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Lee Abrams and his 'Sky Dives'

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When he's not busy reinventing media, Lee Abrams, the Tribune Company's chief innovation officer, hops in his Cirrus SR22 and flies to dive restaurants around the Midwest.

For 30 years, this has been his hobby. During the last two, he's recorded his experiences for a 60-second feature called "Sky Dives," which airs weekends on Tribune-owned WGN America.

In late spring, Abrams stopped by the Mug-N-Bun and Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis. That installment of "Sky Dives" will be seen at various times July 3 and 4.

"We're not there to review it," Abrams said in an interview a couple of weeks ago. "This is a celebration of these places."

Here's more of what he said in a conversation that started out about food and veered into his long career in media.

NUVO: Cities these days pretty much have all the same stores and the same entertainment. Is food the last difference we have?

Abrams: I think that's pretty much true. Particularly things that are exclusive to the town, I think restaurants are the last bastion of that.

NUVO: You go to dives. Have you been any place that was too much of a dive for you?

Abrams: No. We do our research. So we're pretty well aware of what we're getting ourselves into. We have bordered on places that are almost too nice. But too dive-y? No.

NUVO: Tell me about the research. How is it done?

Abrams: I've been doing this since the '70s just for fun, so you get a list together of places you remember that are unique to the area - the real kind of Americana. Then, at a lot of sights you go to, there's road food. And just word of mouth. You talk to people, you get e-mails from people - especially after the show launched. You put it all together, there's no shortage of places.

NUVO: Were there any places you ate and regretted it late, gastro-intestinally speaking?

Abrams: We do two places per trip. So I would say every trip, we end up gastro-intestinally challenged. Not necessarily because of hygiene. Just from eating too much. But we've never gotten sick anywhere.

Nuvo: Anybody ever turn you down?

Abrams: Yeah, there was a place in Cincinnati. It's rare, but every now and then they don't get it or don't want to be bothered. There have been two or three places.

NUVO: Have you been to Indianapolis yet?

Abrams: We went to the Mug-N-Bun and Hollyhock Hill.

NUVO: You didn't go to The Workingman's Friend?

Abrams: I love that place. On the "Sky Dives" checklist, it met every qualification. The thing that got us about the Mug-N-Bun was the whole drive-in thing. It's a dying phenomenon, so we wanted to do that. The Workingman's Friend is fantastic. Any place that has a cigarette machine and encourages smoking, how can that be bad? And the jukebox with the right types of songs.

About six months ago, we were visiting our TV station there (WXIN Channel 59) and the general manager (Jerry Martin) knew we wanted a certain kind of place, so he said, "We've gotta go to The Workingman's Friend." I got a T-shirt and we had a great time. He was the one who took me to the Mug-N-Bun, too.

NUVO: I'm sure everybody who talks to you tells you a favorite place, right?

Abrams: Yes. And generally speaking, personal recommendations from people who live in the town are terrible. Jerry's were right on the money, but that's rare. Generally, we look for multiple recommendations or established food sources.

NUVO: Hollyhock Hill is a little too nice, I think.

Abrams: That is as far upscale as we can go. The thing I like about that is how long it's been there, and the fried chicken is kind of a regional Hoosier thing. And it's just bizarre. There's nobody in the place under 90. The people were so polite, it was weird. But in a good way.

NUVO: Don't you like going places where you bring down the median age?

Abrams: We do that all the time because a lot of these places have been there forever and are kind of forgotten by the hip, cool people. And the local writers might think they're old style. They're looking for the new, cutting edge. So we end up in a lot of places with tour buses and church groups. But usually, there's a reason they've been in business so long.

NUVO: When you come back, John's Famous Stews is another one worth going to.

Abrams: Yep. I want to go to Grays Cafeteria (in Mooresville). I've heard some good reviews of that.

NUVO: Let me ask you some media-related stuff. Newsweek named you one of the cultural elites for creating modern-day radio. So when you listen to terrestrial radio today, when you hear radio stations manned by two or three local deejays and the rest of the time it's syndicated or voice-tracked programming, what do you think?

