Exclusive: Radio Icons Scott Shannon and Elvis Duran Talk Z100, Morning Drive And Taking Risks.
Ask Elvis Duran why he thinks Scott Shannon deserves the NAB Show New York Impact Award and he offers a simple answer: “Because he’s Scott Shannon.” Ask Shannon the same question about Duran and he returns the favor. Probe deeper and each relates a very personal account of the impact the other had on their career. “I'm sitting at this desk at Z100 and doing this morning show because of him,” Duran explains. “He opened so many doors for so many of us. Without Scott, we'd all be in prison – or dead.”
In 1983, with a barebones studio in the New Jersey outback, Shannon launched “Z100” WHTZ (100.3), famously taking the station from “worst to first” in just 74 days, making it one of radio’s most influential brands.
Duran took over mornings in 1996, when the fabled station hit rock bottom. Then-PD Tom Poleman gave Duran the morning show to keep him from bolting to crosstown WKTU. “It’s certainly nothing like the [show] he took over,” says Shannon, who has been heard in mornings on Audacy classic hits WCBS-FM (101.1) since 2014. “He's taken the Z100 Morning Show brand and expanded it nationwide. He does it with respect, with humor, with kindness, sincerity and honesty.”
The lovefest between the two New York radio icons comes ahead of each being honored at NAB Show New York on Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Javits Center. And it follows their collaboration on the documentary, “Worst To First: The True Story of Z100.”
From Duran’s view, Shannon took a big gamble leaving “a surefire winning bet in Tampa” at WRBQ, where he created the wildly popular, and widely copied, “Morning Zoo,” and coming to New York. “The odds were against Scott winning here, no matter who he was,” Duran says. “What Scott did with that courage is something that we are missing in this business these days.”
Duran believes his role at the iHeartMedia-owned CHR is “to come up with ideas that are as colorful and have the same texture” as what Shannon did in Z100’s “flamethrower” era. “Scott ignited it and we're doing everything we can to keep the flame on.”
The ‘Anti-Top 40 Radio Station’
On the plane ride to New York in 1983 after accepting the Z100 job, Shannon wasn’t expecting to capture radio lightning in a bottle. Quite the opposite. “I had tears in my eyes. I’m thinking, ‘What in the F am I going to do now?’” But a couple shots of Canadian Club and a notepad full of ideas later, his confidence grew. “I wanted to make it the anti-top 40 radio station, what I call a two-by-four radio that hits you over the head and says, ‘You gotta listen.’ And the word gets around.”
But it was not a big marketing budget or sizzling TV spot that grabbed New Yorkers’ attention. Shannon enlisted listeners to spread the word. In exchange for mailing a card or letter listing new listeners they recruited, the station would send them a Z100 Flamethrower t-shirt. The grassroots marketing campaign also implored audience members to scrawl “Z100” on homemade signs, bed sheets, anything, and display them around town.
“He didn't really know a lot about New York City when he came here and I think that's one of the reasons that it was a success,” notes Duran. “It was almost as if you took a dive into the pool without even knowing it had water in it. You have to take a chance.”
Sadly, there is far less risk taking in radio today. And few programmers who would leave a successful station to take a shot at a station at the bottom of the ratings barrel. “If you drive across the country today and look for a different sounding radio station of any format, you're going to have a hard time,” Shannon observes. “Everything is stamped pretty much the same.”
Lights, Camera, Action
The idea to make a documentary about Z100 came from Shannon’s wife, Trisha. She “talked me into the project. I figured it'd be easier than writing a book,” Scott says. In addition to Jon Bon Jovi, Clive Davis, Joan Jett, Nile Rogers, Tom Poleman, Debbie Gibson, Jim Kerr and others, the film includes Duran, who describes it as “a love letter” to the fans, personalities and people behind the scenes who made the radio outlet what it is today.
And while it’s not the same scrappy station as when Shannon was at the helm and in mornings, it remains a radio powerhouse. “We had to demonstrate that the spirit and courage that we supposedly had in the beginning still existed now, that they had the balls to do things differently,” Shannon says of the documentary. “Even now, they still come up with different things and new innovative ways to play top 40 music.”
In tomorrow’s Inside Radio: Scott Shannon and Elvis Duran on being on the radio in New York during 9/11 and the pandemic, how they view their roles today, and the importance of storytelling.