Buzz Knight 00:00:02
I’m Buzz Knight, the host of the Taken a Walk podcast series. And we’re here in the delightful suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, a very special place called Burr Ridge, to meet up with a very special dude. He continues to be a major influence to me and others with his critical thinking and his media leadership. Lee Abrams has a resume that would extend from miles along Chicago’s River Walk. His influence spans across companies like XM, Radio, Tribune, ABC Radio, just to name a few. Lee tells it like it is, and I can’t wait to take a walk with Lee Abrams. Taking a walk with Buzz Knight. Well, thanks, Lee. I’m so grateful that you took the time to take a walk with us here in lovely Burr ridge. This is a pretty cool area of the suburbs.
Lee Abrams 00:00:57
Yeah, actually, west suburbs, Chicago.
Buzz Knight 00:01:01
So how long have you been out here?
Lee Abrams 00:01:04
Buzz Knight 00:01:06
It’s a nice getaway.
Lee Abrams 00:01:07
Yeah, it’s really nice. And there’s a lot of land out here and trees, so it’s a nice escape from the city.
Buzz Knight 00:01:14
Well, that’s cool. Well, so I was just thinking, as we were talking about taking a walk, we were conjuring up maybe there’s some other little vertical angles of it that I should be pondering, like taking a nap. What do you think of that?
Lee Abrams 00:01:31
Yeah, great idea. Taking a nap, having a snack. There’s a whole series of options here.
Buzz Knight 00:01:37
There’s a whole array of them. Well, let’s talk about the state of media here, because that’s something that you’ve always been keenly in touch with. Where do you see the state of media today?
Lee Abrams 00:01:50
Well, generally speaking, I think it’s very corporate, and that’s not necessarily bad, but it does come at the expense of extreme creative, I think, particularly in radio and television news, which are, of course, two areas I’m really interested in. There’s just a tendency to be working off a playbook that’s 30 and 40 years old at a time when we’re going through massive cultural, social and technological change. And as a result, it’s not really in sync with the current day mainstream. And day doesn’t go by when people don’t say, radio sucks or I can’t watch the news anymore. These are areas I’m sort of focused on. But I think it’s gotten very consolidated at the expense of creative and just new, bold ideas that reflect the era we’re in. It reminds me a lot I’m old enough of the late 60s, early 70s, when back then you had Vietnam and the sexual revolution and drug revolution and Nixon and just craziness. I’m sure glad the Internet wasn’t around then. But we’re seeing the same kind of thing today, just different. It’s wars in the Ukraine and racial inequality, trump versus the left, and it’s a crazy time. And I don’t think a lot of media really reflects the electricity that’s happening now.
Buzz Knight 00:03:36
Why are corporate executives of today and media afraid to change?
Lee Abrams 00:03:42
Well, I think a lot of them are some of the older ones are just riding it out, and a lot of them just make a lot of money and don’t want to blow it. And the culture, too, it’s not conducive to change. Obviously, when some companies start out, whether it’s Amazon or Netflix, they sure they’re all about change. But the more traditional companies kind of stuck in their ways. And again, the top executives making a lot of money and don’t see the urgency in change and don’t want to risk it. I think it’s a bottom line.
Buzz Knight 00:04:21
How much of it do you think has to do with the problem in certainly both radio and in television, that there’s a measurement system that these businesses, quote unquote, have to play to?
Lee Abrams 00:04:37
Yeah, I think a great product will win regardless of the measurement system. I think it’s flawed, but it’s always been sort of flawed. I think the great products will prevail regardless of how they’re measured.
Buzz Knight 00:04:54
But the fact that measurement is coming from a monopoly, do you feel that that is an issue?
Lee Abrams 00:05:02
I really don’t. Personally, don’t worry about it. I’m more concerned about creating really new, powerful products that are in sync with the age we’re in. And I think regardless of who’s doing the measurement, it will all come out in the wash if it’s really connecting with the mainstream.
Buzz Knight 00:05:20
So let’s touch on radio first. Radio’s position here is greatly challenged, especially music formats, right? Because you can get music anywhere. So what’s your opinion on the face of radio as we know it today?
