Lee Abrams – Rock Radio SuperStar – Part 3

Lee Abrams is one of the most influential thinkers in modern media.

Lee didn’t invent Rock Radio but he might as well have.

In Part 3, Lee talks about how they re-created and re-invented radio with XM in the USA and he discusses what he looks for in talent. “Nothing will sabotage the mission more than an “average” hire to execute”.

Greg Smith: in 1998 you became the Chief Creative Officer for XM satellite radio.  This gave you a chance to explore your incredible creativity & really reinvent radio as we know it. How did you go about it?

Lee Abrams: We had the luxury of two years. First, we hired amazing people. Track records didn’t matter, we hired from record store managers to un-hireable brilliant misfits. Of every 100 people we talked to, 99 didn’t get “it”—the one that did, we hired.  Here’s a piece on hiring from back then;

“We are not bringing in a staff…. we are signing up a cast.”

Once you have the blueprints, the company support of the vision, you have the makings of the ultimate operations team that has a prayer to execute some crazy ideas.

People running the creative have to have a great mind – more mind than track record. Then the tools to revolutionize broadcasting are secondary.

What could possibly fuck things up???

Hiring average people or creating an environment not conducive to creativity, imagination, freedom and passion.

Look at it like a movie. XM should sound like a soundtrack to life…not “radio”…. there’s already radio and it’s free.

Fabulous script. Studio support. Critics tensed and ready. Great directors & producers.

Everything is in place.

What could screw that up???

The wrong actors…. average casting. With the right actors, ya got an Oscar coming.

Look at any great movie. It’s got the story…. it’s got the sound…. it’s got the right actors. Great casting!

Broadcasting is the same thing. We gotta hire amazing individuals and that means:

  • brilliant dreamers
  • the right person for the plot. The wrong DJ on an XM channel is like casting Woody Allen for the Rocky part.
  • people that have “it”.
  • eccentrics……all the way to the bank.
  • warriors. Ready to accept and complete the mission of revolutionizing. In XM’s case, we preached: liberating radio listeners with the same moxie as a motivated group of Rangers freeing up a village. XM is not the place for the meek or for the “K-109 plays the hits” crowd……It’s war out there. We have the tanks. We have the strategy and tactics…we just need the men and women who can win this damn thing!

Nothing will sabotage the mission more than an “average” hire to execute. Nothing will speed up total creative victory more than a great hire.

Gotta keep a place runnin’ on eccentric energy…. hyper creativity…otherworldly brilliance. It’s the spirit that’s going to take a place through the stratosphere. It’s an energy…an intensity…a cleverness…a “way of thinking” that separates you from the rest of the pack.

I have nightmares about ‘joe’ radios, aka pukers. Joe radios and average types polluting an inventive environment. Innovative turf is sacred…. hiring is an art….as we recruit, you must maintain the standards, high values and “it” radar that got you hired in the first place.

At XM, and I’d think with most inventive media companies:

*Be careful with convenience hires

Out of work…. pretty average, but “available…cheap, and can come quickly.” No!

Out of work because they got drunk and did bong hits with Jimmy Page after the Zep show in ’73, and barfed on the GM while giving him a lift back to the station in Jimmy’s limo…. or did acid with the Chief Engineer in ’86 and rewired the transmitter… yes!  (well…you know what I mean)

A friend of yours who is a nice, reliable guy but not amazing.  No!

A friend of yours that happens to be amazing… (c’mon you know that’s rare). Yes!

The point is we’ll raise a big red flag with out of work or personal friends whose merit is your friendship…….I worry about convenience over brilliance.

*look for “it”…more specifically;

Natural voices. no pukers…no forced “big voices”. We’re all about reality not big ballsy voices.

Format passion. Livers of the format lifestyle, not “generalists”…. but guys & gals who live and breathe your formats. Never: “hey, I can do AC, Country, Rap, Rock…passion what’s that? I’m a “radio guy” and can do anything.  No! Test them! Play Fawlty Towers and The Three Stooges to potential hires to check if a candidate “got it”….

  • eccentricity. “Getting” the things that aren’t so obvious. Most don’t. We don’t want them if they don’t.
  • new ideas. Already doing a call without “10th caller” cliché?? Hmm, that’s good.
  • un-hireables…weirdos…. bring ’em on! 85% may be too weird…but 15% might be brilliantly weird.
  • smart people…real smart people. Not necessarily “educated” smart…. but life smart – high IQ.
  • experienced pros? 90% are tired burn-outs. Experience is often bullshit. It’s where your mind is now and where it can go. (Now—as far as a doctor or airline pilot—I’ll take experience every time…but in our world, experience can mean baggage)
  • strange accents? Yes! What’s with this thing radio has about hiring nice clear voices? Let’s get some street in there.

Think! Does the candidate really and truly show potential for greatness…or is their tape and mind maxed out? Be honest! We need people who can hold up, join in and contribute. This is the “creative” majors. No creative minor leaguers in this camp, pal! This is not the place for the creatively weak, suit n tie, normal Americans. Bring us your brilliance…not your average.

Does the candidate live in the same space we do? Most people don’t.

We can’t pollute XM or the airwaves with anything less than brilliant people….

