When Radio was Dumb and Fun

‘Worst to First’ documentary chronicles the legend of NYC’s Z100

February 11th saw the VOD release for the documentary Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York. The modest launching of a documentary regarding a fairly specific topic belies the importance of the Z100 radio station in its heyday. Director Mitchell Stuart was able to get Joan Jett and Bon Jovi, among others, on-screen to talk about the huge influence of Z100. There’s also an extended period going into how legendary program director Scott Shannon decided to give some airings to the then-unknown Madonna, who promised a big favor for Z100 once she made it big–and delivered on that promise.

The 80s were a very different media environment when you compare them with the present day. No Internet meant that the only real way for musicians to reach listeners was to hope that their music would get played on the radio. With no Internet leveling the playing field, publicity was hyper-localized. Just getting a song out in a place where people could actually hear it was huge, and no doubt certain record labels had a bigger advantage their than others. Ironically, in many ways the world presented by Worst to First is actually probably more equitable than the one we have today. Scott Shannon was a funky fellow who looked and talked like Elvis and pioneered a disc jockey concept called The Zoo. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, loud and crude. The tastes of an era were all riding on this guy?

Well, that’s where the worst half of the documentary comes in. The New York City market (which also encompasses much of New Jersey) is huge and extremely competitive. Z100 was a startup, a new station that simply couldn’t compete with the big brands and was doing so laughably poorly in the market that even distant signals from Pennsylvania were outperforming them. Scott Shannon changed that. Through aggressive marketing, connecting with listeners, assembling a strong team of fellow DJs, and just being an extremely entertaining guy, Scott Shannon built a strong inner circle of diehard listeners, with a larger cohort who were just general fans even if they didn’t listen to his show all the time or necessarily think this wacky dude dispensed sage advice. Z100 was popular because it was entertaining.

Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York is timely in a weird way, because if you’re trying to come up with a comparable figure to Scott Shannon in today’s media landscape you’d probably be looking at…Joe Rogan, the monster of modern podcasts. Apparently he’s been destroying the country with COVID-19 misinformation. Although the story of what we’re allowed to think about COVID-19 changes so often at this point I honestly doubt anyone’s said anything on his show any different than what’s been published in The Atlantic in the last couple of years.

Speaking of which, last month the Atlantic published a piece discussing a very different phenomenon about how life has changed between the eighties and now. Namely, that all anyone listens to anymore is old music. Ted Gioia goes into a lot of explanations for this but the short answer is that in between algorithms and copyright law, it’s no longer to the benefit of corporations to even try and promote new music anymore. You can’t untangle this from the declining influence of radio in setting musical taste. Men like Scott Shannon weren’t exactly representative of the general public, but they actually defined new trends instead of just recreating old ones.

This brings us back to the flip side of the Joe Rogan issue–how the very role of being a musical celebrity at all has also changed dramatically. Artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell can’t be happy just knowing that people want to listen to their music. They feel morally obligated to make sure that the people who like their music don’t share proximity with someone who spouts the wrong opinions on the same platform.

They only wield this power because their legendary status effectively makes them impossible to cancel. Younger artists, assuming they’re lucky enough to get a platform at all, have to stay on the right side of their chosen fanbase and live in terror that someone might dredge old comments up out of context in an attempt to destroy them. Pulling a Madonna and just sending out tapes to radio stations and desperately begging for airplay actually sounds preferable to that.

Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York is a charming story in part because its a depiction of a world where this kind of moralizing from celebrities and media platforms didn’t exist. Scott Shannon was good at his job because he was a clown that put on a good show and loved to talk to people. The Zoo was unapologetically lowbrow, a place where loud, dumb people had loud, dumb conversations. People saw them, by their own design, as clowns rather than thought leaders.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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