Lee Abrams 00:05:36
Well, I think, again, on the older end, it seems to be doing okay. People who grew up with the radio and have wonderful experiences with it over the years, younger, and it’s a real problem. I remember when we first started at XM, we asked a lot of older people, 40 and over, what they thought of the concept, and they were like, this is great. I mean, we’ll have a jazz station. We’ll have this no commercial. I love it. I talked to young people and they said, Why would I pay for radio? Radio sucks. And in digging deeper, they’ve never experienced the great radio stations. Somebody who was when we launched XM in 2001, somebody who was 18, never grew up with those stations that people like you and I did. So there was no reference to what radio could be. I think the problem right now is people aren’t taking advantage of the radio experience. Streaming is great. I mean, I have all the streaming service and listen to them. But the radio experience done right, where there’s magic between the songs, there’s intelligent hosts that sort of walk you through the journey, and there’s intriguing music mixes and the list goes on. That’s really powerful, but you don’t hear it anymore. At XM, again, using them as an example, we played a lot of tapes and went through the blueprints of really the great stations. And they were 360 degree experience, everything from the way they looked to their attitude and swagger on the air, to their adventure in music, to owning the music, the perception that their playlist was the bible of music, and those agents do that anymore. And I think those characteristics can be reinterpreted for the 21st century. Again, you can’t copy what KHJ did 50, 60 years ago, but you can take those blueprints and really reimagine them for the realities of the 21st century. I think that’s important. There are going to be some people who are going to stream, but not everybody. I think radio can be a better slice of the pie for a lot of people, because again, there’s a lot of radio sucks, meaning FM radio, and that can be limited. But I don’t think stations are trying. FM radio should be on creative steroids. They’re kind of in denial. And again, utilizing a playbook that was written decades ago, there hasn’t been a new format, a really new format in radio in years, really since the early 70s. There have been just tweaks yet certain offshoots of classic rock and all that, but something really new, it hasn’t been done at a time when it has to be done. And again, I think a lot of the corporate environments not conducive to change. And I understand if somebody is number one and making a lot of money, great, why change it? But there are a lot of stations that aren’t making a lot of money. Those are the ones that I think need to generate new ideas, new exciting visions.
Buzz Knight 00:09:26
One of those things I love that you did at XM was how you flipped upside down the notion of the celebrity guest DJ. And you turn these shows, whether it be the Bob Dylan theme time, Radio Hour, or what you did with Tom Petty’s show, and I’m sure there are others, you flipped that model and elevated it to this degree that is incredible to this day.
Lee Abrams 00:09:53
Yeah, those are good examples. Dylan in particular, in talking to him, he grew up listening to radio under the covers to those big 50,000 Watts stations around the country. When he was growing up in Minnesota and really saw the romance in radio, and we came just really complete creative freedom to recreate that romance on his terms. And it was magical, and not all artists were capable of that. Tom Petty did a great job, too, without mentioning names. There were some people that didn’t do really good jobs, but the ones that really got into it and had their own vision of what a radio show could sound like were remarkable.
Buzz Knight 00:10:40
But you gave them some creative license.
Lee Abrams 00:10:42
Oh, complete. We gave them guidance. But as far as the songs they played, and what they said, that was all up to them. That was really important because, again, I don’t think you could format a Bob Dylan. Somebody actually said, At XM not on the air staff, but what’s their clock look like? A clock for Bob Dylan, it’s whatever he wants to do.
Buzz Knight 00:11:07
Burst out laughing right
Lee Abrams 00:11:09
Yeah. And there are some people who said, well, he hasn’t had a hit in 50 years. It’s like, no, you don’t understand. He’s the greatest musical poet of the 20th century. So we respected him and his wishes and just made it real easy for him and gave him some guidance. At first they proposed when we were talking Bob Dylan channel, and we sort of said, wait, does Bob really have time to program a channel? 24 7 365? Maybe an hour or two would be more manageable. And they kind of got that.
Buzz Knight 00:11:46
To this day, it lives strong.
