Bill Cosby helped rejuvenate the sitcom genre in the 1980s. It was in the same era that Scott Shannon gave a much-needed boost to Top 40 radio in New York. Shannon was charged with turning an inconsequential signal at 100.3 FM into a flamethrower frequency. WVNJ was playing a mix of beautiful music by day and jazz by night, when Cleveland-based Malrite Communications purchased the station. Studios were in Secaucus, New Jersey, and licensed to Newark, but to make it attractive to listeners across the Lincoln Tunnel, a transmitter was built atop the Empire State Building.
Thirty years ago today, Z100/WHTZ was born. But Shannon knows any birth needs a gestation period.
Tuned In sat down with Shannon recently at his office high above Madison Square Garden. The Hall of Fame broadcaster was initially reticent to discuss the early days of Z100.
“You still have to be respected for what you’re doing today, not what you did yesterday,” Shannon says. “I really don’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror. If I have a sucky show today, then I feel sucky. I don’t care if I had a great show at Z100 28 years ago. It’s not going to help me.”
Three decades ago, Shannon was concerned about being “sucky” at his new project. The result could have made or broken his career. It made him a legend.
“We actually did run through music rotations and charts every day for a month previous to even signing on,” Shannon tells Tuned In. “The success was a result of a great team that we put together and a market that was ready for a high-energy, take no prisoners, rock n’ roll, Top 40 station.”
Rather than being a obstetrician to deliver his new baby, Shannon equates his creation of Z100 to a general overseeing his troops.
“I had plenty of time to plan the attack, it was laid out like a military maneuver. I had a war room on the top floor of the Meadowlands Hilton.”
The preparation paid off in a big way. Shannon famously took Z100 from worst to first in an unprecedented 74 days, cementing his legacy. He says the station went on to capture number 1 in 23 of 25 ratings books.
Making Z100 connect perfectly with audiences were high-octane, high-profile personalities, such as Hollywood Hamilton and Jack “Da” Wack.
“It was bigger than life, Marvel comics radio. It was designed to attack the entire radio market,” Shannon recalls.
And attack they did.
Within six months of Z100’s debut Adult Contemporary WYNY and Country formatted WKHK were off the air. Shannon says it was no accident that the erosion of their audiences began when Z100 signed on.
But its biggest conquest came against heated rival WPLJ, the popular rock station of the 1970s. The fragmented radio landscape of the 1980s led to ‘PLJ tweaking its format. But Shannon deemed what ‘PLJ and program director Larry Berger were doing as nothing more than running scared.
“’PLJ stubbornly waited a year before they changed. [They] couldn’t decide what they wanted to do,” Shannon says. “They didn’t know whether to poop or go blind. We decimated ‘PLJ. Remember they fired three or four different air personalities the first year we were on.”
Not only did they pull away in the all-important ratings, Shannon and his Morning Zoo crew took constant shots at Berger and WPLJ. He was regularly referred to as Larry “Booger,” while the station was called the “WIMP.”
Shannon claims WPLJ kept much of its original rock attitude and imaging. “They just played Michael Jackson records, which pissed off all the people they had listening. You either gotta stay dry or jump in the water. They were trying to do both. We absolutely demoralized that whole team.”
As for WHTZ, without being revolutionary, Shannon built the sound that wafted from Walkmans.
“We played one black, one white record, one rhythm record, one rock record. If we played one slow song an hour, that was a lot,” Shannon says. “I wanted to match the beat of New York City.”
The accomplished programmer and morning man says he never met his rival counterpart, and adds that any success Berger had at WPLJ happened “until there was competition.”
The Z Morning Zoo was Shannon’s creation, perfected in Tampa. Shortly after signing on at WHTZ, Scott was joined by co-host Ross Brittian. The show featured a complement of contributors, including newsreader Claire Stevens and John Bell, who handled the “Horrible Scopes.” It was good-natured comedy bits, rather than the more perverse material that Howard Stern did on WNBC.
“New York had not [heard] anything like that in the modern era. It was so different because it was a bunch of people sitting around talking about today’s news, and poking fun at everybody,” Shannon says.
Shannon has been in New York for most of the past three decades, minus a brief stint unwrapping Pirate Radio in Los Angeles. Since 1992, Shannon has called WPLJ his professional home, teaming with Todd Pettengill for the morning show and another round of radio glory.
Shannon says, “The important thing to remember of longevity, it often times depends on how hard you’re willing to commit yourself to excellence.”