Interview by Leisa St. John

Scott Shannon is unquestionably a broadcasting legend, and one of the signal achievements of his dazzling career—in 1983 taking New York station Z100 from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap in some 74 days—is the subject of a new documentary, Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York, out now via Gunpowder & Sky and viewable on various VOD platforms.

Filmmaker Mitchell Stuart worked on the feature with Shannon and fellow radio giant Elvis Duran, who are now fierce rivals on the dial, with Duran still at Z100 and Shannon at WCBS. But their abiding mutual respect and affection is evident throughout the project.

The doc's trailer appears below. In it you'll spot a few of the music-world luminaries who serve as talking heads in the film. Naturally, the radio world is gaga over it, and not just because it includes top players like Tom Poleman, John Sykes, Steve Kingston, Frankie Blue and Patty Steele; mega-execs Clive Davis and Donnie Ienner; and such artists as Jon Bon Jovi, Nile Rodgers, Joan Jett and Taylor Dayne, among many others.

The "cowboy from Tampa," as Shannon was known by Gotham media, knew next to nothing about NYC when he arrived as Z100 program director and on-air personality, but in addition to besting the Goliaths at WABC and WNBC from the station's Secaucus redoubt, he would have a transformative impact on the medium. Shannon more or less invented the Morning Zoo, and the gonzo energy he brought to Z100's "stationality" helped to reinvent the Pop format. In a testament to his Barnum-esque vision and ambition, he got enormous mileage out of the slogan "broadcasting live from atop the Empire State Building to the world," even though every other station in town was doing so as well (the building's antenna carries the signal of more than a dozen stations).

The idea for the doc was germinated at a dinner party, during which some friends suggested Scott write a book about his exploits; he demurred, arguing that he lacked the attention span for such an undertaking. Scott's wife, Trish, recommended telling the tale in video form.

Our own Leisa St. John spoke with Shannon about the film, the station and his legacy. Later, the two of them stuffed some valuables into a FedEx envelope for old times' sake.

In 1983 you moved to New York and went up against Don Imus and Jim Kerr; you were an outsider who went after the two big dogs. Then, in just 74 days, you took Z100 from “worst to first” and it’s dominated the market ever since.
New York was like an island in American radio—they didn't pay attention to any other market. Everybody there had their own turf, and that was all they worried about. If you didn't come from New York or work in New York, they didn't care who you were or what you’d done. They just didn't have any use for anybody who hadn’t been there for a while. The papers called me "the cowboy from Tampa."

I’d only been to New York three times in my life, for like, 48 hours. When I agreed to take the job, I had no idea what I was gonna do, and our new station was under construction. We didn't actually go on the air until I was here maybe two months; I came up in June and we didn't go on until August.

So I was able to spend some time getting a feel for the city, for the streets, and I realized the whole area moved a lot faster than most places in the country. One of the words that struck me was "urgent." Getting a cab was urgent; getting on the subway was urgent; just being in Grand Central Station was urgent. You had to rush. My girlfriend—now my wife of 30-odd years—was working for the Hyatt hotel chain and the deal was, if I got the job, she would consider marrying me; if I got the job and asked her to marry me, she'd transfer to the Grand Hyatt in New York. But she wouldn't come to the city unless we were married.

Whose initial idea was it to do the film?
Hers. We were out to dinner one night and somebody said, "When are you gonna write your book?" I said, "I don't have a long-enough attention span to write a book." He said, "Well, there needs to be some record of what you did in New York City, the toughest market in the country." And on the way home, my wife said, "He's right; you ought to write a book, but if nothing else, why don't we do a documentary on the early days of Z100?" There was a documentary out on WLIR, the Long Island station, and it had done pretty well. She said, "Your story is as interesting as theirs, so why not?"

