Chicago-based media consultant Lee Abrams might seem the least likely person to complain about the corporatization and sameness that afflicts today’s traditional terrestrial AM and FM radio stations. After all, it was his infamous tightening of playlists at rock radio during the ‘70s that ushered in the AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) format, which replaced the progressive free-form FM and, some would argue, led the way to today’s bland, consolidated broadcast landscape.
But now it’s Abrams sounding the alarm about playing it too safe risking death knells for terrestrial formats. “Radio should be going into creative overdrive. Instead, it’s going backwards, contributing to its own demise by getting more vanilla when they should be alive and well in technicolor,” he says. “Nobody’s bringing their A-game.”
The 67-year-old pioneer — a member of the Rock Radio Hall of Fame — started the AOR format as a DJ/PD at WRIF in Detroit before installing a similar streamlined rotation, dubbed SuperStars, at WQDR in Raleigh, NC.
“That was a style of radio that was right for the times — it was extremely successful and brought economic gains to FM radio,” he says, defending his programming decisions, versus what’s become of similarly formatted stations in 2020. “Today, radio has become too corporate, too consolidated, too boring. But that was a different era, with a competitive opportunity which we took advantage of. We valued personalities, though. We gave Howard Stern, Steve Dahl and Sonny Fox some of their first on-air gigs.”
In March, just before the pandemic hit, Abrams launched MediaVisions, a consultancy which promotes his new “reimagination” of radio, incorporating news and information, video content and music innovation.
As part of the launch, Abrams’ company is touting a “reimagining” of TV news with “NewsMovie,” “Radio Free Earth,” a 24/7 streaming service aimed at the 40-and-over crowd, and a documentary charting the history of music and radio in the 20th century, “Sonic Messengers: When Music and Radio Changed the World.”
“Information is the new rock ‘n’ roll… it’s what’s driving modern culture,” explains Abrams. “Terrestrial radio represents an ever-smaller piece of a pie which now includes satellite, streaming, online. It’s considered a utility, like the cable or power company, rather than a creative entity that inspires fans.
Abrams insists radio needs a complete overhaul, “blowing up the ‘80s focus-group mentality and starting to reinvent themselves.” He wants stations to go back to supporting new music and emerging artists, not just the familiar oldies.
“You don’t see that today,” he says. “Artists don’t bring their acoustic guitars to radio stations to perform. Even the branding is complete bull, and the people know it. We need to return to the day when radio stations talked street, not research.
“All the great radio stations in history re-launched with an incredible depth of thinking, looking at every aspect — production, audio and print logos, the music mix, training the jocks. These days, stations simply test the music library and maybe put up a few billboards.”
Abrams was an early satellite radio advocate as one of the architects of XM Satellite Radio, when he was named chief programing officer, designing the original programming and training the staff.
“When I went there, the formats we created were pretty out there, relative to terrestrial radio,” says Abrams, who urged XM to hire Howard Stern a full year before he eventually went to rival Sirius.
“He was already excited about the possibilities. But our board of directors turned him down. It was a huge mistake. I told them hiring Stern would be the atom bomb of satellite radio. We could’ve wiped out Sirius right then. Many of them weren’t from the telecommunications industry and didn’t understand the power of Howard Stern. They didn’t see the value. ‘Is he going to move the needle?’ I’d go, ‘Yes!’ The higher-ups didn’t agree with me.”
After XM, Abrams was hired by the Tribune Company as chief innovation officer before an interoffice email with what was termed “an inappropriate” video from the satirical site the Onion led to his departure.
These days, he’s bullish on Spotify, comparing it to the influence MTV once had in breaking new music. “As a radio programmer, I would embrace that totally. It’d be silly not to,” he says. “Those who say no one will turn to Spotify during a hurricane are simply arrogant.”
In that vein, Abrams agrees radio becomes more valuable when there’s a crisis, like the current COVID-19 virus, as news, talk and sports rapidly take over the AM and FM dials.
“More than nine out of 10 people listen to the radio, but they’re not really fans,” says Abrams. “So why not make these stations amazing? It’s not that hard. I just think nobody’s really tried.”
When Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a paean to the AM radio in 1969, is brought up, Abrams enthuses: “KHJ was a great station with a mission and created it beautifully, and overnight become the soundtrack of Hollywood. I haven’t heard a station like that in a while. Radio hasn’t changed with the times. Innovation and content are essential for its survival.”