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Lee Abrams says “It’s Time to Fight the Content War”

Last Friday I anchored a roundtable of industry leaders to talk about the future of radio. It was the kickoff to the All Access Worldwide Radio Summit (you can watch a replay of the webcast here).

I asked the participants to cook up some of they key themes they see on radio’s horizon. Today, with his permission, I wanted to share with you the contributions of one of those industry leaders: Lee Abrams.  Lee is a legend in radio, of course, and he is most recently Former Chief Innovation Officer of the Tribune Company and Chief Programming Officer of XM Satellite Radio.

Here’s where Lee sees radio’s present and future:


Radio is in an undeniable position of strength in terms of accessibly, but as a fan of the medium, it has the potential for extinction in its current form. Overly dramatic maybe, but there are a lot of red flags that need to be addressed:

1. MERGERS, WALL STREET, THE ECONOMY AND ACQUISITIONS: If you observe the radio business, the conversation is focused almost exclusively on the economic side. That’s great…this is America. But—when was the last time you heard or read about a radio content war, or a station that’s tearing up a market with a new sound. Content brilliance needs to be part of the conversation. If the excitement in radio is all about the deals, where does that leave the listener who could care less about who owns who. Death by deal is a real possibility as media’s eye is SO far off the content ball, that we simply can’t compete in the Google/Apple era. The business side is what makes it rock, but content is what makes it roll, and you need both. Deals will be done, but it’s the magic that comes out of the speakers and screens that’ll move things forward, and that needs to be the conversation every bit as much as the economics.

2. THE PLAYBOOK HASN’T BEEN UPDATED IN 40+ YEARS: I heard a “new” Rock station recently and they presented;

–A “big voice” yelling at you about how hard they rock (that worked in 1979 when rock stations needed to re-enforce their manhood again the disco invasion….but that’s over)

–Star Wars laser sound effects complete with ‘man in the box’ filtered effect. (The Empire was destroyed in the 70’s…time to move on..if radio is “theater of the mind” I heard theater of the lame)

–Blocks, Two-fers, commercial free sets (Another relic of the 70’s. That was 30 years ago)

–Lunch. Not sure if it was a retro lunch, an electric lunch or whatever, but it was a “lunch”

–A station van. Cool in ’71 when hippies carried their pot and guitars in vans, now a soccer mom symbol that defines not cool drives a van

–DJ’s playing Free Bird. (What can POSSIBLY be said about Free Bird in this day and age?)

The station was on 70’s focus group auto pilot. We’re in the Google/Apple era but radio is in the “K108 plays more variety” era. The Simpsons and Onion parody this stuff.

Stations should install cliche buzzers—three buzzes and you’re fired. That should thwart “new” ideas like “The _____ Lunch”

Of course this station was raving about how cool they were. Embarrassing.

3. THE STARS OF RADIO: 50’s- Deejays 60’s- PD’s 70’s- Consultants 80’s- Researchers 90’s- Group Heads 00’s- Bankers

God bless bankers, but we are in a creative crisis as much as an economic one. Time to recruit, enable and inspire creative content stars, and not Talk hosts… but content creators. Radio seems to hire based on sales and operational aptitude, driving those with creative aptitude to other industries. That 19 year old creative star will probably look at TV and Radio as the last place they’d want to be. This is a problem IF media has any interest in entering the content war. We have to make our media a creative oasis for thinkers to thrive. Read a job posting from any major traditional media company. Sounds like HR hell. Then read the Apple postings. Wonder why they get the future stars?

4. BALANCE NOT BULLSHIT It is a content war out there and Apple/Google seem to have the advantage. But Radio and TV has the eyes and ears. Without a balanced people/function configuration, you’re doomed to lose. Need STARS in;

-Business -Revenue -Technology -Operations and Creative.

I’m not talking about Morning Shows. I’m talking about creative leadership that, though actions and execution, create a creative priority that is equal to revenue priority. Working in sync to win the battle.

I recall waking into a TV station and seeing a mission statement in the lobby. It included lines account being cutting edge, innovating, leading, etc…. I asked the GSM if this was true. He smirked and said—Nope compete BS. Those statements exist throughout media. When you hear “Content is King”…run! It’s not king. Revenue is. Content drives revenue.

Speaking of Bullshit. Stop with the old school slogans. No one believes them. Like in TV News–EVERY station is “Best, First, On Your Side, In It For You, Accurate….etc….). America is too BS savvy to buy that anymore.

5. DENIAL & ARROGANCE: You hear a lot of;

–Pandora only has 4% of listener ship. Ha Ha

–Radio is great. When a tornado hits, you don’t go to Pandora (Maybe not yet, but then again, what about the 358 non tornadic days?)

–We’re #1

STOP! If you’re talking to Agencies and Wall Street…OK. BUT—internally….STOP!

This stuff sounds like General Motors in 1980.

We are at the most dramatic crossroad in Media History and to be self congratulating ourselves with denial and arrogance is frightening. It’s NOT OK…it’s war. You gotta pull out the weapons, kill the denial and start creating content that’ll win on 21st Century terms. The denial and arrogance is deafening. It’s worse in Radio/TV than newspapers where they still think it’s 1935.

