Media Interviews
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Lee Abrams: Tribune Will Be an 'Oasis of Creativity'
Tribune Co.'s first-ever chief innovation officer vows to help transform the publishing, interactive and broadcasting company into "the place that other people look to for the latest ideas."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 04/18/08

Lee Abrams, the noted music and radio industry executive, joined Tribune Co. this month as the media conglomerate's first-ever chief innovation officer. Abrams joined Tribune from XM Satellite Radio, where he served as chief creative officer.

Abrams is a founding partner of Burkhart/Abrams, an Atlanta-based consultancy, and is credited with inventing album rock, regarded as the first successful FM format. He is also said to have pioneered the radio "morning show" and gave Howard Stern his first major market job.

I Want Media: Why did you leave XM for Tribune?

Lee Abrams: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help drive a revolution in newspapers and television, and help this company reinvent the online experience.

I've been saying that "information is the new rock 'n' roll." There's a real opportunity to do to news and information what rock did to music many years ago -- get in sync the pulse of America with a whole new attitude and spirit.

IWM: You are Tribune's first-ever chief innovation officer. What does that mean?

Abrams: I'm here to help everybody get into the innovation frame of mind and challenge the way things have been done. Newspapers and television have been around for a long time. There are opportunities to come up with new angles.

IWM: Why does Tribune need a chief innovation officer?

Abrams: The newspaper industry has its share of problems, local television is not really exploding with growth, and online is just sort of beginning. The whole mission of the new ownership here is to make the changes necessary to grow.

It's actually a lot like the same reason that XM hired me as chief creative officer, which was to help reinvent radio. In XM's case, it was obvious that nobody was going to pay for radio if it was just more of the same. So they needed somebody to focus on making it different so people would gladly pay for it.

IWM: You have a strong background in radio. How will that help you in newspapers?

Abrams: The principles of winning are the same in just about every media. Radio is good training for anything, even television, because it continually reinvents itself.

Radio was written off as dead back in the early '50s when television became popular. It reinvented itself and entered a new golden age. A lot of the principles in turning users into fans that apply to radio probably apply to the other media.

IWM: Tribune appears to be staffing up on executives with backgrounds in radio. What's that about?

Abrams: There's a lot of talent in radio that's ready to evolve to new media. Randy Michaels, our president, comes from radio, and has identified a lot of those people. There are many people who have been trained well in the radio wars and can offer a whole new perspective on TV and print.

IWM: The Wall Street Journal reported that you have floated some provocative ideas for reviving Tribune newspapers, like front pages primarily composed of colorful maps. Can you talk about that?

Abrams: Well, that was sort of off the cuff. I was looking at newspaper front pages from 1938 through to 2008. Put them all next to each other and they pretty much look the same. Meanwhile, there've been inventions like TV and cellphones and computers. Yet, the newspaper front page hasn't changed.

I was just throwing out a whole bunch of ideas. What if the front page was all maps with little icons to different stories? Again, that wasn't like a directive, it was just throwing out some thoughts, instead of holding the front page sacred.

IWM: Any other thoughts about newspapers?

Abrams: I was reading a paper the other day, and it just said: "South Side Man Shot." If this was supposed to be real local you'd think they'd have a picture of the street corner where he was shot and show the south side exactly where it took place.

Sometimes you'll read about Paris Hilton and Iraq on the same page. That kind of junk culture kinds of blurs the real news. The celebrity thing should be isolated into its own section. The general TMZ-type stuff probably needs to be its own little area in the paper.

This company owns TV stations, newspapers and Web sites -- and they're all operating separately. There should be some way in which the television station offers the real quick story, the newspaper gets in more detail, and then the Web site really gets into the story in tremendous depth. But now they're working independently with each other. These could be our super news brands, if we put them all together somehow.

IWM: In a recent post on your personal blog, you criticized local TV stations for looking "exactly the same in every market -- the look, the feel, the smell." Is uniformity a problem for local TV?

Abrams: Yes. And what it says is that many of them are run by consultants who are just spreading this gospel about how they're supposed to look. There is obviously very little innovation. Instead of being slaves to that, maybe it should be challenged. Is that look really relevant to each local market?

IWM: You're known for bringing a "cliché buzzer" with you to meetings to ring when colleagues offer tired ideas. Is it effective?

Abrams: Oh, it's great. It's like a game show buzzer. I used it when I was as XM. Jokingly we said that you get buzzed for every cliché, and if you get three buzzes you're fired. Of course, nobody got fired. But it got people thinking.

In radio, people would come up with ideas like "Two for Tuesday Block Party Weekend." Buzz! It's been done! The buzzer helped force people to think of new angles.

IWM: Have you used your "cliché buzzer" at Tribune?

Abrams: No, I don't have them here yet. They're packed up and en route.

IWM: Tribune CEO Sam Zell has drawn attention for his salty language. Is he trying to make a statement?

Abrams: I think he's just being himself. He doesn't change his personae for anybody. And he's helping people lighten up. Don't worry about political correctness or how polished your shoes are. Just go in there and get the job done.

IWM: What's with the "zany" press releases coming out of Tribune, like the April Fool's release renaming the company after Sam Zell?

Abrams: Oh, it's just having some fun. It's a way of lightening things up. Part of the mission here is to move the culture away from being very old school. We want to create an environment where people can innovate.

IWM: Tribune is facing nearly $13 billion in debt and a risk of default in the next year or so. Are you concerned?

Abrams: I'm very confident we'll turn this place around. I wouldn't have come here if I thought it was going to go under.

IWM: How do you expect Tribune will be different in a few years from now?

Abrams: Tribune will be an oasis of creativity. It'll be the place that other people look to for the latest ideas.

IWM: What is the biggest challenge facing Tribune?

Abrams: Turning around years and years of doing things a certain way. Just parking denial at the door and really being very honest in our evaluating and rethinking. Many people in traditional media need to break out of the old way of thinking. A lot of it has to do with fear.

IWM: You've stopped updating your personal blog. Is it on hiatus?

Abrams: Yeah, so far. I've just got too much going on here.




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