Last week, we told you about the controversial moves being made by Lee Abrams, as he tries to innovate one of America’s oldest media companies, Tribune.
Now, you can get it straight from Abrams. Below is the text of my online interview with the innovator behind Album Oriented Rock, MTV and XM Satellite Radio. He’s also a philosophical inspiration to Tanner Friedman. He took a few minutes away from the debut day of news at the company’s San Diego TV station to answer some questions about how he’s trying to teach an old media dog some new tricks…
FRIEDMAN: You are working with Randy Michaels. After all of your criticism of the state of terrestrial radio today – much of which he and Clear Channel are responsible for – how are the two of you working together?
ABRAMS: FANTASTIC. WE ARE COMPLETELY IN SYNC ON WHERE THINGS NEED TO GO..AND HE CLEARLY ‘GETS IT’ FAR BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL MEDIA CEO. I DONT THINK YOU CAN BLAME CLEAR CHANNEL ON HIM AS HE LEFT WELL BEFORE THEY BECAME
WHAT THEY CURRENTLY ARE
FRIEDMAN: The message to local radio from your success in creating XM should be “local radio should be local and leave the ‘just playing music’ stuff to satellites and Ipods.” Why aren’t they getting the message?
ABRAMS: THE MINDSET AT RADIO IS SO DIFFERENT. FEW UNDERSTAND THE RADIO LISTENER BEYOND THE AD CULTURE.
FRIEDMAN: How are you dealing with the people inside the newspapers who don’t want to change, but at the same time, are worried about losing their jobs because of the changes going on around them?
ABRAMS: ITS A CHALLENGE, BUT 80 PERCENT ARE EXTREMELY FORWARD THINKING, ITS THE 20 PERCENT THAT ARE CHANGE RESISTANT, SO WE ARE LIBERATING THE 20 PERCENT TO INVENT THE FUTURE OF PRINT.
FRIEDMAN: Newspapers are laying off employees because consumers are “going online” to get their news. But, most of the news you can find online comes from newspapers. Google employs zero journalists. How will this paradox be overcome?
ABRAMS: NEWSPAPERS JUST NEED TO CATCH UP WITH 2008 INSTEAD OF STAYING SO MIRED IN TRADITION THAT THE WEB IS A MORE COMPELLING PLACE TO GET YOUR INFORMATION FIX. THE WEB IS WONDERFUL AND NOT GOING AWAY BUT NEWSPAPERS HAVE TO EVOLVE AND RECLAIM A PORTION OF THEIR TURF THAT HAS BEEN LOST NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF TECHNOLOGY BUT THROUGH A RESTANCE TO JOINING THE 21ST CENTURY AND COMPETING IN A WAY THAT IS ON TERMS WITH TODAY’S MEDIA LANDSCAPE..NOT 1948
FRIEDMAN: Some news is just boring, even though it affects lives. Things that happen at town council and school board meetings, for example. Years ago, TV stations just stopped covering it, unless people threw chair inside the meetings, because it wasn’t visual. In the future, with few reporters and an imperative to keep things stimulating for the consumer, how can “boring” news still be covered?
ABRAMS: IT PROBABLY WONT…WE HAVE TO BE SELECTIVE AND DO A BETTER JOB OF WHAT WE DO COVER. SORT OF LIKE NEWSRADIO…THEY USED TO HAVE 90 MINUTE NEWSCAST THAT WERE DULL…NOW THEY’RE ‘GIVE US 20 MINUTES AND WE’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD’–THE HITS…THATS WHERE WERE HEADING. WE’LL STILL OFFER FAR FAR MORE VOLUME THAN TV OR RADIO, BUT WE DO HAVE TO FOCUS ON RELEVANT STORIES AT THE EXPENSE OF THOSE THAT JUST DON’T RESONATE
FRIEDMAN: You talk a lot about pet peeves. Here’s mine… We work with newspapers and their web products every day. We hear all of the time from reporters who love a story pitch but their editors tell them there’s no space in the paper – so it can’t run. Or we hear that they loved what one of our clients had to say about something, but the quote got cut for space. These guys have tons and tons of space – online – where most of their customers are! Who cares about newspaper space when you are putting the stories online?
ABRAMS: NEWSPAPERS NATURAL TAGET IS NOT WEB FRIENDLY…THEY USE PRINT…UNFORTUNATELY NEWSPRINT IS EXPENSIVE.
FRIEDMAN: And why does the online story have to be just like the newspaper story?
FRIEDMAN: When is this going to change?
ABRAMS: THE WEB IS IN ITS INFANCY…IT’LL CHANGE. IT HASNT BEEN INVENTED YET IN TERMS OF NEWS…WE HOPE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THAT INVENTION. MOST NEWSPAPER WEB SITES ARE ELECTRONIC VERSIONS OF THE PAPER. THAT WILL CHANGE
FRIEDMAN: Tribune is investing in TV news – starting and growing TV news operations. While many stations around the country have seen their news ratings plunge 40 percent in the last decade (something I’ve written a lot about) – why do you think TV news is worth investing in?
ABRAMS: HUGE OPPORTUNITY—PEOPLE WATCH TV…BUT THE NEWS IS PATHETICALLY OUT OF DATE. A JOKE IN MANY CASES…STARVED FOR NEW THINKING. WE THINK IF WE
REINVENT IT IN SYNC WITH 2008, WE CAN SIGNIFICANTLY GROW IT
FRIEDMAN: Local TV news has a credibility problem. People tell me that local TV news is worse than the parodies of local TV news on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere. How do you innovate in TV news without giving more fodder for satire, while building credibility?
ABRAMS: BLOW UP THE PLAYBOOK AND START OVER. IT IS INDEED A PARODY OF ITSELF.
FRIEDMAN: One of the problems with TV is that it still bases itself on a schedule developed in the 1950s. Ward and June Cleaver don’t live here anymore. What are you doing to make local TV more user friendly? How can it compete when viewers crave “On Demand” content?
ABRAMS: WELL, WE NEED TO START BY DRAMATICALLY REINVENTING IT SO THE BASIC PRODUCT IS MORE COMPELLING AND LESS CHEESY. THATS THE FIRST STEP. IF WE DO THAT, WE WIL CREATE OFFSHOOTS THAT EMBRACE THE VARIOUS DISTRIBUTION PLATFORMS BEYOND BROADCAST
FRIEDMAN: Local TV stations used to do local programming, beyond news. Since syndicated programming has dried up, do you see your stations adding more local shows, other than news?
ABRAMS: IT’S EXPENSIVE…BUT ABSOLUTELY YES