Video: Taking Z100 From 'Worst to First'

By Justin Gelske on May 20, 2022 9:43:16 AM

In this special episode of Behind the Sound, we are recognizing the fantastic story as told in the brand new documentary 'Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York' with Telos Alliance Executive Chairman of the Board and Omnia Audio founder, Frank Foti. Frank is not only featured in the film, but played a significant role in taking Z100 from New York City's worst rated radio station, all the way to number one. Frank shares all the inside details of the magic that came together to create one of the best success stories in radio of all time!

You can view the Behind the Sound - Taking Z100 From 'Worst to First' interview and read a transcription of the interview below.


Justin Gelske:
Hello everyone, and welcome to Behind the Sound. I'm your host, Justin Gelske. Today, we are recognizing a fantastic story as told in the brand new documentary, Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York with Telos Alliance Executive Chairman of the Board and Omnia Audio founder, Frank Foti. Frank is not only featured in the film, but played a significant role in taking Z100 from New York City's worst rated radio station, all the way to number one.

Hey Frank. Thank you so much for joining. How are you doing today?

Frank Foti: Justin, I'm rocking and reeling. I'm dancing on the ceiling. If I'm lying, I'm dying. Grits, ain't groceries. And Mona Lisa was a man. That was a phrase that was used quite often on the Z Morning Zoo. So since we're talking about my old fraternity, I thought I'd try to spice it up a little bit. And to answer your question, life is good, buddy.

Justin: Doesn't sound like it gets much better than that. So first off, congratulations on getting to be featured in the film. That's super exciting that you're featured among everyone from Joan Jet to Jon Bon Jovi to Elvis Duran. And of course, Scott Shannon, the founding program manager for Z100. What did getting to be involved in this documentary mean to you?

Frank: Well, in all sincerity, it's an extension of how I felt back in the day at Z100. I was honored to be part of that team. And it's even more so an honor to be asked to talk about the radio station and not so much my involvement, but the things that I contributed to. The short form is in the same way that I speak about the Telos Alliance being its own entity and soul, we care about it as we care about a human, Z100 was the same thing. And to be part of that back in the day when we started and to be part of the story that's being told today, it warms my heart.

Justin: So to get us started, could you set the scene a little bit for us? Take us back to the early 1980s. Where were you? What were you working on just prior to your involvement with Z100? And how did you ultimately end up getting so involved?

Frank: WHTZ, which is the call letters of Z100, the station … I was working in the Bay Area, San Francisco. The company that owned Z100 and the stations I was working for in the Bay Area was a company by the name of Malrite Communications. They're Cleveland based, and their big claim to fame in Cleveland was they were the owners of, at that time, WMMS on FM and WHK on AM. After having worked at those stations, I was out in the Bay Area and I just purchased a house. I was married at the time. I knew that the company was working on a project in New Jersey and they purchased this FM radio station licensed to Newark, New Jersey, call letters of WVNJ. By day, it was easy listing music, in the evening it was jazz music, and they signed off at midnight.

What the Cleveland company had done was they'd purchased the rights to move the transmitter from West Orange, New Jersey to the Empire State Building, and that's a big deal. What ended up happening was in the process of doing the construction and the moving of the transmitter, let's just say some things were going on at the radio … well, it wasn't even on the air, going out with the project and Scott Shannon, who was already there, did not like the progress that was happening. I think in a polite way, slash no uncertain terms, said that if some things didn't change, he was going go back to Tampa, Florida, which was the station where he came from, WFBQ, where he was tremendously successful. What ended up happening was the corporate office realizing they were having an issue and it was technical in nature, they reached out and asked if I would get involved to help put the station on the air.

I go to Jersey. I was there about 10 days, helped getting some things put together enough so that we could go on the air. We get on the air, and the gentleman who was going to be the general manager at Z100, gentleman by the name of Dean Thacker. Dean and I had worked in Cleveland, was a friend. He took me aside and he said, because my nickname in the radio station was always Foti. And they never just called me Frank, they said Foti. Or Scott calls me to this day, Franco. Dean said, "Foti, the people around here, they really like you, would you want to be chief engineer here in New York?" It's like, "uh, duh."