Lee Abrams 00:11:49
Buzz Knight 00:11:49
And like I said, Tom as well, the Petty show. But I just love that creativity that was brought to a fairly hit or miss scenario with celebrities. We know they could sometimes a rocker would be terrific, and the other times, depending on the moment, it would be.
Lee Abrams 00:12:10
Like, Yeah, I know. When I was at Z Rock, we had actually Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osborne and Ted Nugent, each doing a two week trial. And that was interesting. Ted was particularly interesting. You get off the air and he’d have all these policemen in the lobby wanting to take him out and ride. Hey, Ted, come with Richardson, Texas police. We’re going to bust some crack houses. No, don’t go with him. Come with us at Fort Worth, guys. We deal with the heavy stuff. And it was unbelievable. And his show was just a little too gun oriented. Alice Cooper was great. He had great stories, but I think listeners wanted him to be more on stage. Alice and he was just a real nice guy. And Ozzy Osbourne, that didn’t last long. He was Ozzy. That didn’t work.
Buzz Knight 00:13:15
So the state of TV, and specifically the state of TV news, what are you seeing and then where’s your vision for it?
Lee Abrams 00:13:28
Yeah, TV news, I think information is the new rock and roll meaning what’s really driving culture today is information. And people have all of it on their phones versus a walkman. And I think rock and roll is popular, but looks backwards. It’s all about the classic bands and all that and the newer music. I think it’s more country and hip hop and super teen pop and all that. But that rock and roll attitude is something that’s timeless. It’s a certain spirit. So I think just like radio worse. TV news is stuck. In 1970, you’ll see two chit chatting anchors with a fake city skyline behind them. You still hear percussive music if you close your eyes, listen to newscasts, just bullshit slogans. We believe in you. First Action News. It’s comical and Simpsons makes fun of it, onion makes fun of it, and it’s just stuck. So we’re creating something called News Movie, which is really the first news programming ever created by programmers and creatives. Obviously place will be just full of journalists, but the actual architecture of it is designed by programming people and creative people who don’t subscribe to the TV news playbook. When I was a Tribune, there were TV stations that had news departments and god, it was impossible. They were just stuck in the news playbook couldn’t change. And when they did change, I remember going to one station and they said, we’ve really changed. We’re going to have a tremendous book. We’re really modernized everything. I said, Wow, that’s great. What did you do? Well, our sports guy now stands up when he gives the scores, and we have a new backdrop, which shows the new view of the city and the weather desk. We have a new kind of formica that really is that it? Yeah. Meanwhile, nobody noticed and ratings came out and they were still in the toilet. So I’m looking at a complete radical, dramatic reinvention of television news. And there’s three characteristics to it that really define it. One is eye, where it’s visually stunning. There’s no reporter standing in front of a 711 that was burned down 8 hours ago or robbed, whatever. There’s no chitchatting anchors, no screaming pundits yelling at each other, but just beautiful photography and video using multi dimensional sources, licensed sources from and the writers. Just raw footage. No reporters, no graphics or anything. Raw footage. Might use cartoon clips, we might use retro footage. Whatever it takes to tell the story. Like a movie. It’s not a newscast, it’s a new movie. A movie of the world at the moment that’s visually striking and devoid of all the cliches, the sets that look like NORAD. It’s just nonsense. And then ear, that’s where every story is elevated because it has a soundtrack. So if it’s a story about inner city strife, we might have Coal Train kind of music. If it’s a story about tornadoes in Texas, we might have Willie Nelson sort of music. So it really elevates the storytelling from just the banal TV news sound, which again, very pompous and percussive. None of that. And thirdly, and probably the most important thing is brain. Or if you picture an intellectual scale in television, if one is Honey Boo Boo, some goofy reality show, and ten is Masterpiece Theater, most resides in the three range, kind of dumb. And again, people make a lot of money there, and that’s fine news movie will be more like a seven, never elite, but just not dumb. We call it high IQ, low BS, meaning it’s just smarter and it’s totally free of BS. It’s intelligent. And you put those three things together visually stunning, sonically, deep, and just intelligent, and that’s sort of the foundation of the whole thing. And also very honest. Instead of avoiding the tough topics, we’ll approach both of them aggressively. If it’s gun control, we might have Ted Nugent talking for 60 seconds and then, I don’t know, Barbara Streisand talking for 60 seconds. Literally, you decide. But we’re not going to take the vanilla road and avoid those topics. And if Trump screws up or one of his types, fine, we’ll call it out. But same thing with Biden, they screw up, nobody’s immune. So it’s very honest and real without any political skew and it’s just exciting. It will have an energy to it. It won’t work at the pace of news, which is none of that. Right. It’s going to talk like real people and just have a modern energy to it. I’m really excited about it. It scares a lot of people, but we just got to keep at it and keep pounding and talking to possible partners because it’s not cheap. But we’re getting there. We’re getting more and more interest all the time and it’s going to ride this out until we get it done.
