Westward Hoaxes

Denver officials and the press grope for the best way to deal with bogus anthrax scares.

No joke. XM's chief programmer is Lee Abrams, who, as the head of the consulting firm Burkhart, Abrams Inc., developed the "superstars" format; its success led directly to the narrowing of playlists throughout commercial radio. Jim Knipfel, writing in the New York Press, places this move in perspective, describing Abrams as "the man who many in the industry hold solely responsible for killing radio over the past two decades."

Knipfel adds that insiders at XM suggest Abrams has embraced satellite radio because he wants to "redeem himself for all the damage he's caused." But Abrams, who was part of the XM contingent that traveled to Denver, where he once consulted for KBPI and the now-defunct KAZY, won't go there. "I would have loved to do completely freeform radio over the years, because I'm a music junkie," he says. "But stations hired us to get ratings, and that's what we did. We'd come in, and there'd be a lot of freeform stations with small but loyal audiences, and even though we didn't want to do it, we would generally put them out of business, which is why we would get blamed -- why people would go, 'How can you do this?' But a lot of those stations sort of self-destructed, because they were so elite."

Nevertheless, Abrams insists, "The way stations get listeners today is 180 degrees from what we did then. The research and everything has gotten out of control. That's why at XM, we have a no-research policy. All the music decisions are back in the hands of the program directors, where they should be."

Jay Bevenour

Abrams compares the thrill of hearing XM for the first time to the sensations listeners felt when, during the late '60s and early '70s, FM radio arose to test old-school AM. But one of the great things about FM from this period was its eclecticism -- listeners could hear rock, jazz, blues, soul, funk, bluegrass and who knows what else during the span of a single hour. In contrast, most of the XM stations Abrams touts are very niche-oriented.

"A lot of people don't realize this, but classic rock really has three generations," he maintains. "You have the Dylan-Kinks-Stones era, the Led Zeppelin-Jethro Tull era, and you have the Police-U2 era. And rather than having those eras crash against each other on one channel, we'll have the luxury of a dedicated channel for each of them." He adds that there will be places intended for people looking for a stimulating mix of genres, but he describes even his favorite of those, dubbed Fine Tuning, in the context of a very specific demographic: "You'll hear the Chieftains, a Beatles track you haven't heard for years, Vangelis, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Dave Brubeck, and then maybe even something from Norway that's really cool. It's for somebody over forty who grew up with music but stopped listening to radio because nothing's challenged him enough. But this won't challenge him in a low-end alternative way. It's something aimed at his level of sophistication."

With car manufacturers throwing their weight behind the company and media organizations such as CNN contributing programming, XM has got time to prove itself. Moreover, Abrams swears that the number of subscribers who need to sign up to help the operation sustain itself "isn't as high as people think -- in the low millions, I'd say." To his mind, XM "is really reinventing radio," and there's no doubt the medium could benefit from being born again.

What's unresolved is whether Abrams should be the midwife.

You don't always get what you pay for: The Denver Post is spending a lot of dough covering the fallout from September 11, supporting several overseas correspondents in far-flung locales. But despite this investment, Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin, who's been reporting from the East Coast since shortly after the World Trade Center fell, has offered by far the best homegrown coverage to be found in the Denver dailies. It's no surprise, then, that early last month Post executives attempted to convince Littwin to jump ship.

Neither Littwin nor Post editor Glenn Guzzo will comment on this topic, but reliable sources say that despite heavy courting and a generous six-figures-per-annum offer, Littwin decided to stick with the News. That sound you just heard was the Rocky management heaving a sigh of relief.

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