HISTORY's Moments in Media: Z Morning Zoo and Scott Shannon: History's Then and Now

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You know the rudiments of "morning zoo" radio. A pair of guys — and it's basically always guys — making jokes, playing sound effects, doing song parodies. Some news updates, traffic and weather, and call-in contests — lots of call-in contests. Characters, wackiness, zaniness. Getting you up, out of the house, into the office. On Parks and Recreation, the format was lampooned as "Crazy Ira and the Douche." On Family Guy, the fictional version was "Weenie and the Butt."

And it was all invented about four decades ago in Tampa, Florida. On WRBQ-FM, then known as Q105, two DJs named Scott Shannon and Cleveland Wheeler started combining comedy and news, adding characters, and created the Q Morning Zoo. It was a huge hit, and Shannon was soon hired away by a foundering station in the New York market as its program director, charged with reinventing the station. In the early morning hours of August 2, 1983, 37 years ago this month, that station relaunched as WHTZ, a new way to spell "hits," they said, and better known as Z-100. Its signature morning show was the Z Morning Zoo. Shannon was the host — soon to be joined by Ross Brittain from the then-powerhouse AM station WABC — and the "morning zoo" format had hit the big time.

Within 74 days, the new Z-100, programmed by Shannon and led by his daily Z Morning Zoo show, had become the top-rated station in New York. Just as important, Shannon and his zoo crew were even beating Don Imus, who was until then the regular number one morning DJ in New York.

It was the height of Top 40 radio, the era of mass fandom for pop hits, and morning zoo radio brought the same shiny, pop sensibility to morning talk. Shannon's secret, according to a definitive 1984 profile in New York magazine (written by Tony Schwartz, who — small world! — would go on to ghostwrite Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal and later become a prominent Trump critic), was simple and twofold: give the audience what they want, and make the promotion part of the show. In that sense, he was presaging a lot of what would come later: reality television, self-aware media, even social media influencers.

The success of Shannon's Z Morning Zoo led to rapid expansion of the format as it was replicated across the country. WMMS in Cleveland, an influential station that shared ownership with Z-100, was an early adopter, grafting the new format onto an existing morning show pair and calling it Buzzard Morning Zoo. (In 1986, Arista Records released an album of Buzzard Morning Zoo parodies and comic bits.) Through the mid-1980s, other morning zoos launched in Houston and Boston; San Francisco and San Diego; Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, and Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Q Morning Zoo in Tampa kept going strong. There were even morning zoo shows in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

In 1989, Shannon headed west and launched what he called a "pirate radio" format on an L.A. station. Z Morning Zoo kept chugging along, just with different animals. Soon enough, Shannon was back in New York as a program director and morning host on WPLJ, Z-100's longtime Top 40 rival. Since 2014, he's been successfully hosting a chatty but not very zoo-y morning show on New York's WCBS-FM.

Over on Z-100, the show Shannon invented lives on, hosted since 1996 by Elvis Duran and filled with schtick, bits and song parodies. But it's not the Z Morning Zoo anymore. When Duran's show went national, Z-100 changed the name to avoid conflicts with other "Zoo"-branded shows in markets across the country. Today, it's simply Elvis Duran and the Morning Show.

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