Buzz Knight 00:19:40
Feels like the time is right for it.
Lee Abrams 00:19:42
Buzz Knight 00:19:42
I mean, it really does.
Lee Abrams 00:19:43
Well, an analogy I use is in radio was the giant in music, but it was becoming out of sync with the mainstream at that time. FM came along within five years, just buried Am musically. And now we see television news where Am was in 1970. It’s there has a big circulation, but it’s just so out of touch. So we want to be to news what FM was to Am.
Buzz Knight 00:20:16
Well, the look of it from the demo I’ve seen is spectacular. It’s got that energy and that pacing, although in the right way, with the right spirit, the right authenticity, there’s no stopwatch on everything.
Lee Abrams 00:20:32
No, it depends on how long the story needs to be so it doesn’t have that news pacing where interesting story. Well, we got to wrap it up now.
Buzz Knight 00:20:43
It has to go. It goes longer.
Lee Abrams 00:20:45
Yeah, and it’ll probably average a minute and a half to two minutes of story. Some much shorter, some might be longer, but it’s a movie of the world at the moment and breaks every rule in the book. And it’s where extreme creative meets extreme journalism. And the thing is extreme but today’s standards.
Buzz Knight 00:21:08
So you’re optimistic about the partners and future.
Lee Abrams 00:21:14
It’s tough because we’ve been at it a while, but we’ll get there. There’s more and more interest all the time and more and more evidence of the need for this. And without naming companies, there are some companies who look at it, broadcast companies, who say, well, we’ve got our traditional news and it’s skewing old and maybe we could use this to skew young and own it all. Sort of like the old Am and FM thing, where the Am was the big middle of the road station reaching 40 plus, and then the FM was that young hotshot reaching 18 to 30, 35 to 40. And that definitely makes an impact and get people thinking, yeah, maybe we can own the whole thing rather than hoping our audience doesn’t die. Good luck.
Buzz Knight 00:22:02
I know it’s going to happen. Yeah, I know it’s going to happen.
Lee Abrams 00:22:05
Buzz Knight 00:22:05
So tell me about the documentary you’re working on.
Lee Abrams 00:22:07
Yeah, it’s called Sonic Messengers. It’s the history of sort of pop culture from World War II to today, told through the filter of radio and music. And it goes from the early R and B artists and those early R and B stations through the top forty S and sixty S and Beatlemania and FM Underground in the late sixty S and AOR and Disco and everything else all the way up to streaming and satellites. But it’s not going to be really for radio people only. As a matter of fact, one of the hosts we’ve signed is John Cleese. Great. Yeah. One of his angles is well, maybe if he does this, his real dry English take, as in, what’s with these Americans? Are in infatuation with radio and music and listening in their car. What is it with these Americans? And I think that will be an interesting angle. And we were sort of set back by COVID, but again, we’ve got John Cleese on board and we’re sort of full guns ahead. And I’m working with a guy named Spencer Proffer, you may know, who is Chasing Train.
Buzz Knight 00:23:29
Right. Wasn’t he part of that documentary? Yes, he did that one terrific documentary.
