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From 'Worst to First': As Z100 Turns 30, the New York Station Still Serves the Pop Universe

From local influencer to national tastemaker, how the little station that could did. Plus: WHTZ's most-played songs of the last 30 years.

Tom Poleman Katy Perry 2008 P
Tom Poleman with Katy Perry at Jingle Ball 2008.

This week's Billboard devotes a special section to New York radio station Z100, which first signed on in August of 1983 from the swamps of Secaucus, New Jersey.

The 30th anniversary of the little station that could is really quite the accomplishment, especially in light of its meager beginnings. Shortly after WHTZ -- the call letters were meant to spell and sound out "hits" -- hit the air in the New York City area, its initial Arbitron ranking was dead last. It was a major letdown for the new station, whose first program director, morning man Scott Shannon, made an on-air pledge to fans: "We are going to unite and put the greatest radio station in America on the air. We are going to go from worst to first."

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Shannon made guerrilla street team members of Z100's loyal listeners, imploring fans to scrawl Z100 on homemade signs and string them up across the town. An offer was made to listeners as well: If you mailed in a card with the names of new listeners you recruited, you would get a free Z100 flamethrower T-shirt.

The plan worked. Some 73 days after its launch, Z100 became the No. 1 station in the No. 1 market, posting a 6.2 share among listeners ages 12 and older, as listed by the Arbitron survey of fall 1983. This explosion in popularity among listeners led to a 1984 New York magazine cover in which Shannon was declared "the wizard of pop radio." The new Top 40 platform allowed Z100 to fill a major gap in the radio market. Fans wanted to hear their favorite songs from various genres and Shannon gave them exactly that. "Z100 was big, loud and braggadocio, but it was humble, relatable and within reach," said Shannon. "People understood our struggle."

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Shannon met with music director Michael Ellis and they perfected the playlist rotations and performed dry runs. The format went like this: Top 10 hits, ballads only once an hour, little clutter, few commercials and, to start, no jingles. "It was jack-hammer radio; it didn't stop pounding," said the morning man. "I wanted it to mirror the feel of Times Square in New York."

The station's impact echoed throughout the radio world from the very beginning. "WABC and WNBC captured New York like no one else had, until Z100 came on the scene," says industry veteran Richard Palmese, now president of Palmese Entertainment/Azoff Management, who began to promote music during the Shannon era. "They could really move product and break artists."

Carrying the torch into the 1990s was Tom Poleman, now Clear Channel Media and Entertainment president of national programming platforms, who took over as PD in 1996 just ahead of the massive boy band and pop princess wave that included NSync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. A decade later, he named Sharon Dastur PD of Z100, and she currently presides over the station's multiplatform hitmaking power.

Indeed, today Z100 serves as a bellwether of soon-to-break acts and sets the pace for pop singles that spread coast to coast. In addition, the station's Jingle Ball concert is about to expand with plans to franchise the lineup to other Clear Channel stations. Thirty years after a shaky start, Z100 is still "serving the universe," as its longtime slogan boasts.

Listen to audio of Z100's first day on the air here.

See Z100's most-played songs of the last 30 years below:

1983: "Every Breath You Take" by The Police
1984: "When Doves Cry" by Prince
1985: "Careless Whisper" by Wham! feat. George Michael
1986: "On My Own" by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald
1987: "Always" by Atlantic Starr
1988: "One More Try" by George Michael
1989: "I'll Be There for You" by Bon Jovi
1990: "Vogue" by Madonna
1991: "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" by Bryan Adams
1992: "One" by U2
1993: "Two Princes" by Spin Doctors
1994: "Hey Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms
1995: "Better Man" by Pearl Jam
1996: "Spiderwebs" by No Doubt
1997: "You Were Meant for Me" by Jewel
1998: "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia
1999: "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer
2000: "There You Go" by Pink
2001: "Hanging by a Moment" by Lifehouse
2002: "Heaven" by DJ Sammy & Yanou feat. Do
2003: "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence 
2004: "Yeah" by Usher feat. Ludacris & Lil Jon
2005: "Behind These Hazel Eyes" by Kelly Clarkson
2006: "Everytime We Touch" by Cascada
2007: "The Way I Are" by Timbaland feat. Keri Hilson
2008: "Forever" by Chris Brown
2009: "My Life Would Suck Without You" by Kelly Clarkson
2010: "Airplanes" by B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams
2011: "Til the World Ends" by Britney Spears
2012: "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" by Kelly Clarkson
2013 (so far): "Sweet Nothing" by Calvin Harris feat. Florence Welch

Twitter: @THRMusic