Bar Bulletin

July, 2004

Do You Remember Rock N' Roll Radio?
By Patrick Tandy

STILL HOWLIN' AT THE MOON
Attorney/disc jockey Adele Abrams still keeps the plates spinning

“I don’t advertise it,” attorney and sometime-disc jockey Adele Abrams says of her side gig as Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt keep a watchful eye from their framed vantage points on the walls of Abrams’s Beltsville, Maryland, office. “It’s more word of mouth – the people who know I have that background have been over to my house and seen my collection, and then they say, ‘Well, my daughter’s getting married. Would you be interested in doing that?’”

“I do people’s private parties or weddings if they ask me to,” she continues. “There’s a community group that I’m involved with, and I’ve done their holiday party for a few years. That’s a lot of fun. I have to rent the soundboard because I don’t own one – I haven’t gone to that level of craziness. But I bring all my own music.”

And Abrams has quite a bit to choose from: roughly 5,000 albums and CDs by recent estimates.

“So,” Abrams adds with a hearty laugh, “if you want a good time, call Adele.”

But spinning wax is no latter-day, mid-life obsession for Abrams – indeed, her DJ credibility is every bit as solid as her qualifications to practice law.

Sound far-fetched? Well, maybe to you square brains out there. But to anyone in possession of a mere ounce of cool, the transition will make perfect sense because – as Leiber and Stoller pointed out in that song the Coasters made famous – baby, that is rock and roll…

♦♦♦

“The way I got into [radio] was in college,” says Abrams, who worked at the University of Maryland’s radio station, WMUC, while pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism. “And immediately after college I got a job with a station, WINX-AM, in Rockville.” There she bolstered her resume by selling radio time while picking up some on-air experience – but this stone was rolling toward greener, moss-free pastures.

“WINX was a Top 40 station, and I was going out of my mind playing ‘Billy, Don’t Be a Hero’ and stuff like that 20 times a day,” Abrams admits.

“About three months into my stint at WINX, I heard through the radio grapevine that WHFS was looking to hire a female air personality because at that time it was kind of a boys’ club,” she continues. “I had always been a fan of HFS. It was kind of ironic because my goal in life at that time was of course to work in radio – long before law was ever on my radar screen. So I sent a demo tape from one of the air checks that I did at the college station show, which was more freeform, progressive music, figuring nothing would happen. And much to my dismay and pleasure I got a call to come in for an interview.

“I went over and met with the program director – this was when HFS was over in Bethesda – and [he] and I sat down and argued about which was the best Miles Davis album for a couple of hours. And since I disagreed with him, I figured I had blown any chance at a job. Instead, they called me, and I started about a week later, just doing the graveyard Saturday morning shift, initially, from 6:00 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.”

At HFS, Abrams filled in for vacationing coworkers, but it was in engineering the station’s foreign shows that she found the spice of variety that she had been craving.

“HFS used to broker out its time on Sundays, so you’d really have a UN-variety of programs,” Abrams explains. “I’d have the Indian Hour and the Greek Show and the Italian Show and the French Show – at one point they had two different Korean Shows. We had the Afghanistan Relief Hour and a gospel show…so it was quite interesting for me. I got to learn a little bit of a lot of languages doing that.”

Then in 1975, opportunity yet again presented itself to Abrams, albeit in the form of tragedy: Damian Einstein, one of the station’s full-time air personalities, was involved in a horrific automobile accident that left him comatose for several months.

“They actually didn’t think he was going to make it,” Abrams remembers. “I was hired to replace him full-time because it was clear he wasn’t coming back any time soon. So at that point I assumed his shift of 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. six nights a week. And I did that for a good while.”

The hours ultimately took their toll, however, and Abrams, deciding she “couldn’t be a night-crawler forever,” withdrew to working behind the scenes. In addition to writing and producing ads and performing voice-overs, she retained the Saturday show, which by then occupied the more desirable slot of 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. – a gig she would keep until her ultimate departure from HFS in 1988.

There were other radio- and music-related jobs for Abrams, including a stint at WWRC in Washington, DC, in the early ’80s, where she put her communications background to work as Program Promotion Director, as well as forays into public access television (profiling local artists with her show, Takoma Tempo). But it is her time with HFS of which she speaks the most fondly.

“[I]t was a progressive rock station,” Abrams says of her on-air days when she could be heard peppering her rock selections with everything from blues to bluegrass, folk to flamenco, as well as a wide variety other traditional music – often all within a single set. “The only criterion for me was that it had to be something that I liked. I had to feel that there was a quality to it. I would throw comedy in to different things. I would do thematic sets that had topics. If I could start off a set with Emmylou Harris, go through some rock and end up with John McLaughlin or something; to me, that would be a good set because I would be exposing the listener to a variety of music and yet introducing it to them in a palatable way, where they could relate it to things that they were familiar with. And stations I don’t think do that much anymore.”

True to form, Abrams – who went simply by “Adele” on the air – was not afraid to challenge her listeners.

“Sometimes I would try to have a little bit of fun with the audience to see if they figured out what I was doing,” she says. “One time, I had a guy call me and he said, ‘I started listening at the beginning of your set, and you’ve been going for 30 minutes and haven’t changed key.’ He had started playing along on his guitar at home with the first song in the set and he realized [the pattern]. And I was doing that intentionally, just to see if anybody would pick up on it.”

Format changes ushered in with new ownership ultimately led Abrams to call it quits with the station.

