Tribune Co.: Work in Progress

On April 1, 2009, anyone who typed into his favorite browser would have learned the big news surrounding The Accelerator. As the home page of the Chicago-based Tribune Company’s Web portal explained, The Accelerator was “a high-power, low-cost communications device” that would “make all media, including the Internet, obsolete by next year.” It used “nano-technology to aggregate the sum of all human knowledge” in order to deliver it “directly into your brain.” The project won the effusive praise of Tribune COO Randy Michaels, who credited staffers with putting in “long hours, many of them sober.”

The Accelerator was also, of course, an April Fool’s Day prank.

“Yes, I was involved in writing some of that silliness,” confesses Lee Abrams, the company’s chief innovations officer. In truth, however, The Accelerator was far, far more than an April Fool’s gag. It was emblematic of just how far the once supremely buttoned-up Tribune Company—which roosts within an 84-year-old Gothic-revival tower downtown—has come in the past year or so. Back in the day, for the Tribune to give anything as public as a home page over to a prank would have been about as likely as finding white-linen tablecloths at the Billy Goat Tavern.

“[The Accelerator] was a joke, but it also was a symbol of the dramatic cultural changes that have happened, and are still happening, here at the company,” Abrams continues. “We really feel that to do the best work possible you have to create an environment where creativity and innovation aren’t an option; they are mandatory.”

The Accelerator also happened to be a birthday card for the 55-year-old Abrams, who was brought in exactly a year before by Michaels to infuse the company with a major dose of creativity and fresh thinking, qualities that Abrams demonstrated repeatedly during his career as one of the media industry’s preeminent Renaissance men.

Indeed, you might not know Lee Abrams by name, but chances are you know some of what he’s responsible for. Abrams’ work has included the redesign of Rolling Stone and  he was involved in the creation of the MTV cable network. But his real claim to fame was in the radio business, where he is credited with inventing the modern radio format structure, including Album Rock, Classic Rock, Urban/Dance and New Age/Jazz.

Abrams was also one of the colorful minds behind “Disco Demolition Night,” a stunt that took place on a hot July night in 1979. Fans of Chicago radio station WLUP were invited to a doubleheader at Comiskey Park, and told they could get in for 98 cents (98 is the station’s home on the FM dial) if they brought a disco record along. The idea was to pile all the hated vinyl into a crate in center field, then blow it up. Inebriated fans—and 90,000 people showed up to a ballpark that could hold only 52,000—stormed the field instead. By the time the police left and the fires were put out, 39 people had been arrested. The notorious event has found its place in marketing history as proof that some ideas can be too successful, but that all publicity is good.

In 1993, Abrams was named by Newsweek as one of America’s “100 Cultural Elite.” Five years later, he took on another major challenge when he became the chief programming officer of then-nascent XM Satellite Radio. In fact, Abrams had accomplished so much in his professional life, there seemed few challenges that he hadn’t taken on.

Then Michaels and Sam Zell came knocking.

Though the two had never worked together, radio-veteran Michaels had been a longtime buddy of Abrams. In April 2007, following a boardroom revolt that had forced the Tribune Company to go private, Michaels and real-estate billionaire Zell put themselves in control of the operation. They also found themselves in a lot of trouble. Newspaper circulation and ad revenue were in a nationwide free fall as legions of readers were opting to get their news online. Media buyers and industry analysts were increasingly concluding that  newsprint was about as enticing to Web-age readers as a game of Pong would be to an X-Box owner.
Tribune’s problems were exacerbated by a $13 billion debt load created by Zell’s takeover—a debt that could scarcely be serviced by nosediving revenues.