Tuesday, March 11, 2008

.A memo from Lee Abrams, the newly appointed "innovation officer" of the Tribune Company

A memo from Lee Abrams, the newly appointed "innovation officer" of the Tribune Company: "News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll."

He soon asserts: "On a very personal level, it is important to me that I help Tribune fight 'junk culture'. Smart re-invention that enlightens. Websites can be Disneyland for the mind; TV stations (especially news) can put the Kent Brockman cliché to rest and create a visual experience that intoxicates with brilliance and freshness; And Newspapers! We owe it to our culture to make sure they thrive...We can make America smarter. Not more elite . . . just smarter."

Reading this in context doesn't help, but here's the entire memo:

Please forgive this rambling introduction letter, but I am ecstatic with no-bullshit excitement and pride in joining The Tribune Company.

While my background is in steeped in "Rock n Roll", I strongly believe that News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll. Imagine it's 1952. Music has existed for centuries and part of the fabric of our culture. While music was a hotbed of activity in the Black community, in mainstream America we were in a blasé era of Mitch Miller and Patty Page. Then-Rock n Roll! It had a street level connection to the Post War American Spirit.

Tapped into the pulse of the American way of thinking. It was based on: imagination, looking FORWARD, respecting but not praying to the musical playbook, moved fast...met the rhythm of America, worked at innovating-it was a mission to come up with the next cool thing, revolutionized the 'look' of people, etc... Now fast forward to 2008, News and Information has been around since the dawn of Man, but it's a lot like where music was in 1952: Poised for a dynamic breakthrough that re-invest the media. The NEW Rock n Roll isn't about Elvis or James Dean, but it IS about re-inventing media with the exact same moxie that the fathers of Rock n Roll had.

The Tribune has the choice of doing to News/Information/Entertainment what Rock n Roll did to music...to be the Ray Charles, Dylan's, Beatles and U2's of the Information age...or have someone else figure it out, or worse, let these American institutions disappear into irrelevancy. I think Rock n Roll is the best choice. America needs a heartbeat, and we can deliver that on 21st Century terms. Rock n Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL

One thing that drives me nuts is Pop Culture's evil cousin that I call Junk Culture. Terrorists don't scare me...a dumb America is frightening. On a very personal level, it is important to me that I help Tribune fight 'junk culture'. Smart re-invention that enlightens. Websites can be Disneyland for the mind; TV stations (especially news) can put the Kent Brockman cliché to rest and create a visual experience that intoxicates with brilliance and freshness; And Newspapers! We owe it to our culture to make sure they thrive...We can make America smarter. Not more elite...just smarter.

I realize I have a history in radio, but that's behind me, nonetheless there's a great radio analogy. In 1954 Radio was proclaimed dead. In fact, you can take stories from back then about radio's death and substitute the word newspaper and you have 99% of the articles written today suggesting Newspapers impending death. Well, a couple of guys threw out the Arthur Godfrey play book invented Top 40 Radio.

Guess what. Radio went into a NEW golden age...bigger than ever...the soundtrack of the streets. TV? It got bigger and bigger. My point: Yes, the Internet is huge competition, but there's NO reason we can't create the equivalent of Top 40...Not a hyper teen thing. But something that has the same dramatic impact across all demographics and lifestyles. It's doable.

Soul. I hope I can bring that out in us. Soul is something that big companies rarely have. And having it not only improvers the spirit, but it's a competitive advantage. Most media companies are soul-less. If we have Soul, we have a dramatic intangible advantage. Historically, the great companies had Soul. In the modern era, they do not. You know the ones that do. Those companies have FANS not just users.

Art. How unfashionable in today's bottom line World. But we need to be artists. Media Artists. A great artist delivers something that lasts and touches people. If we approach EVERYTHING from mail delivery in the building to breaking stories with an artist Point of View, we will create lasting change. Artists create Quality. Quality lasts. Art enriches lives. We can/will re-define the art of brilliant media.

The economics. I am an economic dunce. My old company would give me free vacation days during budget season so I'd stay out of the process. I know the "buzz" is cutbacks, fear, paranoia etc...Hey---that's part of the reality for survival. But I hope to encourage revenue growth in a different way. Simply put-If Tribune properties turn users into fans and we make intelligent moves to significantly (and dramatically) increase circulation and viewership, the revenue WILL skyrocket. That I know.

But I've also witnessed creative people being beaten up by the financial realities to the point where it's taken their eye off the future and are operating under fear and nostalgia. How about channeling the fear into writing the future. Everyone will win...emotionally, creatively and economically.

Speaking of intelligent moves, that's what change is all about. Intelligent.

Whoever buys Wrigley Field would be foolish to tear down the Ivy...There's Ivy at Tribune media properties. But then again, there's opportunity. For all of you Baseball historians, we need some Bill Veeck magic (Check the archives) in the Company. He's the guy that put up the Ivy in the first place...and created thousands of innovations that helped take "Baseball is dead. its an NFL World" to record attendance. Eccentric All The Way to the Bank.

If we can morph the Soul of Dylan...with the innovation of Apple and the eccentric-all-the-way-to-the-bank of Bill Veeck, the WORLD will be a better place. WE have that opportunity.

