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In Defense (Kinda) of Lee Abrams

Posted Oct 13 2010 2:03pm

If you’ve ever been in the radio business at a level above that of morning show host at a 500kw daytime AM in Big Arm, Montana, you recognize the name “.”  He’s the dude who first created, then destroyed ; going on to create and then watch impotently as the suits destroyed Satellite radio.

When the neutered XM joined forces with their arch enemy Sirius, Lee was shown the door.  He landed as chief innovation officer at in his hometown of Chicago.

He’s been canned.  Well, actually, indefinitely suspended without pay.  A step away from “canned.”

I love the man.  I really do.  When he was the head of music programming at XM, he had the final word on hiring.  I was one of his final hires running the Broadway channel from 2001 until 2003.  In those heady days before the tech bubble burst and 9/11 ruined everything for everyone, I don’t know of a single person working at XM who wouldn’t have done anything (within limits, of course) that Lee asked him to.  He held great meetings we called them “XM Boot Camps” where we learned the new way of doing radio, meaning the old way, meaning the way it was done before Lee Abrams ruined it before he recreated it.  Each channel at XM would have a personality of its own.  It would be run by a programmer who knew the music, who would instill life into the channel, and who would do so with only minimal interference from management.

With his assistant (at the time) and a wildly creative staff of program directors, music directors, and producers (we called them “audio animators”), XM was a place where you didn’t just HEAR the music.  You could FEEL it.  You could SENSE it.  You could almost SMELL it.  Lee always used to talk about the feeling of driving down the road in a convertible at 90 mph with the radio blasting… that’s the feeling he wanted from his rock channels.  He wanted his country channels to have the smell of stale beer and peanuts.  He wanted his classical music stations to be sophisticated without being snotty.  And he wanted his on-air talents to be talented not liner card readers.  I felt like I was in Radio Heaven.  We had parties at Lee’s estate in DC’s Virginia suburbs.  I remember (barely) sitting and listening to old records with Lee and Ben Krech (my producer at the time) and an old country record producer hired to head up “Hank’s Place” (he was authentic as they get).  It was where I wanted to be after nearly three decades slogging along in the minor leagues.  I was finally going to pitch in the majors.

Then… the awakening.  The disillusionment.  The reality set in.  It was a small thing.  At one of our “Boot Camps,” Lee told all his program directors to come up with “the perfect first song” to be played on each of our channels.  “This will be the answer to a trivia question some day,” he said.  “What was the first song ever played on Liquid Metal?  What was the first song ever played on Hank’s Place.”  He framed it as one of the most important decisions we would ever make as radio programmers.

We gave it a lot of thought.  At first, I picked “Lullabye of Broadway” from “42nd Street”, but I changed my mind because that show was a movie before it was ever a .  I settled on “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”  It was the perfect choice.

We turned in our lists and Lee gave them to the CEO who red-lined the hell out of them.

The CEO decided that my first song should be “The Circle of Life,” from “The Lion King.”  Why?  His daughter liked it.

I was furious.  I told Lee all the reasons that it was the wrong choice.  It wasn’t just a MOVIE song, it was a CARTOON movie song that was TURNED into a Broadway number in a Disney show, and as far as I was concerned, Disney was emblematic of everything that was wrong with Broadway.  Still is.  Lee said, “Don’t worry about it.  Just play the song.  It’s not that big a deal.”

Funny.  A few days earlier it was one of the most important decisions we were ever going to make as radio programmers.  It would be the answer to a trivia question.

That’s the first time I sensed the odor of bullshit emanating from Lee’s gold record-decorated office.

seemed snakebitten to me from that point.  In June, Lee rented a movie theater in downtown DC and aired the commercials that XM would be putting on TV to announce its launch.  Chances are you recall them.  They involved musical legends like and Snoop Dog and BB King dropping from the sky, through roofs, into inappropriate settings.  (The one with Snoop Dog had him landing in an office full of pasty-faced white boys.  He dusted himself off and sneered, “w’sup?”)

We were set to launch in San Diego and Dallas on Sept. 12, 2001.  The events of the day previous not only made that unfeasible, but it ruined the advertising campaign.  Who wanted to see commercials with people dropping from the sky so soon after a horrible event that included real people dropping from the real sky to their real deaths?

The stock price plummeted.  Radio sales were slow.  So were subscriptions.  But at least we were beating the ass off of Sirius, which was having trouble getting its satellite array in working order.

