Broadcasting from high atop the Empire State Building, WHTZ New York – better-known as Z100 – has set the bar for top 40 radio for the better part of three decades. As it marks its 30th anniversary on Aug. 2, it stands tall as a multimedia pop culture juggernaut that's helping reshape radio's role in the digital age.
From the "Morning Zoo" and the station's iconic jingles in the '80s to the epic contests and star-studded events it stages today, no modern-era top 40 outlet has been more copied or carries more heft.
The station has become a prototype for owner Clear Channel Media and Entertainment. Much of the national programming heard across its 850 radio stations had its genesis on Z100, from the Artist Integration program – which Z100 began in 1997 with Shania Twain – to the massive iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, inspired by the station's Jingle Ball holiday concert.
Record company executives say its influence looms larger today than at any point in its history, due to an expanding online audience and a growing portfolio of digital assets. "With so many different channels to work with, the brand has grown into a much bigger pop culture driver than in the past,” Republic Records executive VP Charlie Walk says.
And not just in New York, either – Z100 has become an international brand with influence far beyond that market. "Globally, people look to New York for what's big and cutting edge, and Z100 reflects the culture of the city in a way that transcends the format and the market," says Tom Poleman, Clear Channel Media and Entertainment president of national programming platforms. In 2006 Poleman named Sharon Dastur PD of Z100, and she presides over the station's multiplatform hitmaking power.
When Tom Poleman joined WHTZ (Z100) New York as PD in February 1996, the station was a shadow of its former self. Its alternative-leaning pop position had been co-opted by market rival WXRK’s flip to alternative, and a newly launched dance-pop outlet that resurrected the fabled WKTU call letters was cornering the dial’s feel-good position. His marching orders are to leverage the company's assets to build content and capabilities that all of its 850 stations can take advantage of. A lot of times, that starts with Z100.
How does Z100 serve as the flagship station for Clear Channel's national programming strategy?
In virtually every strategy meeting we have for the company, Z100 is the prototype we look at, whether it's a new website mock-up, a contest or new features that we're adding to iHeartRadio. We constantly ask, "Is it big enough to run on Z100?" Or, "How can we come up with content that would sound amazing on Z100 but also work on all of our radio stations?" If it can connect there, it can connect anywhere. It's a pervasive brand throughout our culture.
In what ways do you use Z100 to create content that can be leveraged nationally?
We’re fortunate that we get virtually every celebrity to roll through the radio station at one time or another. The national programming platforms are set up to leverage that content. We'll make a version of an interview that took place at Z100 that can run on all the other radio stations and live on our station websites and oniHeartRadio. The iHeartRadio Theater in Tribeca has been home to so many incredible performances, from Green Day to Jay-Z to Andrea Bocelli to whatever's hot. It's a great, intimate setup to capture that content and spread it across all of our station sites.
And Z100’s Jingle Ball became the model for the iHeartRadio Music Festival?
About a week after [Clear Channel CEO] Bob Pittman started, he came to Z100’s Jingle Ball with me, and we talked about how we could do more events like that and how we might create an event that all of our stations could be part of. A few months later we came up with the idea of the iHeartRadio Music Festival. We used the Jingle Ball model of having a turntable, where you can do quick set changes to create a show where 10-12 acts perform in one night. We just turbo-charged it over two nights. And instead of just booking the hot pop acts, we lined up the hottest acts from every genre: country, hip-hop, classic rock and pop.” [This year’s all-star lineup was announced July 15 and is detailed online at festival.iheart.com/].
Talk about how Jingle Ball will evolve this year.
There will be 12 stations doing the Jingle Ball tour this year. It’s the first time we’re lacing them all together, so you’ll get a similar experience from market to market. We have a brand that consumers can start to connect with around thecountry, and we can leverage it up so all our stations can send winners to the shows. We also create a consistent platform for advertisers to be integrated into. And when it’s the main contest on Z100 and other radio stations for 10 weeks, it’s a great marketing vehicle for artists. If our business is about music, we need to make pop culture events out of music. We should celebrate it and embrace it. [Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises president] John Sykes cut a TV deal for Jingle Ball with the CW, who did the iHeartRadio Music Festival last year. We look at our content as multimedia content. We want advertisers to be able to use all of our assets, not only as an event but as a live broadcast that you can hear on the radio, watch on the station sites and see a day or two later on TV.
When Z100 morning host Elvis Duran started playing to a national audience, did you worry that it might hurt his local appeal?
Elvis and I were both very nervous as we started to roll out the show nationally that Z100 could potentially suffer in some way. That fear made Elvis a lot better. The ratings for New York went up as we added more markets because Elvis kept upping hisgame. It's the type of show that people don't always immediately understand. It takes time to get to know all the personalities and nuances. Ratings are about habitual daily listening and you get that when you have a personality that makes an emotional connection with the listeners. We hear it all the time on the air and see it in our research that people say they can’t start their day without Elvis. One of the pivotal moments in the evolution of Z100 was when I was sitting in a focus group and I saw Elvis' content testing better than any song we could play. That's an asset your competition can never get and the sort of unique asset that we want to leverage heavily.
How much future growth do you see coming from digital?
You can't stop technology; you have to follow the consumer. Digital consumption is relatively small but growing exponentially every day. We know we have to continue to feed that and have a model that is sustainable, to develop a [royalty] rate structure for playing the music that works for all of us.
Clear Channel has signed rights partnerships with 11 indie labels and one band. How is the company's royalty strategy evolving?
It's on track. The indie community is more progressive, a little more nimble and able to make decisions faster. But over the next couple of months we will do several similar deals and I wouldn’t be surprised if it includes one of the majors soon, which is exactly what we were hoping for.
Are you close to signing one of the majors?
I think it's inevitable. I wouldn't say it's imminent. It could happen pretty soon. We're engaged in so many conversations on a regular basis with everybody that it's just a matter of time, a matter of hashing out the finer points.
Where do you place Z100 in the radio cosmos in terms of its impact and influence?
It’s the North Star that guides a lot of ships. In the music industry, when you make it on Z100 you know you have a hit. I'd like to think that we’ve always been on the pulse of what’s hot. We typically have more research than anyone else, more analytics. It's a station that has a reputation for being right in picking the hits, but also leading on songs once in a while. I think the magic that we've been able to make is having a super-high bar on the type of songs we play but still taking a chance from time to time.
How do you ensure that Z100 uses its power responsibly?
I have always told our staff that we need to look at our time at Z100 as a precious time and one that comes with responsibility. It's a brand that's bigger than any individual. You want to do it justice while you have control over the frequency. People that work there have a sense of pride and a sense of ownership. It has a special place in the hearts of the people that follow as well. It's a good role model for the industry in a lot of different ways. It's always a place where you want to be thinking out of the box and larger than life. You always want people to say, "How would Z100 do it?" That's the ultimate compliment.