PASSION, CHARACTER AND MUSCLE: Passion is just that. Like Soul and Art-intangibles that Joe Media Executive doesn't "get", but are secret weapons in the mission of enlightening people with our content. Character is the need to LIVE outside the envelope (cliché-sorry). And Muscle is what we have. This company is bad ass big -- channeled right, that muscle can change the world!

Creative Batting Average. I hope to bat 400. That's where of every 100 ideas I feed you, 40 are usable. But MORE importantly, I hope to raise YOUR creative batting average, with the goal being a COMPANY batting average that is SO far above the competition, that the Tribune is THE Media All Star that is admired, loved and deeply respected, not for it's history, but for the effects the high batting average has on Today's fan, advertiser and the American street.

Average sucks. Best to be brilliantly good, or SO bad, it's engaging. It's that evil zone of average that American Media is stuck in. WE MUST not accept average. Fight it! It's gotten to be accepted that average is fine. No it's not...it sucks!

Theater of the Mind. We have to play there. We gotta deliver the magic that gets in people's heads. As a kid I'd have dreams about comic characters that I'd read in the Tribune. We need to have such an impact on the imagination that people dream about us. Sounds spacey and obscure? It is. But once we impact the theater of the mind that lives in everyone's head, with Internet, Print and TV...we have touched people on a level that they need and want to be touched...but outside of a Star Wars epic, media hasn't done in years.

I'm looking forward to meeting and bonding with everyone in the Company. Personally, this isn't a gig...it's a MISSION. And being based in Chicago is nice as my off duty passions include Chicago History, Lifelong White Sox Super fan (I guess I'm OK there since I understand Mr. Zell owns a piece), ephemera (I love print) and aviating! I grew up in suburban Flossmoor. I know we're a global company, but my love for Chicago is life long.

If you have a chance, check my blog. http://leeabrams.blogspot.com Read all 108 posts. It's generally aimless ranting about what is wrong with media. On April 1, I will cease writing it since now I'll have the chance to actually help do something about it!

I REALLY look forward to April 1. I think you'll find me a little out there...but for the right reasons! I have complete empathy for what everyone does...and a burning desire to help you/me/us Change the World and design the future. We can/will do that! (And have some fun along the way)

--Lee Abrams

Lee Abrams, the creative heart and soul of XM Satellite Radio since its 1998 founding in Washington, is leaving to help retool the Tribune Co.

By Frank Ahrens

The Washington Post

Abrams, 55, will be the chief innovation officer for Tribune, based in his hometown of Chicago, the company said today. In the newly created job, Abrams will attempt to create new media strategies and business plans for the company's newspapers, television stations and online properties, Tribune said.

"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 in an interview today. "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 said he believes that the venerable news industry can undergo a similar revolution with creative leadership. Abrams has a long history as a radio innovator, but no experience in journalism.

In addition to the Chicago Tribune, the company owns the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and other papers, as well as 23 television stations, a radio station and the Chicago Cubs. Last year, a boardroom revolt forced the company on 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.

Tribune is struggling under $13 billion of debt incurred in Zell's takeover plan and battling declining circulation at its newspapers and in advertising revenue, which is cutting into the cash flow needed to pay down the debt.

Abrams is a legend in the radio industry, credited with inventing the "album-oriented rock" format on FM. He was one of the planners of the notorious "Disco Demolition Night" between games of a 1979 doubleheader involving the White Sox and Detroit Tigers at Chicago's Comisky Park that resulted in an on-field riot and a White Sox forfeit.

Abrams also has been blamed for radio's demise as one of the fathers of consultant-generated playlists, which critics say homogenized stations across the country.

XM is awaiting regulatory approval for a merger with its satellite radio rival, New York's Sirius. Abrams said his departure was not related to the pending merger, but added that his job at XM may not be filled because it may be redundant in a merged XM-Sirius.

Abrams was hired at Tribune by longtime friend and radio veteran Randy Michaels, Zell's deputy.

Below is the Bio Lee posted on his personal blog: http://leeabrams.blogspot.com/

About Me

Lee Abrams has shaped the American radio industry for over three decades, bringing unparalleled ratings and economic success to radio stations in over 200 markets, including 97 of the top 100.

In 1993, Newsweek listed Abrams as one of America’s “100 Cultural Elite” for his contributions to creating modern day radio. Abrams joined XM in June 1998 to help create the next generation of radio: satellite direct radio.

With 150 stations to develop and program, Abrams is once again challenged to reinvigorate the radio landscape. As a founding partner of Burkhart/Abrams, he invented and built the first successful FM format, Album Rock. In 1989, Abrams joined ABC Networks as an internal consultant and was instrumental in the launch of many top Morning Radio shows, including Howard Stern.

Abrams produced the Grammy-winning CD Ah Via Musicom by Eric Johnson, appeared on several Alan Parsons Project CDs, and worked with major labels and recording artists as a consultant and label head. His clients include industry leaders such as The Moody Blues, Yes, Steve Winwood, Iron Maiden, Bob Seger and Robert Palmer.

Abrams and his wife reside in Washington, D.C., and have two children in college.

By the way, visit his Blog, he has some useful insights to share, worth the read.


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