XM exec thinks media today is new rock n' roll

When the Tribune Co.’s new chief innovation officer sent out his first memo to the company’s rank-and-file, the initial reaction ranged from “exciting” to “appalling” to “huh?”

And those are just the responses Lee Abrams admits he has received.

Abrams, a radio-industry veteran who has been chief creative officer for XM Satellite Radio, issued a memo this month that, he hopes, is a glimpse into the Tribune Co.’s future. He acknowledged that while his “background is steeped in rock n roll,” “I strongly believe that news and information is the NEW Rock n Roll.”

Abrams believes that his lack of journalism and local TV station experience will be a big plus in trying to reinvent those businesses, even if that means kicking some life into the assets.

His memo, posted on Jim Romenesko’s media news website, compares the state of the media business today to that of music in 1952, when the era of “Mitch Miller and Patty (sic) Page” gave way to rock ‘n’ roll.

“The new rock n roll isn’t about Elvis or James Dean, but it is about reinventing moxie that the founders of rock n roll had. 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.”

He elaborated.

“One thing that drives me nuts is pop culture’s evil cousin that I call junk culture. Terrorists don’t scare me … a dumb America is frightening. On a very personal level, it is important to me that I help Tribune fight ‘junk culture.’ Smart re-invention that enlightens. Websites can be Disneyland for the mind; TV stations (especially news) can put the Kent Brockman cliche to rest and create a visual experience that intoxicates with brilliance and freshness; And newspapers! We owe it to our culture to make sure they thrive … We can make America smarter. Not more elite … just smarter.”

His music analogies didn’t end there.

“Soul. I hope I can bring that out in us. Soul is something that big companies rarely have. And having it not only improves the spirit, but it’s a competitive advantage. Most media companies are soul-less. If we have soul, we have a dramatic intangible advantage. Historically, the great companies had soul. In the modern era, they do not. You know the ones that do. Those companies have fans, not just users.”

And he spelled out what kind of content he is looking for: “Average sucks. Best to be brilliantly good, or SO bad, it’s engaging. It’s the evil zone of average that American Media is stuck in. WE MUST not accept average. Fight it! It’s gotten to be accepted that average is fine. No it’s not … it sucks!”

In another memo, he elaborates on what he is looking for, and depending on who you are, it is either (a) an exercise in motivation and inspiration (“THE BIG THREE: “Passion, Character & Muscle”) or (b) an executive type trying a bit too hard to be hip.

But Abrams does offer some specifics: He suggests re-inventing the “SOUND of local TV stations.” “One of the things that makes TV News often cheesy is the ‘sound,’ ” he writes. “It’s sooo cliched.”

He also decries the “Absurdity of PC: Take a stand. Criminal robs house and sues homeowner because he caught a cold while robbing the house … and wins. Strange news and anti-PC will endear you to people.”

Abrams admits, “I’ll probably get more ‘appalling, exciting and huh’ … but when we meet in early April, it’ll all come together … and we WILL get VERY specific.”

– Compiled by Ted Johnson

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