There has never been a “typical day” in the career of CMT Senior Vice President of Music Strategy Leslie Fram. Whether welcoming Elton John to her morning radio show in Atlanta, interviewing country superstars like Keith Urban or launching such game changing initiatives such as CMT Equal Play, Fram has always been an innovator who is passionate about music and the people who create it.
“We really try to support artists on every level from independent to emerging to super stars and we have different platforms to do that from our editorial and our social teams,” Fram tells Sounds Like Nashville.
“I oversee music and talent for CMT with a team of amazing people. We do everything from programming our video channel to booking artists for all of our music franchises. We work on our CMT Music Awards, CMT Crossroads, Artist of the Year and 4th of July and anything that we do under music [including] Hot 20 Countdown. So it’s really on every level. We work closely with the labels in town and managers and publishers, anything that has to do with music on the channel.”
A native of Fairhope, AL, Fram began her career in radio while attending the University of South Alabama. “I worked at a Top 40 station through college. That was my first full-time job in radio,” she says. “I wanted to be a journalist, and then in high school I got the bug for radio with a little station in town called WABF. I did an internship there and then they hired me to be on the air on weekends and run a lot of public affairs programming.”
Fram’s responsibilities and profile in radio continued to increase. “Through college I was doing midnight to 6 a.m. at this album oriented rock station and going to school from like 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It was a fun time,” she recalls. “That station went through a lot of different iterations and then became a top 40 station. I was moved over to the FM and became a top 40 station, so I really started in album oriented rock and then top 40.”
Fram moved to Atlanta and spent 17 years at an alternative station. “We programmed to the market and we could break people that we thought were great,” she says. “We produced all of our own shows and it was such a different time because we had autonomy. I feel for a lot of program directors now because I know they are overseeing multiple stations. They are wearing multiple hats and it’s really hard.”
In 2008, her contract was up at the station in Atlanta and the station was going through a change in ownership. “What I really was focusing on was helping a lot of those people that worked for me for years get a job,” she says. “There was this new radio station in New York [WRXP] and I knew the GM [general manager] because he had worked for a previous company that I was a part of. I called him up and said, ‘Look I’ve got all these great on air people. Can I send you tapes?’ He said, ‘Yes, let me get you in touch with the program director.’ So I’m sending him stuff and trying to get some people jobs and then the next thing I knew, this program director had taken a leave of absence and the GM asked me if I would come up for a meeting. I did and he offered me the job, which was not what I was expecting. I just thought I was going up there to meet with him and I said yes without even thinking about it.”
Suddenly Fram found herself making the move to New York City and embracing the city’s energy. “I’d never lived in New York and I went up there and we had this great run for three years with this kind of this alternative rock hybrid,” Fram says, adding that she did get to hire some of her staff from the Atlanta station. “I went up there just to program, but when I got there they said, ‘Hey we’ve hired Matt Pinfield who used to be on MTV. We want him to do mornings and we’d love for you to do mornings with him because you’ve been doing mornings all these years.’ So it was getting up at 3:30 in the morning, doing the morning show and then programming the station until 6 or 7 at night and then going out and doing events. It literally was the whirlwind, but when you are in New York, you’ve got that energy and you just go for it.”
As often happens in radio, the station sold to another company and the format changed to news talk. Fram began looking for her next opportunity. “At a crossroads, I called my mentor, Brian Phillips,” she says. “Brian was like, ‘We might have some changes here at CMT.’ I was like, ‘Country?’ So I came in to see Brian and he offered me the job. Country just wasn’t in my world until I said yes. Then I went from radio to TV and from rock to country. For a year, I really put my head down and learned the music. I went to a ton of shows and learned the job. You have to meet a whole new set of people because the labels and managers are all different. I did that for a year and met people morning, noon and night and really fell in love with the music obviously, and fell in love with the songwriters. It’s been a great experience. I love all kinds of music, so being in Nashville, I pinch myself every day.”
