Broadcasting From the top of the Empire State Building…!



It doesn’t seem fair to trot out the adage “show, don’t tell” when the subject is radio programming.  Yet, the new documentary Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York spends its paltry sixty-three-minute running time showing the tellers as they attempt to regale.  Give an aging radio personality half a chance to trot out their old war stories and tales of the salad days of the medium, and you could be there all day.  Thankfully, we’re not there all day (far from it), although one often finds oneself wishing the filmmaker would’ve maybe included a few substantial audio snippets of the wild and wooly content that these old folks spend the film reminiscing about.  

As it is, we get a ton of grey-haired talking heads recalling the central tale, which certainly presents as one worth documenting.  The unlikely ascendency of New York Top 40 radio giant Z100 (that’s 100.3 on your FM dial) is not only the kind of rascally underdog story that more than one narrative comedy movie has emulated, but it’s fair to say that in its heyday (which was the mid-1980s and into the ‘90s), the hyperbole-fueled antics of station mastermind/“Morning Zoo” helmer Scott Shannon and company actually transformed popular culture.  Across the country and beyond, radio stations raced to emulate their tone, sound, promotions, and playlist.

We’re told that Shannon had been a big fish in the small pond of Tampa, Florida’s radio scene.  When tapped to do his thing at the abysmally flailing Z100, he packed up his Hawaiian shirts and sneakers and his best girl (who’d go on to be his future wife), heading on up to the Big Apple.  Things didn’t turn around right away, but once Shannon started making changes and instigating a grassroots publicity effort, Z100 became the self-ascribed “flame thrower” of the airwaves.  On hand to testify about the independent station’s triumphant sway over the airwaves are pop stars Jon Bon Jovi (pictured above), Joan Jett, Nile Rodgers, Debbie Gibson, and Taylor Dayne (pictured below).  Tales are told of how a young unknown singer by the name of Madonna nagged the station into playing her song “Holiday”.  They did, and the rest is history.  A few years later, Madonna returned the favor by having Z100 host the premiere of her movie, Who’s That Girl.  

Worst To First is good enough to hit the nostalgia button of any die-hard NYC Top 40 radio fans of thirty-five years ago.  Aside from that very specific sweet spot, however, the documentary’s appeal is likely quite limited.  While a few big names appear in the newly conducted interviews, the project’s production value is moderate, leaning heavily on vintage Z100 television ads and old talk show clips with the glassy-eyed Shannon and his cohorts.  Shannon, who’s modern day interview is made to carry the film, remains a verbose character after all this time.  The editing of the movie, though, has a disjointed choppiness to it, signaling multiple failed attempts at “cool” cross-cutting.  Also, it’s kind of weird to see several honchos of the corporate overlording radio de-flavorizor iHeartRadio turn up in the new interviews, reflecting on the bombastic individualism of Z100.

Kino Lorber’s DVD of the Gunpowder & Sky release is a decent presentation complete with rambling bonus scenes.  As short as Worst to First is, one wonders why the heck these clips got cut.  There’s also an audio commentary track with DJ Scott Shannon and director Mitchell Stuart, which is kind of strange because there’s so much of Shannon’s voice in the movie proper.  With the commentary on, he’s basically talking over himself.   But that’s not such a big deal after all, since the track basically runs out of steam after maybe fifteen minutes. Between the very regional subject matter and the rapid dwindling of radio’s appeal (young people literally never listen on their own accord), Worst to First is unlikely to net any major ratings.