not offer any hints yesterday of ideas he has for Tribune's newspaper, television and Internet properties.
Abrams was hired at Tribune by longtime friend and radio veteran Randy Michaels, a former Clear Channel executive, putting two radio lifers near the top of a sprawling media company that owns only one radio station.
In addition to WGN radio, Tribune owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and other papers, as well as 23 television stations, a television studio and the Chicago Cubs. (Abrams is a fan of the Cubs' South Side rivals, the White Sox.) Last year, a boardroom revolt forced the company onto the sales block. Tribune ended up going private in an employee-ownership plan devised by commercial real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who is now Tribune's chief executive and chairman.
"Lee is the most formidable creative thinker in the media business today," Michaels said in a statement.
Tribune is laboring under $13 billion of debt incurred in Zell's takeover plan and battling declining advertising revenue, which is cutting into the cash flow needed to pay down the debt. Zell has been visiting his business units and addressing employees in his blunt, often profane, style.
Abrams, by comparison, is a genial legend in the radio industry, credited with inventing the "album-oriented rock" format on FM. At XM, he dreamed up more than 100 of the music channels. Outsize and spontaneous, he urged deejays and programmers to create a smart, fresh sound for the commercial-free channels and to resist hoary FM tropes, such as "two-for Tuesdays."
Former XM operations manager Dave Logan once said of Abrams: "Lee decides we need to land the plane backwards at Reagan National while the sky turns green. It's my job to make it happen."
As XM matured, Abrams's day-to-day responsibilities changed.
"He's created this beautiful piece of art, which is our programming lineup, and now he's more of a curator, making sure the new people who join the XM family don't mess it up," XM spokesman Chance Patterson said.
Abrams was one of the planners of the notorious Disco Demolition Night between games of a 1979 double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago that resulted in an on-field riot and a White Sox forfeit. He hired Howard Stern to one of his first big jobs and has been instrumental in popularizing a number of rock bands via the FM airwaves. Abrams is largely responsible for introducing British prog-rockers Yes to U.S. audiences.
He also has been blamed for radio's demise, as having been one of the fathers of consultant-generated radio playlists, which critics said created a homogeneity among stations.
XM is awaiting a decision from regulators on a proposed merger with its New York satellite radio rival, Sirius. Abrams said his departure is not related to the pending merger, but he added that his job at XM may not be filled because it would be redundant in a merged XM-Sirius.
Satellite businesses are expensive, especially to start. As such, XM and Sirius have hemorrhaged money on a quarterly basis. For 2007, XM had a net loss of $682 million, compared with $719 million in 2006. Both companies say a merger would help keep satellite radio viable.
XM is the larger of the two companies, with 9 million subscribers. It has more than 170 channels of music, news, sports and talk programming, and charges $12.95 a month to subscribe. The service has four $250 million satellites in geostationary orbit over North America, beaming programming to XM radios. XM is headquartered in the District at the intersection of Florida and New York avenues.
Now it's a $3.5 billion company, but when Abrams and former chief executive Hugh Panero launched the business out of a basement office in Dupont Circle in 1998, all they had was a concept and a list of radio format ideas that Abrams had scrawled on a white board.
"Lee's mark on our medium will be remembered forever, and we are grateful to have had Lee as one of our founding programmers and architect of our programming philosophy," XM programming vice president Eric Logan said in an e-mail to staff members yesterday.