Monday, June 12, 2006

XM Radio's Lee Abrams Wants Credit For The Good, Softpedals The Bad

Programming Guru Who Has Helped Make Satellite Radio Great Also Among The Reasons Terrestrial Radio Sucks
First things first: Give Lee Abrams a lot of credit for recognizing back in the early 70s that FM radio was poised to take over in a big way and was the architect of the AOR format that so many stations rode to success for two decades or more.
The problem is, he created a monster that he prefers to distance himself from now that he is the brains behind the music programming at XM Radio, which much more often than not is brilliant, inspired and realizing the possibilities of radio in a way that a commercial station could never even hope to dream about.
In an interview with FMQB, Abrams recalled how he bridged the gap between what he called "vulnerable Top 40 listeners" and the few underground/progressive stations that were but a blip at a time when you still had to pay extra to get a radio with FM.

They liked about every fifth record. When the Stones or Cream would come on they liked it. But they didn’t care for the Neil Diamond and Bobby Goldsboro records in between. However, that was a little easier for them to handle than some of the progressive stations where, if it was raining you’d hear hours of rain songs, or if the night guy didn’t like Jethro Tull he didn’t play any Jethro Tull. There wasn’t a lot of discipline in those stations.

Fair enough. But in creating the Album Rock/Superstars format that soon ruled the roost at hundreds of stations, Abrams effectively parroted the rigid formatting of a Top 40 station albeit with a somewhat larger playlist. Hey, radio's a business first and foremost, and AOR struck a crucial balance.
The problem: Abrams's success begot a host of imitators, all trying to outdo the master. That led to program directors besieged by focus groups, and music and audience research to the point where the wannabes were afraid to take chances on new music. Deejays were spanked if they said something else than what was on their liner cards.
Abrams succeeded big-time from an Arbitron and revenue standpoint, and that was all that really mattered, especially as corporate ownership became the norm at radio stations and mind-numbing predictability by stations playing it safe led to a slew of disenfranchised music fans, particularly those in the 25-44 demographic who remembered the good old days.
Abrams told FMQB he provided a mix of depth and discipline, though you could certainly argue the former. Yeah, it was more than Top 40 but if you spent anytime listening to college radio or the progressive stations still out there, AOR stations often provided the sizzle but a very pallid steak.
Now he's more than redeemed himself at XM, where he has a canvas of dozens of music channels to work with. By catering to many narrow audience he can please just about anyone. He just doesn't have to do it at the same time.
It's a good thing he doesn't have to give in to temptation or the pressures rained down upon programmers from Arbitron. Otherwise we'd be right back where we started. For the stations devoted to just playing the hits also happen to be the most popular music channels on XM.

P.S. If you want to keep track of what's on the mind of XM's programming head honcho, Abrams is one of the quadrillions of us out there with a blog at

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