Lee Abrams 00:23:34
Yeah, he’s great and has tremendous experience in negotiating these deals and the actual nuts and bolts of the production. And he’s my partner in that 50 50. And we’re charging ahead.
Buzz Knight 00:23:47
Lee Abrams 00:23:47
Probably out hopefully towards the end of next year, I guess.
Buzz Knight 00:23:50
Will there be other hosts besides John?
Lee Abrams 00:23:52
Yes, there will. And we haven’t decided who yet. We’ve reached out to some people like Springsteen. No, enough time, but we’ll get some the proper hosts in there. Probably somebody a bit younger and a bit more current. But John, he’s timeless, but he’ll probably do one or two.
Buzz Knight 00:24:14
Lee Abrams 00:24:15
Buzz Knight 00:24:15
And you had a residency project with Alan Parsons that you yes, we’re working.
Lee Abrams 00:24:21
On that and that’s going great. That will debut next year. And it is an Immersive experience similar to the Van Gogh experience, except musically focused and much trippier. It’s going to be really trippy and very heavy and cerebral. And it’s again, music oriented. And working with Alan Parsons, a guy named Danny Zelisco who’s a big concert promoter, and Dean Agnader, who works with Frankie Valli. And it’s a great team. Those guys, particularly have the venue experience and ticketing and cost controls and all that, as well as being very creative. And Allen is just a musical god. And with his sound, it’ll be a real audio visual tour de force.
Buzz Knight 00:25:20
Will it be Vegas first?
Lee Abrams 00:25:21
No, we originally going to do Vegas, but now we decided to do it probably Los Angeles first, but because it’s an installation, we can have 50 of them all around the country. And it was originally a live show that got too complicated and Vegas became too crowded. We couldn’t find the right venue with Covet, all the acts were backed up. The Barry Manilow’s and all these characters had put a whole year on hold, so now they’re filling it in. So finding a place was hard. We decided let’s do multiple venues, particularly after seeing the success of Van Gogh. We think this can have the same kind of thing going. That’s great.
Buzz Knight 00:26:06
You’re doing next year.
Lee Abrams 00:26:07
Yeah, I think hopefully next spring may be summer, but next year sometime.
Buzz Knight 00:26:13
How do you stay so certain with projects that they’re going to hit the finish line?
Lee Abrams 00:26:20
Well, I think the secret, I think really thinking them through and in a lot of cases, finding the right people to work on it with and just staying really focused and committed to it and not giving up and just keeping.
Buzz Knight 00:26:39
At it, just being just head down.
Lee Abrams 00:26:41
Yeah, it was the same thing with really going way back AOR because I was 18 at the time and it was hard to get people to take you seriously, but with this new format, but really just hung in there and the brakes came and able to prove it and then the floodgates open. So I expect that will happen with these projects, too. Some challenges, but once it catches on, it’s all over.
Buzz Knight 00:27:10
First concert you ever went to?
Lee Abrams 00:27:12
The first concert I ever went to was Cream. Yeah, Cream and the opening e act was Frank Zappa And The Mothers. It was at Chicago. What was it called? It’s not there anywhere. I think it was called The Auditorium. Not The Auditorium anyways, on the South Side of Chicago. And it was a relatively small kind of hole in the wall and that was great. I saw Cream a lot in the who. A lot back then. Canned Heat and all these other crazy bands
Buzz Knight 00:27:54
What do you put concert experience wise for you at the pinnacle?
Lee Abrams 00:28:01
For me, it’s yes, in the 1973 to 1975 era when they were just really at their peak again. I love that kind of music. But they performed so well with such brilliant arrangements and playing and crystal clear sound, and it was magical. And there was one particular gig which got 110,000 people at JFK Stadium in Philly. I think it was about 75 or 76. And let’s see, was Peter Frampton open? Gary Wright, the Pousette Dart Band. And then yes at the end and they played. It was a full moon and it was night, and there were again 110,000 people and they just echoed through the JFK Stadium outdoor and it was like, wow. It was life changing.
