Friday, May 20, 2016


This week we are focusing on The State of Triple A Radio as noncommercial station folks, music companies and public radio bigwigs gather in Philadelphia for the 16th Annual NONCOMMvention [link].   

One quick reminder: VuHaus is streaming live from the 16th Annual NONCOMMvention. Today (Friday 5/20) is the final day of the NONCOMMvention. I appreciate the VuHaus coverage – I am getting ready to “attend” The Zombie’s set as I write this post. Check out all the NONCOMMvention videos at [link]. 


Lee Abrams
Anyone who has worked in rock radio has heard tales of Lee Abrams. Back in the 1970s he created the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio format, a research-driven boilerplate approach that made him and corporate radio owners rich. Abrams is living proof that being smart doesn’t mean having wisdom or good judgment.

AOR was the cookie-cutter system that, in part, brought the end of the brief, legendary era of free-form radio. In many ways “Music Discovery” Triple A stations are similar to progressive rock beacons like WBCN, Boston; KMET, Los Angeles and KSAN, San Francisco.  In fact today’s generation of noncom rock music stations have found success thanks to techniques prescribed by Abrams.

Stations such as WBCN, KMET and KSAN eventually failed because they became bloated, self-indulgent and stupid.  Lee Abrams filled this void with the Superstars format. Stations that employed Superstars played the hits from the Woodstock era and almost zero new releases.  It wasn’t about “Music Discovery”, it was about playing the same familiar tunes over and over.

Lee Abrams in 1978
Of course there is nothing wrong with playing the hits or using music research. But Superstars ignored the human element and downplayed curation and passion. Superstars DJs could only open the mic briefly to read short “liners.”  In 1978 Abrams described DJs who loved and knew the music as "some guy in a basement in Brooklyn, burning incense and playing whatever he pleased."

Abrams and his consulting partner Kent Burkhart, a Top 40 AM consultant. By the early 1980s, Superstars was on 800 stations, all sending checks to Burkhart & Abrams. What a sweet deal.


In 1978, when Superstars was king of the radio hill, Abrams was a celebrity in the radio business.  I remember seeing him at a Radio & Records (R&R) conference.  He was surrounded by a posse of admirers, each trying to learn the recipe for his secret sauce. Heads turned when he walked into the room. In a special edition of R&R Abrams was hailed as one of radio’s Young Doctors – consultants who used Top 40 formatics and music that was proven by research.

In R&R Abrams talked about the origins of his approach:

Though his methodology became more sophisticated over time, it always revolved around learning the tunes that people like and don't mind hearing again and again.  Abrams' early “focus groups” were made up his friends sitting around and talking about music.

By the late 1960s he got serious about selling his system to radio folks. He publishined a mimeographed newsletter called Better Ideas for Better Stations but had little early success. Then in 1971 he got a break from ABC radio:

ABC’s owned and operated FM stations were programming an automated format called Love. It was an attempt to play hippie music without the negatives of the hippie culture.  Love was crashing and Abrams stepped in with an early version of Superstars.

Momentum continued through out the 1970s.  Things peaked in the 1980s. Then came the crash. Many of the programmers who had learned the biz from Abrams used better research methods. The AOR format began to split into several niches. Big tent AOR morphed into Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Soft Rock and many more derivatives.


In 2004, Abrams was hired by Worldspace (which soon became XM) the to start new music channels. In April 2014 Wired magazine published [link] a scathing story about Abrams titled Would You Buy the Future of Radio From This Man? 

 The article, written by Richard Martin began: 

Seven years ago, Lee Abrams found himself in exile. Once the most influential radio guru of his generation, Abrams pioneered systematic audience research and "psychographics," connecting people's lifestyles to their listening habits. He invented a music format called album-oriented rock, or AOR, which in the 1970s shifted the music industry's focus from singles to albums and showed radio execs how to hold listeners and attract advertisers – to make money in the new, boundary-free world of FM.

"It's really a war," Abrams says. "We're out to bring music back to the people. Abrams says. "We're out to bring music back to the people. We have this one opportunity to revolutionize radio, and if we blow it we should all be shot."

But isn't this the guy who blew it the last time?

In the Wired article, Abrams described the concept he sold the corporate bigwigs at XM:

"[Our target audience will] be people who want cerebral music, no games, no BS from the DJs," Abrams explains. "NPR without the elitist attitude, you might say." The young and non-sophisticated listeners, on the other hand, want "groovy, 'ADD' radio," with plenty of games, lively banter, and in-your-face music.”

Abrams still didn’t get it.  To his credit, he was one of people who created the XM brand, helped the merger with Sirius and brought modern radio sensibilities to the satellite broadcaster’s programming.


In 2010 Abrams followed his radio friend Randy Michaels into the senior management of the Chicago Tribune. Michaels is so obnoxious he makes Donald Trump seem mellow. Michaels and Abrams brought a toxic culture to Tribune Media that was described in detail in an article the Columbia Journalism Review [link] titled The Lee Abram’s Experience.

According to the article, things didn’t go well for Abrams:

Abrams and Micheals were soon gone from the Tribune.  Today Abrams is a freelance consultant.  In 2015 Jacobs Media saluted Abrams innovations [link]. Jacobs asked Abrams what was his biggest regret. He said: 

Not buying some of those stations we consulted! And all the drugs and booze in the ‘70s. Of course, the whole business was stoned and it sure was fun, but I could have been more imaginative.

In other words: I got stoned and I missed it.

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