As it enters a fourth decade of playing “all the hits,” WHTZ (Z100) New York has more avenues to connect music with fans than ever. No longer limited by the current music slots on its broadcast signal, Z100’s playground now encompasses the Web, social media, HD digital radio, iHeartRadio and live events.?
“As a programmer, you think about how to maximize those tools to make your terrestrial station even bigger and more essential for what the audience comes to you for,” says Sharon Dastur, who joined Z100’s programming department in 1996 and was promoted to PD in 2006.?
Digital platforms have made the brand a more potent driver of pop culture. “When you talk to Sharon about music, it’s a programming and 360-degree marketing conversation,” Republic Records executive VP Charlie Walk says. “It involves so much more than just playing the record.”
?The model for what later became Clear Channel’s Artist Integration Program originated at Z100 in 1997 out of a desire to give early exposure to acts that the station’s programmers felt passionately about but weren’t ready to put into current rotation. Promotional ads spotlighting a new act directed listeners to Z100.com to see and hear more of the artist’s music. By 2006 there was an entire HD radio side channel devoted to new acts, Z100 New Music HD2.?
Those early experiments have evolved into a fully integrated portfolio, as rising pop star Austin Mahone recently experienced. Mahone world-premiered his new single “What About Love” (Chase Records/Republic) on June 7 to a syndicated audience of 5.7 million (according to Clear Channel) on the Z100-based “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show.” He returned later in the day to blow “the 5 o’clock whistle” with afternoon host JJ, then spent an hour on-air chatting up night jock Mo’ Bounce. Mahone was later escorted downstairs to the iHeartRadio Theater where a couple of hundred screaming girls (and some guys) took in a live performance, streamed on the Web and repurposed as digital content for Clear Channel’s roughly 80 other top 40 stations.?
It was Duran who first tipped Dastur to Mahone, while hosting Springle Ball at sister station WIOQ (Q102) Philadelphia in May 2012. The morning host sent Dastur a text after witnessing near pandemonium break out among Mahone fans at a backstage meet-and-greet for the then-unsigned teen singer. By the time the label played Dastur the RedOne-produced “What About Love” a year later, Mahone was a YouTube sensation.
?“Once we knew he had a song that would be a game-changer, we decided to do something we’ve never done before,” Dastur says of Mahone taking over the station.
?Mahone is only the latest example of how Z100 uses equal parts emotion and science to suss out the hits. Dastur, music director Jagger (who goes by the single-name moniker professionally) and assistant music director Trey Morgan study digital single sales, scour social media and analyze internal research in a constant quest for what’s next. Listener requests sent through Twitter that were fueled by their “X Factor” performances led to the station adding One Direction and Little Mix.
?“Social media gives us an early gauge,” Dastur says. “It’s great seeing that early passion and excitement from the audience for someone before you even know about them.”
?Z100 takes the lead on some acts and follows on others. In August 2005, Jay-Z and Island Def Jam executives played Dastur and then-PD Tom Poleman “Pon De Replay” from a then-unknown Rihanna, prior to its release as a single. Dastur immediately drove a copy of the Caribbean-inspired jam to the station’s Jersey City, N.J., studios and put it on the air. In another example, early Z100 airplay for Katy Perry’s 2008 breakthrough “I Kissed a Girl” spurred other top 40 stations to overcome their fears about the song’s lyrics.
?“When they commit to an artist early on, it sets the tone for their career,” Republic’s Walk says. “When they play an artist later on, it puts on the official stamp that it’s a certified hit.”
?During the past 30 years, Z100 has played a pivotal role in establishing the careers of Mariah Carey, Duran Duran, Whitney Houston, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Celine Dion, Incubus, Alicia Keys, Kings of Leon, Shakira, Colbie Caillat, Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris, Gotye, Jessie J and Taylor Swift, along with comeback records from Santana and Enrique Iglesias.
?The station’s airplay last summer of Ed Sheeran helped set the stage for one of 2012’s biggest breakthroughs. Folky ballad “The A Team” was ill-suited for more rhythmic-leaning top 40s but fit Z100’s pop-friendly palette. When other Clear Channel top 40 outlets saw how it was lighting up Z100’s music research—the company allows its stations to access each other’s local research—it helped Atlantic Records cross over the record from adult top 40 to top 40.
?“We felt like we were sharing the word with everyone that the song could work on any station,” Dastur says.
?By December, the singer/songwriter was on a Jingle Ball bill with One Direction opening, Justin Bieber closing and Swift in the middle. Accompanied only by his guitar, Sheeran’s emotional rendition of “The A Team” brought shrieks from the crowd that rivaled those generated by the headliners.
?“After he got offstage, I said, ‘Ed, I’m not blowing smoke—you had louder screams,’” Dastur recalls telling Sheeran.
?The passion Dastur and her team exude for music has made fans throughout the music industry. “What has really impressed me is the loyalty they’ve earned from the recording artists,” Azoff Management president Richard Palmese says. “When I have a new artist that I want to introduce, Z100 is one of the top stations I go to because they are so welcoming and supportive.”?
Dastur has become one of radio’s most vocal new-music supporters. “It’s not just my job, it’s my passion,” she says. Labels are keen to play music for Dastur early, hoping her zeal will become contagious. Lava Records president Jason Flom played her tracks from Jessie J a year before the British singer’s CD was released stateside. Dastur pronounced her a superstar and offered to champion the project.?
She had a similar reaction after hearing a handful of tracks from one of Island Records’ most promising new pop artists, Nikki Williams, and turned Duran on to the project. When Williams came to New York she performed “Glowing” on Duran’s show—not the dance-pop arrangement heard on the record but a stripped-back reading with piano and violin accompaniment.?
“The listener reaction we got was, ‘What a voice. Oh, my God, I’m buying the single right now,’” Dastur says. “Those are the kinds of moments that help us spread the word about artists we’re passionate about.”?
The ability to put a face on an artist through in-studio performances, interviews and contests helps Z100 stand apart from a growing pack of digital jukeboxes like Pandora and Spotify. It’s a product differentiator the station plays up with slogans like, “All the hits and the stars that make them.”?
Community involvement is another way Z100 continues to thrive amid growing digital competition. The station received praise for how it aided victims of Hurricane Sandy last year, rallying listeners to bring needed supplies to station-sponsored drives in the areas most affected by the storm. More than a decade earlier, Z100 stopped playing music for an entire week to help listeners cope with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Our DJs were pretty much therapists—the comfort zone to the tri-state area,” Dastur says. “They had a natural ability to know what to say when people called in to tell their stories.”
?A lot has changed in Dastur’s 17 years at Z100, from music trends and the competition to how content is distributed and the way audiences are measured. But the essential mission remains the same: connecting with the audience and staying true to the brand.
?“Technology is constantly changing and we have to go along with it,” Dastur says. “There are so many ways to put the Z100 brand out there. That’s what makes being in radio and media so exciting to me.”