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.”
But Fisher insists, and it appears to be true, that Abrams harbors a great deal of respect for institutions that have greater depth than radio. “Newspapers are one of the last places for smart people,” says Abrams. “I just want to bust the myth that change means dumbing it down.” Downsized staffs, reduced budgets, and shrinking newsholes, Abrams says, are things the industry must learn to work with. “Doing more with important stories at the expense of marginally interesting ones” is one way to address it, he says. “Like TV, where there’s limited time and you need to hit the hot button, story after story, the new reality of newspapers is limited space.”
Fisher predicts that Abrams’s first response will be “to lard on a whole bunch of showbiz. He definitely believes in sizzle, but he also believes in steak. The problem is he has never worked in a field where there is so much steak. In radio, the news department is usually one guy and virtually all of the content in radio news is repurposed, which is a polite way of saying ripped off, and the idea that you would have this enormous infrastructure doing newsgathering is fairly alien.”
And yet, Fisher believes that Abrams possesses a savant’s talent for connecting content to consumers. The radio man’s preternatural confidence comes from decades of hearing from all sides that he is a revolutionary. “He has all sorts of theories,” says Fisher, who, in the course of researching his book, read hundreds of pages of Abrams’s XM strategy memos. “They tend to be fairly abstract, and they tend to be off-the-cuff, and he tends to write them on napkins. So for him to make the transition from the very small world of radio—where a station is run by a handful of people—into massive metropolitan newsrooms, which have lots of specialties, is an almost unfathomable leap.”
In the Time of the Buyout
The lunatic is in the hall. The lunatics are in my hall. The paper holds their folded faces to the floor And every day the paper boy brings more. — Pink Floyd, “Brain Damage” Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
There is fear and anger in the Tribune Company’s newsrooms. I spoke to a half dozen reporters and editors, but only one agreed to go on the record. The possibility of reprisals from management or fellow journalists has silenced normally voluble media types. So they snicker over parodies of Abrams’s memos and point me toward Web sites like tellzell.com, which collects dispatches from Tribune Company trenches. Longtime employees fret that if they say something negative, their severance may be affected; if they say something positive—and there was plenty of anonymous praise for Abrams—they may be perceived as suck-ups.