Lee Abrams & The Tribune Co.: Corporate Marriage

by Rick Rockwell

Let’s put the bias out there from the start. Both Lee Abrams and the Tribune Company should be on the list of corporate culprits who have poisoned the media environment. The sordid details will soon follow.

But first, a compliment to each.

Abrams should be credited with creating XM Satellite Radio, which for the most part, delivers radio the way it should be done. There’s plenty of bold experimentation and if XM doesn’t cover a niche you find interesting, just wait five minutes. So thanks, Lee, for that, although it is likely this gift was penance for past sins.

Speaking of radio, the Tribune Company should be credited with starting WGN-AM, a 50,000 watt clear channel powerhouse that was the first radio station to broadcast a World Series game.

However, now, that each has received their Sicilian kiss, time to dig the graves.

This week, Abrams, the long-time radio consultant and executive announced he is leaving XM to work in a new creative role with Tribune, which will have him thinking of strategies and synergies for the company’s various journalistic products.

This tells you how far Tribune has sunk.

First, Abrams has no journalism experience. But being a media executive who believes in focus groups and something called “media psychographics,” he is lauded by some, including The Washington Post, as a genius. So he should be able to fix the Tribune’s journalistic problems in about 15 minutes, right?

For those who haven’t followed Abrams’ career, this is the guy who created Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. Yes, Abrams, with his focus groups, psychographic charts and polling, invented a formula for homogenizing radio. For a time, the ratings and advertising soared. But the homogenization killed the medium’s creativity. Abrams infamously is credited with saying freeform rock radio was like "some guy in a basement in Brooklyn, burning incense and playing whatever he pleased."

While Abrams was wringing the creativity out of FM rock radio, he was also responsible for:

1) Giving Howard Stern one of his first jobs: this alone is one of the major radio pollutants ever.

2) Foisting Steve Dahl, another radio shock jock on Chicago. Dahl’s supposedly funny schtick began forcing music off the airwaves.

3) Dreaming up the infamous Disco Demolition in 1979 between games of a double-header at the old Comiskey Park that caused a riot.

The Post even credits Abrams with pushing progressive rockers Yes in the 1970s and making the band famous. This, of course, is an example of how the winners of the radio wars get to write revisionist history. Those hippie disc jockeys, who Abrams forced off the airwaves after the onslaught of his heavy-handed marketing campaigns, were actually the first ones playing Yes. In the late-1970s, Abrams was pushing formats heavy on Elton John (play him once every six songs). Of course, today, Sir Elton doesn’t need anyone claiming they were responsible for his career. And now that Yes doesn’t get played any longer, they can’t complain about who gets credit for a faded career.

Plus no one is talking about why Abrams is leaving XM: he’s getting out before the XM-Sirius merger fails, implodes, or is denied.

As for Tribune, after growing to huge proportions in the 1990s through newspaper and television acquisitions, the company imploded. Lobbyists for the company have worked Congress and the FCC hard (as reported here in “Media Consolidation: The Bad Referees at the FCC” and “The FCC, Corporate Media & The Tribune Company”) to get the rules on cross-ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market loosened. Two days after the FCC did just that, the company was sold and real estate magnate Sam Zell took over. But after the sale to Zell, Tribune is $13 billion in debt. So Zell has been selling off some of the company’s real estate. He also wants to sell the naming rights to baseball’s hallowed ground, Wrigley Field, which Tribune owns along with the Chicago Cubs. And he wants to sell the Cubbies too.

These two examples of the corporatization of media, Tribune and Abrams, seem like a nice fit for each other: they care nothing for the audience except to reap profits from them. In their multimillion dollar view of the media, they will not understand what destruction they have wrought until the afterlife. If then.

Finally, has anyone told the executives at Tribune that Abrams’ favorite ball team is the dreaded White Sox?

(The photo of Lee Abrams using his blackberry outside a building in Washington, D.C. is by Tobzilla and used with a a GNU Free Documentation License.)

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