Monday, March 17, 2008

Innovator, Lee Abrams, rethinking Tribune ways

March 16, 2008

'So much TV news seems stuck in 1974. It's almost a parody of itself sometimes," Lee Abrams said Friday. "You just want to roll your eyes."

Come next month, Abrams takes on the newly created title of chief innovation officer at Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. and takes on conventional thinking at WGN-Ch. 9 and 22 other TV stations, along with the company's newspapers, WGN-AM 720 and sundry other media properties.

"At least go through the exercise of rethinking it a little bit," said Abrams, who has been chief creative officer for XM Satellite Radio since its launch in 1998. "There's a consultant-driven TV news play book that all the stations [use]. It's almost as if [consultant] Frank Magid has hypnotized every news director in the country.

"It's sort of like radio. One of the reason music radio is so bad in most people's opinion is it's gotten so overresearched and overconsulted … to the point where it's unlistenable."

That Abrams, 55, has come to this conclusion is a prime example of the kind of rethinking he wants.

Abrams, you see, was one of the founding fathers of radio research and for years among the industry's most influential. He was among the first to compile volumes of audience research, tailoring formats and playlists to suit them.

He gets widely credited with developing FM's album-oriented rock format.

He gets widely blamed for stifling free-form progressive rock on FM.

More than 300 stations took their cues from him before he walked away from the consulting business.

"I'm making amends for it with XM," he said. "Back then, when I started, what radio needed was discipline. It was all over the place, and we disciplined it. And now, or 10 years ago, we needed to unwind that discipline."

There has been considerable speculation over where at Tribune Co. his impact will be first felt.

Although Abrams gave both Steve Dahl and Howard Stern their first major-market radio jobs, Dahl and former partner Garry Meier aren't getting reunited on Tribune's WGN-AM any time soon.

Meier has reached out to Abrams about potential work. But Dahl, heard mornings on WJMK-FM 104.3, is under contract to CBS Radio for another 40 months.

Like pal Randy Michaels, Tribune Co.'s chief executive of interactive and broadcasting, Abrams looks to use the company's six smaller papers as a lab. Successful experiments will be shared with the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and New York's Newsday.

"Can't do anything too radical right away," said Abrams, a White Sox fan who grew up in Flossmoor.

When he was starting at the pay-radio service XM, he had his staff come to his home with artifacts of their old radio stations, such as memos and T-shirts, which he doused with kerosene out back and torched as a "symbol of how the world is changing."

Abrams, who was one of the architects of Dahl's Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park, does not yet have plans to blow anything up at Tribune Co.

Not literally, anyway.

But, like everything else, that could change.

Paper cuts: Business columnist Bill Barnhart, real estate columnist Mary Umberger, City Hall reporter Gary Washburn, travel writer Alan Solomon and basketball expert Sam Smith are among 25 veteran Chicago Tribune writers and editors to take voluntary buyouts, costing the newsroom centuries of experience but sparing it further layoffs in this round of cutbacks.

The exits are part of a plan announced in February to eliminate about 100 jobs throughout the paper, or about 3.5 percent of its overall workforce, as parent Tribune Co. responds to revenue declines by shedding at least 400 or 500 positions by the end of this month.


I'm a big fan of innovation, particularly if it creates jobs and helps me keep mine. Sadly, most "innovative" ideas in our industry are designed to do just the opposite. All the great minds are hard at work trying to figure out how to put out a paper, make a TV show, and broadcast radio programs with less, or without, people.

Innovation needs to focus on content, content, content! We need more and better writers, producers, and technical craftspeople with more creative freedom along with more and larger production budgets if we are to develop quality products that folks will want to read, hear, and see. Tribune has an amazing number of extraordinarily talented employees.

Unfortunately, the prevailing anti-union, anti-labor philosophy of our past, and present, leadership makes progress problematic.

If only Mr. Zell and company would embrace the concept that "we're all bozos on the same bus" we could marshal the significant brain power and creative potential that exists throughout the Tribune organization and do great things.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"It's almost as if [consultant] Frank Magid has hypnotized every news director in the country."

Comment: I worked at a TV station that had Magid Associates come in and redo our news. It was supposed to boost our ratings.

They sold us the "Action News" package & format, with pre-fab music, sets, this stupid "Thumbs Up" closer, etc.

In other words, they sold us "McNews". Most local stations have a Magid footprint somewhere.

We called them "Maggot Associates."