“They formatted the station, and they were going have a play list,” she says. “I thought, if I’m going to give up my weekends, I’m not going to do it just to play what somebody else wants me to play because the announcing part of it was never the big deal for me. I mean, I am a ham, I like speaking. I like doing trial work and making my arguments, and I still give a lot of speeches on safety-related issues and legal training, but for me it was all about the music. And if I couldn’t pick my own music there was really no value to me in having that outlet.

“When I worked there, [HFS] was freeform, and we all selected our own music,” Abrams explains. “When I was active in it – and, you know, I’ll sound like an old fogy – alternative and progressive were terms that actually had meaning. The radio stations today are so constrained in playing only one or two cuts from a disc that might come out…I think to a certain extent all of the Internet downloading is a pretty healthy thing because it does at least give listeners the opportunity to share music with each other, and if I were to take a position – not on the legality of it – but I would say [listeners] are doing for themselves what commercial radio no longer provides for them.”

Ah, yes: speaking of which…

♦♦♦

“I will say that [working at WRC] kind of sparked my interest in government and politics, listening to the talk radio and being involved with that,” Abrams explains. “Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden were doing a show at that time, and John McLaughlin had a radio show, so it was very politically-oriented. And I think that got me interested and [was] ultimately what ended up getting me down the road toward law school, which was government affairs work.”

Registration with a writers’ outplacement agency landed Abrams some freelance work with the Tobacco Institute (TI), which would introduce Abrams (a former smoker) to the world of grassroots lobbying.

“That was a springboard into the association field,” Abrams explains. “Although I was initially doing the freelance writing, they hired me on staff at TI because they liked the work I was doing. I was there for about three years, and one of the guys who worked there went to work for [the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, or ARTBA] as a newsletter editor. He was there about three months and his boss dropped dead. He got promoted into his boss’ job, so he needed somebody in a hurry. He knew me and I guess liked my writing so he recruited me over. So now all of a sudden I’m wearing a hardhat.”

Four years later, Abrams went to work for the National Stone Association.

“[It]’s the mining industry – aggregates, materials that are used in construction,” she explains. “The president of that association had known me from my ARTBA role, and they needed somebody. I got very involved with doing Capitol Hill coverage and some lobbying-type work. So it was a natural transition...and I worked there for seven years.”
“I went from one kind of rock to another,” Abrams quips, pointing to the small black bust in a hard hat sitting on a table across her office. “Mike the miner over there. He’s made out of coal. I really fell in love with the safety area while I was working at the last two associations and immersed myself in it. About a third [of my practice is] in the occupational safety and health area. I represent employers in OSHA and MSHA litigation, but – and this gets weird, too – I’m also the only attorney in the country who’s a certified mine safety professional.”

It was during her tenure with National Stone that Abrams decided to put her experience (and her new employer’s tuition reimbursement policy) to the test.

“I took the LSAT and got into the evening program at George Washington University, and so I worked fulltime as Director of Government Affairs for the National Stone Association [while I] went to law school, basically four or five nights a week for four years.”

Once out of law school, Abrams went directly to work in the Georgetown office of a large firm.

“I stayed there for five years and then decided that no one should have to be around 300 attorneys every day,” she admits. “So I went to the other extreme [and] started my own firm.”

Today, the firm that started out to be Abrams and an office manager alone has grown to have a staff of 12. But like a skipping needle the question lingers: What really draws a former radio personality and one-time “wild girl” to the law?

“Well, without sounding trite and altruistic, it’s being able to make a difference,” Abrams explains, citing the limitations of working for a large firm. “I was dealing primarily with corporations there – there was no personal interface. I know a lot of people, and I wasn’t able to take their cases because they didn’t meet the income threshold to qualify as clients at my old firm. I believe that people who are in the lower income brackets deserve quality representation and their problems are their Number One concern and they need a lawyer who’s going take stuff as seriously as they do. You know, to be able to handle a family case and do so in a manner that is aggressive in terms of your representation but respectful of the other party. I try to stay cognizant of the fact that these people are going to have to have relations with each other after the litigation ends, so I try to avoid a thermonuclear approach to things. Yes, you want to win for your client, but is it really winning if they’re going to have to exchange their children at McDonald’s for the next 10 years? You have to look at it in the broad context.”

♦♦♦

“I think there are a lot of similarities between being a DJ and being a lawyer,” says Abrams, a long-time proponent of local music who still takes in live shows at places like the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, the Ram’s Head in Annapolis, and the 9:30 Club in D.C.. “You have to have pretty thick skin because you’re not going to please all the people all the time. The opposing party’s always going to have a different perspective on things. And if you’re DJing a live event, you’re going to have people in the audience who come up and say, ‘My grandfather’s here and he wants to hear some Tommy Dorsey.’ And as soon as you put Tommy Dorsey on you’ve got five 17-year-olds who are charging the stage wanting to hear Limp Bizkit. Fortunately I have both in my collection, so I tell them, ‘Not now, I’ll get to it – but in the meantime check this out, ‘cause this is some pretty happenin’ stuff.’”

“I suppose if I were going to bring things full-circle I’d probably be representing some musicians right about now,” she adds. “In fact, I have represented a couple of musicians that I know in helping them to get paid when shows were cancelled on them at the eleventh hour, but I’ve never done any artist representation work as a lawyer. It would be kind of fun to bring it full circle and actually be able to legally represent some of these groups and negotiate some big record deals for them.”

“Maybe I’ll do that in my next lifetime,” she laughs.

But rock and roll is about the here and now, and each spinning groove brings the listener one step closer to the question: How long will the party last?

“Let me put it this way: I’m not getting rid of my vinyl any time soon,” Abrams says. “My only concern is that someday I’m not going to be able to buy a stylus for my turntable anymore.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July, 2004

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