I had no desire to do it, but she can be very persistent. Finally I said, "OK, OK, OK. I guess it won’t be that much work," which was a big fat lie I told myself—the movie’s out and I'm still working on it! On top of that, COVID reared its ugly head and we had to put production on hold. Eventually, though, I was able to interview most of the people I’d worked with, which was quite time-consuming, but it was nice to see or at least talk to everybody. I got as many as I could in the movie.

I hadn't seen [former Sony Music U.S. boss] Don Ienner's face in a long time.
There were a lot of people who couldn't do it or didn't want to do it because of COVID, but we were lucky to get some really important people who were around when this radio station started its rise to the top.

Right, Donnie, Clive Davis, on the label side... I love the Madonna story...
Anyone who's old enough to have been around before I came to New York understands how much I love music and how much I love to be a part of a new act’s success story. I was always of the mind that if you heard the song and you liked the song, you should give it a shot. And I had a pretty good track record with that over the years. Though when I first came to New York, we couldn’t take any chances because we were just getting going. Once the station had established itself as a force in the marketplace, I could afford to take a shot whenever I heard a song I liked.

You were able to take a personal approach.
Yeah, it's always great to have a hero or somebody who will take a chance on you, and record executives appreciate someone who's willing to be invested in an act’s future. Did I miss a couple? Yeah. But the great thing about radio is you can figure out quickly if it's gonna be there or not, and if it’s not gonna be there, you can get it off the air before it does much damage.

We tell the story in the documentary of the first guest we ever got, Tony Orlando, who had no hits at the time. There were two reasons we got him: Number one, I was one of the first people to jump on his very first record with Dawn, "Knock Three Times"; number two, we had an intern, William Brownstein, working at the station, who heard me bitching that I couldn't get artists to come to Secaucus, which was where our studios were located. He's very shy, but he came over and said, "Mr. Shannon, I think I could get a star to come over." I said, "Who do you know, William?" I thought he was talking about maybe somebody who sings in his church. And he says, "I know Tony Orlando." I said, "William, how do you know Tony Orlando?" He said, "Because I volunteer at the Jerry Lewis [Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraising] telethon and Tony hosts the New York broadcast." I said, "Do you think if you asked him, he'd come all the way Secaucus?" And I'm thinking, “Sure, he's gonna get Tony Orlando to come to Secaucus.” But William approached him and said, "Will you come to Secaucus to a new radio station?" Understandably, Tony said, "I'm pretty busy right now." I figured he wouldn’t remember me; it’s not like he and I’d had a running dialogue ever since I played his record. But William says, "DJ Scott Shannon asked if you'd come.” And Tony goes, "Scott Shannon?!” So he did remember me and sure enough, he popped in to be our first guest.

That is a fantastic story.
And Tony is an incredible entertainer, which came through even on the radio. And his appearance led to people like James Brown coming up. We couldn't get rid of Duran Duran—even when we didn't ask them to come, they'd show up. You have to remember that in the '80s, there were no cabs to Secaucus. People didn't know how to get there! And nobody wanted to come to a place whose claim to fame was its pig farms. But after Tony, Stevie Wonder came up. He played for like, half an hour, singing his hits. Eddie Murphy came by when he had his first release out. And back then, stations didn't let artists play live on the air. But I was so naïve that I just thought it'd be a great idea. These station visits were a very big deal and obviously a big help.

I can't tell you how many times I've made that drive to Secaucus—I guess I can blame you for that, huh?
You can absolutely blame it on me. Another thing I remember from those days, I designed the studios so they wouldn't look at New York City; I didn't want the DJ to think about the enormity of broadcasting to New York. Even then, I had two disc jockeys who couldn't handle the idea; it made them nervous. They'd stutter. Neither of them made it, but they’d been great when they were in smaller towns. The PD who followed me thought it was stupid. He put up a mirror so the disc jockeys could see the skyline.

From top: Shannon today; trophies of his triumph; the Cowboy from Tampa in his element; a dapper Elvis Duran; talking heads Jon Bon Jovi, Nile Rodgers, Joan Jett and Deborah Gibson.

Photo credits: Gunpowder & Sky