A middle-of-the-night adventure radically transformed the sound of WHTZ (Z100) New York.?
In the fall of 1992, a group of the station’s programmers showed up around 2 a.m. to test their hunch that the audience was ready for something new. The musical winds had shifted. Pop had gone soft. Bryan Adams and Celine Dion had replaced Michael Jackson and Prince on the playlist. Top 40 stations across the country, including Z100, were faltering in the ratings.?
The late-night entourage included PD Steve Kingston, assistant PD Frankie Blue and afternoon host Elvis Duran, accompanied by MTV VP of programming Matt Farber. Duran went on the air and played songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode and Pearl Jam, songs that listeners on New York’s Long Island were familiar with from airplay on alternative WLIR but that no New York station was giving any significant exposure.?
The station’s phones exploded. Soon, a new weekend feature called “Planet Z” was introducing more alternative music, which eventually started to occupy larger sections of Z100’s playlist.
?“We were going through a musical recession,” says Kingston, who served as assistant PD under Scott Shannon and was upped to PD in late 1988 when Shannon left to launch a Los Angeles station. “There was a crisis in confidence in top 40.”
?But alternative music was thriving, fueled in part by the late-summer 1991 release of a pair of pivotal albums: Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” New alt stations were sprouting up across the country—except in New York. Heritage rocker WNEW-FM remained focused on the classics.
?Kingston and other top 40 programmers believed that integrating some of the biggest alternative hits into Z100’s playlist could give it a much needed shot in the arm. The station still played Mariah Carey, Madonna and other pop records, but acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters, the Cranberries, Beck and Green Day now defined its new sound.
?“We found the music that resonated with 20- to 30-year-old females that resided in New Jersey and on Long Island,” Kingston says. “We scrubbed Michael Bolton and other titles and artists that top 40 shared with AC and created an exclusive musical position we could own, without sacrificing hit content or the top 40 legacy that was Z100. Other radio stations were changing format—we redefined and changed the top 40 format.”?
Z100 became New York’s de facto alternative outlet. “Alternative hits were becoming big mainstream hits,” Columbia Records executive VP/GM Joel Klaiman says. “Z100 was the outlet for them at the time.” The station’s ratings improved, but not to the level it enjoyed during the Shannon era.?
By the mid-’90s, fragmentation and new competition were putting more pressure on Z100. Rhythmic top 40 was becoming a force, led by stations like Emmis Communications’ WQHT (Hot 97), which went to No. 1 in New York in 1995.
?The real kick in the teeth came in January 1996 when Infinity Broadcasting flipped classic rock WXRK (K-Rock) to alternative, giving New York a true modern rock outlet, anchored by Howard Stern in the mornings. From 1995 to 1996, Z100 lost more than one-third of its audience. Kingston split to program K-Rock.?
Z100 was in need of a format change—or a miracle. In early 1996, hailing from top 40 KRBE Houston, a new PD named Tom Poleman arrived at Z100. He had plans to work that miracle.?