The Nashville community is happy to have Fram leading the charge at CMT. Since joining CMT in 2011, she’s become known as a passionate advocate for artists and songwriters, and she’s been particularly vocal in championing women. CMT launched the Next Women of Country franchise in 2013 to provide exposure to both signed and unsigned country female artists. Tanya Tucker is headlining this year’s tour, which also Aubrie Sellers, Erin Enderlin, Brandy Clark, Hailey Whitters, Madison Kozak and Walker County.
“When I moved here and started to realize that there was a lack of support for females that’s when we started CMT Next Women of Country to really expose the videos and we had started this digital series to do acoustic performances and personality pieces,” she says. “Then it transitioned into a tour because we knew it’s this ripple effect—if you don’t have a song on the radio, it’s difficult to get on a tour. So we started a tour so women have a platform and a stage to perform on.”
It’s a long bemoaned fact that women don’t get as much airplay on country radio as their male counterparts and CMT has always been happy to shine a spotlight on the great music available by women. They increased that commitment with the recent launch of CMT Equal Play by pledging to play an equal number of videos by both male and female artists.
“We were already playing a lot of female videos. Why can’t we do 50/50? It makes sense,” she says. “We have the inventory. We have videos from all of the legends and all of the new artists, so ours are really equally balanced. You’ll see stuff you haven’t seen in a long time along with recurrents from the last two to five years and then new artists because there are so many great new artists that are in our franchise and artists that are signed to labels, and even independent artists. First and foremost, we really wanted to take a deep look at what CMT was doing and what more we could do… We would love to ask all of the gatekeepers to do a little bit more this year. We aren’t saying, ‘Can you go 50/50, but can it be 10 or 15% more?’ Can there be more representation in their regular radio programming whether it be streaming, terrestrial radio, internet radio?”
During a conversation with Fram, she’s quick to spotlight the talents of others and with nary a mention of her accomplishments. She was the first woman to receive the T.J. Martell Award in recognition of outstanding performance in the music industry. In 2000 and 2001, she was named Program Director of the Year by the Gavin Report and Program Director of the Year by Radio & Records. Nicknamed the ‘First Lady of Modern Rock,’ Fram received the 2003 Heroes Award from the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy.
She’s amassed other accolades but in reflecting on her career, it’s the people she remembers most, including the times superstar Elton John stopped by her morning radio show. “One of the greatest interviews we did was with Elton John in Atlanta because he lived there part-time and he is the biggest fan of new music,” she says. “He knows more about new music than anyone else. He would listen to our radio station and if he heard anyone that he didn’t know, he would call the request line to ask who it was. So we had him on the morning show a couple of times and it just so happened we would have a keyboard in there. He was just so delightful because he gives back to new artists. People don’t even realize what he does and how he mentors new artists. He’s a big champion. He’s just a fan of music.”
Another of her favorite interviews is Keith Urban. “Keith Urban is just so giving,” she says. “He’s an artist that just continues to reinvent himself. I just love talking to Keith Urban anytime.
“I love talking to artists because they all have a story and yes they want to talk about their music, but it’s wonderful to get to know who they really are deep down.”
In addition to her many duties, Fram finds time to mentor others. “There are not enough hours in the day because you have to do your job first and foremost, but there’s a mentoring part that I love—not only for artists—but for up and coming industry professionals,” she says. “I try to meet with as many people as possible. It’s about balancing the day and trying to do something that I love to do like mentoring. We started a mentorship program here at CMT last year. I love to mentor male and female artists, and males and females in the industry that are coming up and wondering how do they make their mark. It’s challenging, but what I love about it is I do feel I have this amazing music team and they are all experts that go out and see music every night and they are really passionate. We love artist discovery and helping to break new artists. We have an unsigned program called Next Step Now where we feature a lot of these unsigned artists on CMT Music. We give them a social and editorial spotlight just so we are helping the next generation. It’s fun.”