Abrams is routinely called a legend in the music industry. Though popular music is a business that hands out such accolades with regularity, there is truth to the statement. As a Chicago wunderkind, Abrams did his own street-corner research for top-forty AM radio stations in the 1960s, but found himself drawn to the harder rock of underground FM radio. He loved the music, but despised the hipper-than-thou elitism of the FM disc jockeys. So in 1971, just a year out of high school, he combined research and psychographics with his knowledge of album cuts (not singles!) and invented the album-oriented rock format for FM. Mandatory playlists superseded deejays’ whims, a massive cultural shift followed which finished off Top 40 radio and produced a financial windfall for all who followed him. At one point, Abrams and his partner Kent Burkhart programmed more than 125 separate U.S. radio stations.
In Marc Fisher’s lively history of post-World War II radio, Something in the Air, he describes Abrams’s youthful achievement in the strongest terms: “Lee Abrams was not old enough to drink or vote, but he was well on his way toward reinventing radio and restructuring pop culture.”
Three decades later, radio had survived MTV, and had devolved into a formulaic but still profitable business—and a creative wasteland. Abrams, blamed by critics for ruining FM radio by straitjacketing deejays with research, looked up and saw the future. In 1998, he signed on to became the first employee of XM Satellite Radio, overseeing programming for more than 150 pay “channels” and convincing Bob Dylan to host the wonderful Theme Time Radio Hour. Abrams had a hand in reinventing radio once again: now it was satellite versus terrestrial, with XM setting off a creative efflorescence. Abrams brought in Willie Nelson and Tom Petty to run their own shows, added eleven national news channels, twice as many all-talk channels, and three times as many sports channels. “The first couple of years at XM were just magical,” he says, noting that he stepped off in March as XM was about to merge with its competitor Sirius in order to cut overhead and boost profits.
In the course of creating XM, Abrams kept employee headcount to a barebones minimum, running a channel with one or two staffers instead of ten. The reason was competitive pressure. He tells me he met with executives from Google and Yahoo and other Internet titans and says, “They are in a warlike stance. They want to put everybody out of business.” Thus, he maintains that he was surprised at the lack of urgency he found at newspapers during these challenging times. “For me it’s like, ‘Let’s fight back and reclaim that turf.’ But we gotta use modern day weapons and not World War I weaponry.”
Enter his old friend, Randy Michaels, a radio man since his college days at SUNY-Buffalo. Michaels worked for Sam Zell as early as 1993, and by the time Zell promoted him from vice president and chief executive officer of Tribune’s interactive and broadcast divisions to be his corporate chief operating officer, Abrams had become Tribune’s secret weapon. Michaels and Abrams are close and understand each other deeply, says Abrams, though both men are admittedly strangers to print.
Marc Fisher explains how newspaper people would have a hard time translating a radio genius like Abrams. “Lee is a quintessential radio guy, which means he is something of a fan,” says Fisher, who is also a columnist and blogger at The Washington Post. “He has extraordinary enthusiasm and is accustomed to motivating deejays and salespeople into making their short moments on the air something distinctive and alluring. And radio is really a sales business. The advertising and the programming are entirely intermeshed. There is no church-state divide as we know in newspapers, so he is a cheerleader and a visionary. And what generations of radio people have taken as pearls of wisdom appear to be almost illiterate ravings to people in a newsroom. Lee writes and speaks in all caps with lots of ellipses and lots of slogans and what the radio world calls ‘liners,’ which are the brief mottos and sayings which make a radio show.”