The day after Thanksgiving 2002, about a third of the entire programming staff was fired.  That included Dave Logan.  Dave was the guy who made things happen.  “If Lee Abrams said the sun should rise in the west, I had to find some way to make it happen,” Dave was quoted after being let go.  And that, gentle reader, is when things started going to hell.

I was reassigned to the New York studios, which made sense from a Broadway Channel point of view.  But my salary remained at a Washington, DC level totally inadequate for living in New York City.  I asked Lee for a raise.  He said times were hard.

So, in October 2003, I left XM.  After a very difficult year, I found myself working for the federal government and I haven’t looked back.

Now I see on the web that Lee, who used to send these multi-page e-mail memos at a rate of about once per week (the day I was hired, he gave me a stack to read on the plane back to Florida and during the two-week notice at my old job), has been “suspended without pay indefinitely” because of an e-mail he sent to Tribune employees .

Gerould Kern and other Tribune employees complained to the company’s human resources department about a memo from chief innovation officer Lee Abrams (left) that contained links to off-color satirical videos, including one he labeled “Sluts” in which a gyrating woman appears to pour liquor on her bare breasts.

This went over like a fart in a church pew.

Lee sent out an e-mail of apology .

I would like to take this opportunity to personally apologize to everyone who was offended by one of the videos in yesterday’s Think Piece. It was poor judgment on my part and I’m sorry.

At the initial creative meeting for our new morning program, we showed 13 videos – some of which we liked, and some of which we didn’t like – to help demonstrate the concept for the program. We used old Coronet films, as well as some motivational and social media videos. Included were a few videos from “The Onion,” which use satire to call out the silliness of some TV shows.

The video in bad taste was a parody of a cable-type reality show. It is not something that we would ever air on our TV stations – in fact quite the opposite – we show this as an example of what NOT to do.

But still, I understand that it was very inappropriate to distribute a link to the video to a wider audience, and I have asked our technology department to delete the email from our servers. Again, I’m sorry for offending anyone, and I promise to make sure that my future emails contain nothing like this video ever again.

Now, I’ve read MANY Lee Abrams e-mails.  This does NOT read like a Lee Abrams e-mail.  It reads like something from the Tribune legal department.  But he who lives by the e-mail must apparently die by the e-mail .

This memo from Tribune CEO Randy Michaels the same Randy Michaels who once ran Clear Channel, the radio company we used to mock incessantly at Lee Abrams-led meetings at XM, the same Randy Michaels who micro-programmed FM radio into the unlistenable mish-mash it has become, the same Randy Michaels who hired, drank and smoked and played cards with Lee at Tribune Tower in Chicago after he was dismissed from XM…

I want to let you know that today we made the decision to suspend Lee Abrams from his position as Tribune’s Chief Innovation Officer.  He will remain on suspension indefinitely and without pay while we review the circumstances surrounding the email and video link he distributed on Monday. We’re in the process of determining further disciplinary action.

Lee recognizes that the video was in extremely bad taste and that it offended employeeshe has also apologized publicly.  He reiterated those feelings again to me privately today.  But, this is the kind of serious mistake that can’t be tolerated; we intend to address it promptly and forcefully.

Randy Michaels (once alleged to have offered a waitress at a popular night spot in Chicago $100 if she’d whip out her jugs for his entertainment an allegation he denies, even though it was witnessed by many) will NOT fall on his sword for Lee Abrams.  Therefore, I imagine, after a lengthy period of introspection and consideration a week or so Lee will be given a nice severance package and will retire to somewhere to do something.

Lee Abrams even years before I worked for him, I knew of his reputation.  I knew how he created the “album rock” radio format.  I knew how he ruined it by micro-programming the playlists to include songs you would recognize by the first three notes, songs that were tested and tested and re-tested with focus groups before being added to a station’s playlist.  Different radio stations in different parts of the country used to have their own sound, their own style, their own spirit.  Lee Abrams, followed by Randy Michaels, ruined that.  Lee seemed to see the errors of his way when he and Dave Logan created XM Satellite Radio.  But then, he sat idly by when Dave was shitcanned.  He sat idly by when FM radio stooges were brought in to replace Logan.  He sat idly by while “the suits” ruined something wonderful, something we’ll never hear again.

He sat idly by when I asked him to see about raising my salary to make living in New York City a bit more comfortable for myself and Gail.

Now, I have something Lee Abrams doesn’t have.  I don’t have any gold records.  I’ve never smoked pot with Mick Jagger.  I’ve never done a line of coke off of Debra Harry’s ass (I’m making that up).  But I have a job.

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