Most histories of WHTZ (Z100) New York start with the city’s one-time top 40 powerhouse WABC flipping to the news/talk format in May 1982. While that change was emblematic, top 40 had been dormant for a while in New York. WABC really had been an AC station for a year or so, struggling to compete with WNBC, which was a top 40 chart reporter but in actuality was an adult top 40 station. On FM, where top 40 had never really gotten a foothold, WXLO (99X) had gone adult top 40, then R&B/hip-hop. WPIX tried to fill the void for less than a year.
?By the time Z100 launched in August 1983, top 40’s comeback was well underway nationally. The excitement was strong enough that longtime rocker WPLJ had segued to top 40 as well, and even WNBC tried it on AM for a few months. Equally symbolic holes for the format in St. Louis, Houston and elsewhere had been plugged. KIIS Los Angeles, which later would become Z100’s sister station, was on its way to a 10 share in the ratings and a 30-year dynasty of its own.
?In 1983, Z100 wasn’t the driver of top 40’s comeback, but its final confirmation. But there were key moments in Z100’s history during the next 30 years that did directly influence the format’s fortunes.??
1993: From the perspective of the early ’90s, top 40’s early-’80s format crisis looks like a relative hiccup. WPLJ has gone adult top 40. Z100, by following the Michael Bolton/Amy Grant/Rod Stewart soft pop of the era, may as well have. Its ratings have been in decline since 1989. Buffeted by the simultaneous rise of hip-hop, country and alternative, top 40 is disappearing from market after market. In some instances, two top 40 stations in a market depart the format in quick succession.?
In some markets, heritage top 40 stations switch to alternative outright. During the spring, under PD Steve Kingston, Z100 becomes something else. The AC music is phased out in favor of alternative crossovers—which at that point still include Spin Doctors and Depeche Mode, not just Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The result is an MTV-like mix of active records from all genres. For the rest of the year, Z100 is easily the most exciting station in the top 40 format.
?If Z100 had stopped there, with a mix that ranged from OMD to Onyx, it might have been an interesting reinvention for top 40. But nationally, the format continues to be plagued by a loss of stations and a lack of commonality between those still comprising the top 40 chart. Meanwhile, as the “new rock revolution” spreads, Z100 moves to block the launch of a full-fledged, full-signal alternative station. A few pop titles remain, but by 1995, Z100 is primarily alternative, and so are a number of stations around the country that had followed its lead.??
1996: Just as its predecessor did in 1978, the launch of a new WKTU shakes up the market. WKTU isn’t exactly top 40; it plays a variety of rhythmic pop going back to the ’70s. But it’s confirmation that New York wants something brighter and more fun than the increasingly aggressive alternative format. Under new PD Tom Poleman, Z100 begins a gradual transition back to full-fledged top 40.?
Unlike WKTU, ratings results for Z100 aren’t immediate. In the fall of 1996, the station is at its lowest share ever. There are continuing rumors of a format or PD change. But even before the numbers kick in, it’s easier to hear Z100 coming out of radios around the market again. Then in early 1997, a three-year wave of pure-pop product begins with the success of Spice Girls and Hanson that eventually makes the mega-stardom of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync possible. Combined with the return of hip-hop crossovers from Puff Daddy and the Notorious B.I.G. and continued strong alternative/pop product, it’s a great moment for Z100 and the format overall. By the spring of 1998, Z100 has its best ratings in nearly a decade.?
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Z100’s new owner, Clear Channel, has success around the country by launching new top 40s that combine aggressive rotations with an emphasis on hip-hop and rhythmic crossovers. At the same time, online music research gives a hipper, more active audience a greater voice in the music process at Z100 and many other stations. As the template for top 40 changes and PDs become wary of teen pop, the format takes a harder, more aggressive turn.
??2004: As has happened in each of the previous decades, the ‘00s begin with a fallow period for the format. Top 40 has become the “me too” hip-hop format, while major group owners are aggressively launching R&B/hip-hop stations around the country. That includes Clear Channel, which gives Z100 a new sister station, WWPR (Power 105).?About 18 months after Power’s launch, Z100 takes a determinedly poppier turn, working in more mainstream product, even when there’s not much available. At the outset, it means listeners can hear both 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” and Matchbox 20’s “Bright Lights” on Z100. As in 1996, however, a change on the pop music landscape is imminent. In early 2006, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” signals another pop resurgence. And while “American Idol” is often credited with ratifying the shift to pop center, Z100’s groundwork can’t be denied.??2009: Top 40’s latest resurgence has led to the launch of second stations in multiple markets and a revised version of Clear Channel’s late-’90s strategy for insurgent stations—not quite as aggressive on hip-hop, but very focused on rhythmic pop. When CBS brings that formula to New York’s WXRK (92.3 Now), Z100 is a very mainstream, adult-friendly top 40, capable of playing “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls in middays. The new station attacks Z100 on-air, trying to reposition it as old and soft.?
For a moment, it looks like Z100 will become more rhythmic and engage directly with the new station. Then, a surprise. WKTU, now a sister station, segues from rhythmic AC to a more top 40 approach to block the new station. Z100 continues to play “all the hits.” The move is good for WKTU, which will trade the top 40 lead with Z100 for a few years, but it keeps the format dominance within the family and 92.3 Now never gets close.
??2013: With a new decade, format observers are expecting top 40 to fall victim to another down cycle. So far, they’re still waiting. By now, programmers are better-equipped to resist the vicissitudes of the format. Also, Arbitron’s new Portable People Meter measurement system seems to reward those formats that service a wide demographic, especially top 40’s mother/daughter coalition. Hip-hop, the genre blamed for previous “extreme” cycles, isn’t prominent enough in pop culture to force any top 40 station away from the pop center.?
Yet, each time the available product shifts, the whispers start again. Does the success of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and other triple A crossovers represent a new doldrums? Does the excitement about EDM signal a move to the extreme phase?
?As of June, in Arbitron’s 6-plus ratings, Z100 is No. 4 in the market, ahead of WKTU and far ahead of 92.3 Now. The latter station is trying to find a lane by being aggressive on EDM, and on new music in general. EDM has a significant presence on Z100—represented by strong support for recent titles from Zedd, Krewella, Calvin Harris and Nikki Williams. But those songs play alongside Anna Kendrick’s folky hit from “Pitch Perfect” and newer titles from Paramore and Labrinth that are hardly ratified by every top 40 station.?
As it has been for much of the last 30 years, Z100 remains a top 40 success story. It wins with adults, but doesn’t pander to them—another maneuver that top 40 had difficulty with at the beginning of previous decades. It is an established brand whose longevity has never stopped it from remaining relevant. And while there’s no reason to believe that a down cycle is imminent, Z100 has been through enough ups and downs to suggest that no down cycle would be permanent either.