Buzz Knight 00:28:57
Thinking about a lot of those concert bills, how Bill Graham used to book concerts with a very eclectic mix of artists. I don’t think you could do that today where promoters couldn’t take that risk. Do you agree?
Lee Abrams 00:29:11
I don’t know. I don’t think so. There’s the big festivals, the Coachellas and all that, which do that.
Buzz Knight 00:29:18
Lee Abrams 00:29:19
Yeah. So the huge festivals and then the small ones, one artist, maybe two. You don’t see that middle ground where there’s six artists like you did with.
Buzz Knight 00:29:31
Bill Graham, and they were eclectic at times and.
Lee Abrams 00:29:37
Yeah. Oh, God. And Big in England did a lot of that, too. And it would be like Canned Heat, Pink Floyd, I don’t know, a couple of other sort of acts that were breaking and it would be kind of cool. Yeah. Good Night of it.
Buzz Knight 00:29:58
Lee Abrams 00:29:59
Yeah. And it’d be like $5.
Buzz Knight 00:30:02
Think of that. So, in closing, I want to get your reaction to what you’ve learned from musicians over the years and how musicians and bands, whether it be yes or other examples, what can media companies, other types of companies, learn about the creative process from the way musicians have created over the years?
Lee Abrams 00:30:33
Yeah, I think the great musicians have their roots firmly in a certain style, but are able to take that and evolve it. And yes, for example, which again, I’m close to, you had guys with classical backgrounds, you had guys with blues backgrounds, but they were able to take what they learned as a foundation and just evolved. And that’s why the media companies need to look at their products like news and evolve. And it’s that rock and roll mentality again, which is striving to be innovative. It’s just part of their mission. Going way back, I remember bands in the late sixty s, one band would do eight track. Well, the next one would have to do 16 track. One band would have so and so. Ants next band had Marshalls. It was like an arms race among equipment and technology. And I think media needs that same kind of competitive striving for innovation and just a natural ability to be mass appeal without trying. Using Yes roundanout about the last thing they thought would ever happen would be a hit single. But it happened. And I think when people try too hard, it gets kind of hokey. So these great bands just did what they did to a real high standard and let the public be exposed to it and come to their own conclusions. The rock and roll thing, other than striving for innovation, the fact that it’s mass appeal, but not by really trying, but just by creating something that is. And let’s see, there’s about 20 points. I’m just trying to think of some good ones motivation to be different, not settling for what somebody else has already done. That’s important, really like that’s been done. We got to do it this way. I’ll send you the rock and roll thinking sort of manifesto is about 20 points in there that all could be applied to media companies that really come from the artistic community.
Buzz Knight 00:32:54
Yeah. And authenticity of voice.
Lee Abrams 00:32:57
Authenticity, yes. Again, you can’t fake it either. It’s called the It factor. You got it or you don’t. And those who fake don’t get caught.
Buzz Knight 00:33:07
Oh, I said last question, but I have one more.
Lee Abrams 00:33:10
Buzz Knight 00:33:10
Who inspires you today?
Lee Abrams 00:33:14
Well, I look at a lot of the innovators, Elon Musk, even though he’s got some political issues these days. But, I mean, the guy has done some pretty amazing things. And people at Amazon and Apple, those kind of not necessarily the people, the companies, they really create mass appeal intelligence. Meaning the products I create are very mass appeal, but they’re also intelligent. And somebody actually asked me to give me an example of that. And Apple is great. Everybody’s got an Apple product, so it’s mass appeal. But they’re also really smart. The way they’re designed and the way they perform SpaceX and that whole program, it’s mass appeal. Everybody likes we’re going to Mars. But it’s intelligent, obviously. So I look for mass appeal intelligence in people and in companies.
Buzz Knight 00:34:15
Thanks for always giving me inspiration to this day.
Lee Abrams 00:34:19
Buzz Knight 00:34:21
I appreciate you taking a walk in lovely Chicago suburbs here.
Lee Abrams 00:34:27
All right. Thank you for the opportunity.
Buzz Knight 00:34:28
Lee Abrams 00:34:29
Buzz Knight 00:34:31
Taking a Walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast.