The WPLJ Scott Shannon Helped Build
It took me a while to appreciate the Hot AC powerhouse that Scott Shannon helped establish at WPLJ New York more than twenty years ago.
For one thing, I'd liked WPLJ as "Mojo Radio." When Shannon returned to New York in 1991 after L.A.'s brief experiment with Rock 40 "Pirate Radio," he kept WPLJ top 40, but rebranded it and began mixing in unusual gold from the '70s and early '80s. I remember Roxette's "Joyride" and Grand Funk's "Some Kind Of Wonderful" in close proximity, and I was glad that made sense to somebody besides me.
But not to a lot of people, as it turned out. Even though Shannon's former employer WHTZ (Z100) was foundering, along with much of the top 40 format, Mojo never took hold. And after Shannon's decade as top 40's most prominent PD, it semed like a second wacky experiment that was destined to be "not Z100." One consultant gave a presentation on brand expectations by showing a Heinz ketchup bottle, then the same bottle filled with mustard (meant to be a little confusing), then a Heinz bottle filled with blue paint. "This is Mojo Radio," he said. "It's blue."
Before long, Mojo Radio was WPLJ again. And WPLJ, like many of its peers, evolved to adult top 40. The formula was still "yesterday-and-today," but the today was less bubblegummy and the oldies were less eccentric. Mojo had been riveting to me; there was less of interest for me on the new station.
But even after I stopped seeking out WPLJ in 1992, I started to encounter it in stores and offices. And if I asked a 30-year-old woman what she listened to, I was likely to end up hearing about Shannon and WPLJ morning co-host Todd Pettengill at length. As Z100's PD/Morning Zoo master, Shannon never had trouble commanding listeners' attention. At WPLJ, Scott and Todd established a connection.
There's no sense in getting too sappy about Scott Shannon. He announced his retirement from WPLJ on Feb. 7, but he's not retiring from radio. Before Z100, Shannon had WQXI Atlanta, WRBQ (Q105) Tampa, and WPGC Washington, D.C., on his resume. After Mojo's false start, his tenure at WPLJ lasted 22 years and Shannon built the syndicated True Oldies Channel in his spare time. So if Shannon wants another chapter in his radio career, there will likely be one.
But it is still a good time to consider what Shannon (and former VP of programming Tom Cuddy) accomplished at WPLJ. It wasn't just a change from Z100 -- it was particularly a change from the aggressive imaging at Pirate Radio (sample liner, "don't be a d**k"). At WPLJ, Shannon went to what was supposed to be a low-key format, and still found a place for his showmanship. The hot-rocking, flamethrowing imagery of the Z100 days gave way to the deliberately simpler "best songs on the radio."
WPLJ spent five years as an industry phenomenon. Then the new WKTU came to town and changed the definition, at least in New York, of what Hot AC was. Z100 finally regrouped and rebounded. But for at least another decade, the strength of Scott & Todd, and the loyalty of the adult female fan base made WPLJ a very efficient, very lucrative radio station in a way often obscured by its 12-plus number.
By the mid-to-late '00s, it was clear to market observers that Z100's Elvis Duran was starting to generate that same sort of loyalty for the demo cell immediately under WPLJ's core. It didn't diminish the enthusiasm of Scott & Todd fans. Some of my female co-workers could still tell me what's happening on the show after 20 years. But with top 40 listeners no longer reliably aging into hot AC's orbit, the size of WPLJ's island was getting smaller.
On a couple of occasions, Shannon went back to the library to get attention for a station whose musical calling card had once been the '80s. It happened in the mid-'00s in response to the Bob- and Jack-FM phenomenon. It happened again a few years ago. I always especially enjoyed the station during those periods, and you could always identify them because "Change" by John Waite would show up as a secret weapon again.
Change of a different sort had already come to WPLJ, even before Shannon announced his departure. The '80s have been ceded again to WCBS-FM and WLTW (Lite FM). At times, the station has verged on top 40, although I'm hearing more '90s these days. At one point, I would have been excited to hear Scott & Todd on a top 40 WPLJ, but there weren't three other top 40s in New York at the time.
Showmanship in radio these days is more likely to literally involve a concert venue than the theater of the mind. At WPLJ, Shannon carried the showman mantle, as well as being one of the PDs who used music creatively. And he was the radio theorist who care-tended the programming legacy of previous icon Bill Drake. It would be nice to see more PDs show an interest in any of those roles. And since Shannon isn't retiring from radio, that gives more of them time to apply.