Thursday, March 13, 2008

LA TIMES COMPANY HIRES MAN WHO RUINED FM RADIO: Tribune desparate

"Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times announced that it had hired radio veteran Lee Abrams as its first ever chief innovation officer 'responsible for innovation across Tribune's publishing, broadcasting and interactive divisions," wrote LAT reporter Thomas Mulligan in a story buried on C3 Wednesday.

One presumes the hidden-away-at-the-bottom-of-the-business-section location came out of pure embarrassment.

Having been a music journalist and rock musician for decades, it's fair to say Lee Abrams is not a name that comes to mind when one thinks of growth, openness to ideas and innovation. Abrams is known as the originator of the Album Oriented Rock format on FM radio, a development which effectively led to the fossilization of commecial airwaves. The followers of Abrams froze playlists in favor of only artists that focus groups and market studies had identified as those listeners were allegedly comfortable with. Read another way, that meant only classic rock oldies then and forever.

In critic Robert Christgau's Rock Albums of the Seventies: A Critical Guide, Abrams is dismissed as someone "who was to the 70's what Mitch Miller was to the 50's."

From this writer's standpoint, the Abrams way of FM radio, one which crushed airplay for anyone not extremely well-connected and/or overwhelmingly popular, directly contributed to the creation and rise of the independent rock music world. It was, in a manner of speaking, Abrams' anti-innovations at FM radio which led to actual innovators during their own thing in the indie world.

Deep within the story, the Times reported Abrams' musings about what newspapers need. A slogan, taken from an Eagles lyric, as it turns out.

"Maybe a slogan that's not hokey marketing speak or typical could help define the Web strategy," Abrams said. A slogan such as "Everything ... All The Time might give a newspaper some character ..."

Not included in the story was the info that it also worked for the Eagles, being one of the central lyrics of "Life in the Fast Lane," from where Abrams assuredly lifted it. "Fast Lane" is probably the single most recognizable song chronicle of the life of the rich and famous rock star in southern California in the Seventies. (Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," written around the same time, also comes to mind.) But "everything all the time" was in 1976 -- not 2008. How annoying.

"Lee Abrams, [was one] of many consultants hired in the 1970s by managers who lacked the confidence to program their own stations," reported the Hartford Courant in April 2007. "Abrams, a devotee of audience research, shielded listeners from songs that didn't 'test well,' which helped squeeze the life from free-form FM."

Abrams, reported another newspaper, "spawned a generation of [audience consultants], able to sort the universe of radio consumers ever more precisely by age, gender, ethnicity, income, spending habits and music preferences. These categorical types amounted to advertising targets."

"Lamentations about the state of commercial radio have become so standard over the last few decades that they have achieved something of the rote tedium the critics ascribe to the medium itself: how radio consultants -- led by [Lee Abrams], creator of the album-oriented rock and classic rock formats -- have taught station programmers to slice and dice their playlists to appeal more precisely to specific demographics; how more and more stations have come to play fewer and fewer songs," reported the New York Times in an article entitled "One Way to Get Radio Play: Do It Yourself," published in 2006.

Paradoxically, Abrams was hired by XM satellite radio supposedly because the formats and trends he popularized at FM had resulted in playlists with no innovation or variety.

Additionally, Abrams was apparently about to be drummed out of XM, which will be run by its archrival, Sirius satellite radio, if a pending merger of the two companies, now under anti-trust review by the Federal Communications Commission, is approved.

Today, an Abrams essay to Tribune was published around the web.

"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," wrote Abrams to his new business partners. "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."

"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," Abrams continues further in.

Cue the part in "Fast Times at Ridgmont High" where Mr. Hand says, "Are you on dope?"

If one takes seriously public opinion polls which address the regard in which various professions are held, journalists have not been trending toward new rock star status. The new lice, maybe.

Abrams concludes by recommending Tribune people read a long list of bromides, sayings and aphorisms attributed to citizens ranging from John Stewart Mill to Pablo Picasso.

Seeing this happen to the Los Angeles Times is like watching an old friend go crazy. First they were only muttering to themselves. Now they're seeing things that aren't there.

One purses the lips and wonders, "Isn't there any way to get them the help they need?" Would an intervention work? A 2x4 upside the head? Quaaludes, groupies, narcotics and booze?

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