Abrams: On one hand, I can understand how these guys paid so much for the stations and they've got to keep the costs down. What I don't understand is just how unlistenable the stations are, musically. It's sad. And it's so clichéd. It used to be the soundtrack of America, all these stations looking for new music and new angles. Now they're just on autopilot. I wouldn't mind the smaller staffs if the programming was any good.

NUVO: On the other hand, one thing that's often written about you is that you're the guy who killed free-form radio. So, defend yourself.

Abrams: You know, the intention was never to kill it. There were a lot of people who just wanted to hear mainstream music - you know, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull - and were happy with that. That's what we did. I think those free-form stations shot themselves in the foot. We were just doing our thing, and it just worked. Most of those stations just got so self-absorbed. The midday guy doesn't like Hendrix, so he didn't play Hendrix. I think they self-destructed on their own.

On one hand, there were these screaming Top 40 stations that played all the Donny Osmond. On the other hand, there were stations that were playing 20-minute Frank Zappa songs. And that's fine. We were in the middle there, saw an opportunity there and it worked.

NUVO: You were also with XM when it was dominating satellite radio.

Abrams: I was actually the first employee there. I can also say, from a purely musical standpoint, I made amends with the music community.

NUVO: But ultimately, XM lost, and I'd say it's because Sirius signed Howard Stern.

Abrams: You know, that's painful because Howard wanted to come with us, we'd been romancing him for a year, and our board of directors didn't want to pay him what he wanted. Then Sirius came and paid him way more than we were going to offer him - and probably would have taken - and they got him. That was bad. There would be no Sirius if we would have gotten him. Oh well. We fought for it, but the board was more telecommunications guys than entertainment guys, and they never really got it.

NUVO: He's the only guy in radio that people are paying for. Nobody's paying for Rush, nobody's paying for Oprah. They're paying for Howard Stern. I'm one of those people.

Abrams: Me too. Huge fan. The two things we found that people were willing to pay for were Major League Baseball and Bob Dylan. Everything else didn't really matter.

NUVO: Tell me about being chief innovation officer for Tribune. What have you been innovating lately?

Abrams: Initially, we were trying to reinvent the newspapers as much as we could, to at least get them stabilized and out of freefall. That's actually been pretty successful, though it's still pretty troubled. The focus right now is on television. We finished a pilot for a morning news kind of show and we also finished a pilot for p.m. news that's just dramatically different.

We're finding that most television news is pretty cheesy. It's based on 1980s focus groups, and you really can't expect stations to fix it on their own with tweaks and critiques and having the anchors stand up, as if that's going to make any difference. So we're just doing something dramatically different that may not be for every market, but in stations where the traditional approach isn't working, this just might be it.

NUVO: When will we see it?

Abrams: Soon. Hopefully by the end of the summer, I think.

NUVO: Where will we see it?

Abrams: Not in Chicago. That station does so well. And Indianapolis does well too. In some markets - we've got to figure that out - where we've got nothing to lose.

Nuvo: What's the best thing you've done to the Tribune Company's newspapers?

Abrams: I would think some of the redesign that you see, like the Chicago Tribune. It's significantly different, if you look at a paper from two years ago to one now. And also I'd say it's a little more mass appeal. When I first got to Chicago, the Cubs and Sox were playing - it was like civil war in Chicago - and the Chicago Tribune didn't even put it on the front page. It was, "Our readers don't care for that." And now it's a front-page story and it's huge.

Or another example, a musical example: There'd be like two pages on the opera changing musical directors and one sentence on Garth Brooks playing at Soldier Field. I'm not saying don't cover the opera, but we've got to give things better balance. It's not 1938 anymore. It's a new era and there's a lot of ways to get news and information, and you have to do it in a very contemporary way. Some people read that as dumbing down. It's not that at all. It's getting in sync with today.

NUVO: And this is something I hope you can clear up for me: Tribune is supposed to be bankrupt, but it's paying out a lot of bonuses. Can you explain that?

Abrams: You know, you'd really have to talk to Gary Weitman (senior vice president of corporate relations) about that because I am so far away from the whole financial side. When bankers come to town, I get to go on vacation because they don't want me around.

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