It's a dreary morning, but the studio on the 10th floor of 345 Hudson Street is bathed in red. The light is coming from an overhead bulb that illuminates to tell the crew of "The Big Show" with Scott Shannon when a song is about to end, and it's also emanating from a neon sign behind the console reading "40 years, WCBS-FM, 101.1." Next to that is foot-tall inflatable penguin.
I ask Shannon the significance. "When I came to New York in 1983, [the radio industry] was walking in a line, following one other," he says, like penguins waddling along. Shannon is known a something of a radio evolutionist, credited with bringing the morning zoo to radio's biggest market while at Z-100, which is now owned by iHeartMedia. At 70 years old, Shannon is as close to DJ legend as there is, having manned the mic at many stations since he left home at 17. For the last four years he has been berthed at Entercom's CBS, which bills itself as the home of "New York's greatest hits."
"This is our 912th show," Shannon tells me as Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" starts playing. Shannon leafs through a sheaf of papers that contain clips from the morning's newspapers, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, along with his hometown Journal News, to use as fodder for the patter. Today's topics include a coyote found in a museum in Albany; a tape of former senator Al D'Amato screaming at his wife during a hospital visit; and the end of "Sharknado" ("I don't hate anybody, but that Tara Reid is easy to dislike," he quips on the air.) It's openind day for the Mets, so John Fogerty's "Centerfield" spins. It's 8:11 a.m., he tells listeners.
Shannon, and others like him, are radio's ground zero. They are the ones that create enduring relationships with consumers, they are the cultivators of that curiously intimate relationship that audiences feel with radio hosts they have never met. "When you have a successful morning show, people feel they know you," says Shannon, who reaches 2 million people a week. Or at least they want to: Search Google for Bob Bronson, of morning show host of 106.7 Lite-FM in New York, and the top suggested search is "Bob Bronson's daughter's wedding." A search for Shannon yields "Scott Shannon family."
He hands me a 12-page printout of Facebook messages he received from well-wishers on the show's fourth anniversary March 2. "I followed Scott from station to station since I was 20!" Gina Capana gushes. Carol Italiano writes, "I have been a loyal listener since Aug. 2, 1983!" Arlene Lamia Stracco says, "You have been with me every morning waking up, in the shower and on the way to work!!"
"The radio stations that just play music aren't going to do that well because there are plenty of places you can go and get that same music without all the commercials," says Shannon. "But if you have a personality on the air that can give a different slant to a story, or can tell his or her own story, you can't get that anywhere else."
Madonna's "Material Girl" plays. It's 52 degrees and foggy. We know because weatherman John Elliott tells us. Traffic reporter Sue Aller informs us, courtesy of Ray Catena Alfa Romeo, that there's a tie-up on the George Washington Bridge. Listener Annie answers a trivia question and wins tickets to Steely Dan. Caller Mona rambles on too long and Shannon cuts her off with, "I gotta go, my house is on fire."
I ask Shannon about radio audiences aging, which can mean death by demography with advertisers. It's one reason why CBS-FM evolved from its oldies-station positioning.
"I used to play 'In the Still of the Night' five times a day, and unfortunately a lot of the people who love 'In the Still of the Night' have passed on to the still of the night," he says. "Because of the demands of the advertising community you can't have an audience of 70-to-80-year olds. They are not gonna pay for it."
"The 25-to-54 numbers here are through the roof," says his co-host, Patty Steele. "That's why the plays are carefully curated here," she says. "We are not an oldies station, we are a classic hit station, which means '70s, '80s, even some '90s music."
But those listener relationships are just as key. Shannon, who Steele likens to "Rainman" because he can identify a record from across the room just by its label, knows this as well as anyone. "It used to be that you could turn on a radio in New York and listen to WABC and you would pull up to a stoplight and there would be five or six other cars there with the same thing on," he says, "but the industry has grown so much that they have a lot more choices."
But he's convinced that if you establish a connection, people will listen. It does not matter whether the audience is tuning in on a cellphone, desktop or a battered transistor radio.
"It's not like it used to be," says Shannon as the red light winks out. "But it's still a really great business."