  • whiners, boring or negative people. They will not last here. Grumpy is ok…. Goofy is ok…. Out-there is ok…Boring or negative are unacceptable.
  • evil danger zone of average. 99.99999999% of America’s radio guys are in the evil average zone…avoid them. Seek people who can stand up to the intensity of “the mission” and help you take it higher and further. Working at creative places is hard, challenging, insane, tiring…but there is no other gig in the world as cool as a place that’s really re-inventing.

After they were hired we did boot camps…every week or so. All day offsite affairs to cleanse them of everything they assumed about radio…and they’re taught the XM way. It was inspirational for all.  We hired people who got into radio to create magic, but found themselves reading liners for wet tee-shirt contests. We gave them a new lease on their imagination…as long as it was within the wide parameters of our mission.

GS: Of all the programs & shows you created at XM which ones are you proudest of?

LA: The Bob Dylan Show!  Here’s a Dylan Diary I wrote about signing him;

Secondly, Artist Confidential. Audience of about 50. The artist was interviewed, interacted with the crowd and performed –Inside The Actors Studio, but with musicians.  It had such a good reputation in the artist community. We had McCartney, Sting and Santana…as well as Odetta, Pete Seeger and Yo-Yo Ma. It was amazing.

Then again, it was also cool. Artists came in and performed their classic albums exactly in the same running order as vinyl…had aqualung, eat a peach etc… brilliant.

GS: Tell us about the cliché buzzer you had at XM?

LA: Three buzzes and you are fired. That quickly stopped folks from suggesting block party weekends or bad radio promo clichés at a time when brutal reinvention was in order.

GS: You also helped some major artists with their careers. What did you do for them & who did you enjoy working with the most?

LA:  I was their eyes and ears to the street as often the management and label were too close to the business to have a street feel. One manager referred to the audience as ‘the kids’—odd since the average fan was 40.  Worked with Yes, Iron Maiden, Bob Seger, Moody Blues and many others.  Loved Yes as they were/are pals too.  Also had record label with Dave Mason, Johnny Winter and Eric Johnson, who I think has the highest selling rock instrumental album of all time.

GS: You are now the co-founder & CEO of V-Satcast. What do you intend to do with V-Satcast?

LA: The short version is that its XM on steroids. A global satellite network, but video not audio. Quincy Jones is one of our founding partners

GS: How important is it to develop super personalities like Howard Stern?  

LA:  Critical, but understanding that Howard’s level of talent is rare. I was at WWWW in Detroit and we hired a young Stern.  Management wanted him to read liners and play 8 songs an hour. I went to the mat defending his total freedom. We won. So my best advice is if, by chance, someone has extraordinary talent, don’t stifle them.

GS: What are some of the most important ingredients that programmers should keep in mind for making great radio?

LA:  See what makes and kills great stations and think like a fan not a radio person.  Break free from the BS and start thinking and surround yourself with eccentric brilliance.

GS: what are the three biggest mistakes that radio stations make that ultimately causes them to fail?


(1)  The Sheep Factor—nothing original.

(2)  The Generic Factor—sounding like a utility rather than a ‘theatre of the mind’ headquarters of radio theatre.

(3)  Afraid to be a true classic programmer for fear of being perceived as unbusinesslike.

GS: What advice can you give PDs or Content Directors on how to get the best out of their on-air talent?

LA:  The big three;

Powerful writing.

One on one bonding.

Killer evangelical staff meetings.

GS: What kind of challenges and opportunities do you see for radio in this world of social media?  

LA: When MTV emerged, stations had an MTV inferiority complex. Screw that! You are radio…you are everywhere…swagger!  confidence!  work it. Don’t fall into the ‘radio is dead’ trap, or it will be.  It is creatively on life-support, but that is self-inflicted.

GS: How has social media changed the way you do business?  

LA: You really have to be careful what you say; you have to have thicker skin to ward off the haters and it is an incredibly fast and powerful way to communicate to individuals and groups. But social media can also be an excuse business wise–it’s a marketing tool, not the end-all, at least in our space.

GS: What are your three smart phone favourite apps and why?

LA: I’m a pilot so they are fltplan.com and forelight.com along with my various musical apps, Garageband among others.

GS: There are many career highlights.  Is there a stand out moment that you really cherish?  

LA: That’s a tough one, though the whole XM experience was probably the highlight…but I can’t help thinking the best moment hasn’t happened yet.

GS: Do you have any regrets; things you would have done differently?

LA: I got into drugs and drinking.  It was fun, but not particularly productive.

GS: You’ve achieved so much. What’s left on your wish list?

LA:  V-Satcast!  This is the “big one”—-I’d love to reimagine radio too, but that opportunity just doesn’t exist, at least in the USA.

GS: What do you do for fun?  

LA:  Flying!  Collecting transportation history. Restaurants. Writing.

GS: You have a very special link to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.  tell us about it?

LA: My daughter did her senior year at Sunshine Coast University…met a guy…got married…lives in Mooloolaba.  She is in love with Australia….I don’t blame her.  Just had a baby so I will be on that flight to Queensland often!

You can read Greg Smith’s chat with Lee and Part 1 here and Part 2 here. If you want to reach out to Lee, shoot an email [email protected]

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