6. THE DIGITAL EXCUSE Digital is now…and the future. Pretty obvious. But–it’s often an excuse. A short cut that undermines the REAL issue—Dated and tired 80’s rooted content. If a station is tired and dull, a new App won’t magically make it great, but that’s the thinking out there. You constantly hear how a product is “moving forward” and entering the digital space. Well, that’s simply survival. What is being avoided like the plague is the core product…the brand itself. Fix the product first. I recall being at a newspaper and they were raving about their innovations and it was stunning. But when I asked about the printed paper, I got blank stares and a “we can’t touch that…it’s sacred” response. Same thing in radio and TV. WHAT COMES OUT OF THE SPEAKERS OR SCREEN is the problem that won’t be fixed by migrating it to online/mobile. Take TV News. It’s laughably dated with the Ultra Doppler super action weather, NORAD sets and big haired modern Ted Knight anchors. Will migrating that to Ipad save the day? Of course not. Fix the product first. Get the product in sync with 2011 before you start praying the delivery system will save you.

Then there’s “interacting” with your radio. That’s great, but not at the expense of the listening experience. Listen first…then interact. No one wants to interact with something tired and irrelevant.

7. THE SECRET CONSPIRACY Seems there’s some secret law that says a Technology company can innovate daily. Version 2, Version 3, Upgrades, White IPhones, etc… Radio? Same playbook with new slogans. Even TV and Fashion has “New Fall Seasons”…radio is on innovation autopilot at a time when, to prosper in the Google/Apple era you need to innovate DAILY. American media is getting beaten by the Phone and Cable companies in terms of innovation. That’s wrong.

Radio has become a stagnant commodity hoping a new App will fix everything at a time when Tech companies have embraced the 21st Century. This ain’t 1975 where you plug in a format and go. It’s a new world requiring constant updating.

8. BUT WE’RE LOCAL! No you aren’t. Well, the WGN and WLW types breathe local, but most stations are generic. When I was a kid, we’d drive from Chicago to Miami on Holiday. Indy, Louisville, Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami. Every city had stations with character. Maybe it was the Southern accents on WQXI in Atlanta or the undeniable pride that permeated every break. Make that same trip today and it’s a generic wasteland. Everyone sounds the same. Again, you’ll hear the denial. we have a local morning show…we do a blood drive every summer. Big deal. Stations should do a “local audit”…audit their sound and marketing and you’d find hundreds of missed opportunities. In Chicago, there are several billboards and outdoor vehicles, I’ve yet to see ONE that says “Chicago’s W—-“…. Incidentally, “local” can be an excuse too. We are becoming more Global by the minute. But if you commit to local…then DELIVER in EVERYTHING that you touch.

9. YOU CAN’T ABBREVIATE MAGIC New station launches: “We have AM Drive, billboard, a tested library, some promos and an App—we’re good to go” HUH??!! You can’t design the future until you understand the past. Look back to KHJ, KCBQ, THE LOOP, KFOG and scores of other ground breaking stations. They created a plan—completeness. Schwartzkopf style planning…a mission. Right down to how the receptionist answered the phone. Some say this/I’m old fashioned and you can’t do that today. Why? Is media so full of itself that a great game plan that REALLY reinvents is old fashioned? I’m one that believes ANY old media product can reinvent itself and kick ass in any market. Money? Imagination is free. In fact, the most passionate and gifted people are the ones you want in there, and they’re not about money. Of course media is driving them away. Winning media wars is hard. It takes emotional and managerial command. Media has to stop living in the Ad Club world and create teams that fight for brilliance…and deliver.

Todd Storz had a timeless line: “First program…then sell.”

Media is entertainment…not utility. In some cases both, but always entertainment. The environment is too cluttered to think call letters, history and an abbreviated game plan will win.

10. MEDIA & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL. Rock and roll is arguably on life support as is music radio. It’s may not be apparent yet, but when it starts looking backwards, the best days are behind it. But that’s OK, you can learn from it and build on the NEW Rock n Roll. By Rock being dead, I mean as a driver of culture. Whereas Elvis drove culture, nowadays it’s Facebook…and News. The world is having a nervous breakdown and that’s what s moving the culture. I doubt if a new Beatles will emerge that make everything right…culture is all about media and information. BUT–The M.O. of Rock n Roll is timeless and we need Rock n Roll THINKING, regardless of format or style. The characteristics of Rock n Roll thinking include:


SUMMARY: Get back to the roots. What a listener/viewer hears and sees from the speakers, the screens and on the streets. Stop with the excuses—Everything will be fine when the economy improves…we have a new App…We’ve been here since 1942….we’re local because our tower is here. Radio has one incredible ting going for it—Reach. Everyone has a radio. Radio and TV are in a position of strength. Just imagine if EVERYone had a Mac. Do you think Apple would call it quits? Radio and TV have, as mediums, given up the content fight at a time when THE MAGIC OF WHAT COMES OUT OF THE SCREENS AND SPEAKERS is more powerful than ANY technology. Combined with technology, its untouchable. Time to get on war footing and start to create the magic on 2011 terms.

Lee – thanks!  You’ve been gone from radio for far too long.

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