Now granted, I'm working in market size number four, which was pretty cool. I had a house. Living in the bay area is really nice, but New York, I mean, that's the super bowl. Really, I mean, it's the number one market, not just in America, in the world. It's the one. So I said to Dean, I said "Dean, I'm not necessarily saying that yes, like I'm pining for the job, but if something comes up I would definitely consider it."

So I'd actually flown back to the Bay Area. My wife at the time said to me, "Why do I think we're moving to New Jersey?" And I said, "Well, it's a possibility." And sure enough, two days later I get a phone call, "Foti, you got to get back here ASAP." So I jumped the next flight to Jersey. Dean picked me up at the Newark airport, along with a all black mafia cat by the name of Vito Corleone. I'm not kidding you, and Vito and I built a radio station.

Justin: Wow. That is a pretty crazy story and pretty crazy intro into how you got involved there. You were tasked with engineering a sound that as quoted by Scott Shannon in the documentary, "jumped out of the radio" and "was a flame thrower for Z100." You end up achieving the sound and seemingly overnight Z100 went from the worst radio station to the number one station in New York City. What magic did you end up working there?

Frank: First of all, yes, we were in last place, but there's a reason why we were in last place. When we launched the radio station on August the second, 1983, that rating period was well underway. So theoretically, it wasn't possible to get enough of a sampling, to … So in essence, what truly happened was we probably knew we weren't going to show up well. I mean, it's like had we been on the whole rating period, come in last, well … and, hey. But we did show up. Even we knew people were listening. So we played up the whole worst to first thing. To answer your question about the sound itself, having worked at Rock Radio on Cleveland at WMMS where we ruled the airways not just in programming, but sonically as well. I knew here we needed something that was going to jump out of the speakers.

Matter of fact, I think I say it in the film, it really is the way Roger Daltrey does express how people perceive the Who's music. It's like somebody punching you in the nose and saying, I love you. I could have taken the audio processing and cranked everything to max, to where it would sound like your head was stuck in a vice, but the key was we needed to do something sonically where yes, it jumped out of the speakers, but at the same time you could listen for a long time. And people, if they're wondering, "well, what were you shooting for?" Yes, I wanted something that was loud and proud, but that it provided a level of fidelity and quality.

Justin: Perfect answer there. I love that. I think you explained it really well. You kind of gave us a picture of what you have in your mind when people say, "how can you see what sound you're looking for?" And that was a great explanation there.

So what has it meant to you to have been a part of one of the biggest success stories in radio of all time, and how did your work at Z100 end up laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become Omnia Audio?

Frank: That's a great question, Justin. First of all, I'm going to borrow something that Scott would tell people during our time there. Any of us who were at the radio station, of which just about all of us came from outside of New York, and one of the things that if Scott got on anybody … because if they felt like, well, because I did such and such in another market, therefore I'm qualified to be here. He would say, "yes, your qualifications got you to New York," but there was a big line in the sand. That was the threshold to the front door of the radio station. And that was, the moment you crossed that threshold, everything started anew. That went for anybody, if you're on the air, promotions, sales, engineering, didn't matter. So what did it mean to me?

I felt like … Now mind you, I'd also worked at another great radio station in Cleveland, WMMS, which was year in and year out voted the number one rock radio station by Rolling Stone Magazine. I don't want to say I had the pedigree, but I had it in me of what it was going to take to be the best, because at the home of the buzzard, at that time, we did that. So, I had that inside me. If anything, it was amped up even more because … I'm telling you New York, I mean, there's no margin of error in New York. I say that out of respect, not only for my colleagues that were at Z100, but also the competitors. I mean, it was you put the pedal to the metal day in and day out, you never let up.

So what did it mean to me? It meant this is what it's going to take to be head and shoulders above everyone else. Once I was able to bring my efforts together with Steve Church's efforts, Steve had Telos Systems I had Cutting Edge Technologies. We brought them together, eventually cutting edge became Omnia. We knew what it took, and it was that undying devoted, driven, yes passion, I know it sounds like a buzzword, but stop at nothing to win.

Justin: I think that's so cool that the spark that you felt during this whole process, you still feel today with everything that you do with Omnia and Telos Alliance as a whole.

Frank: You know, Justin, one of the aspects about Z100 that I feel is also pertinent to a successful company or organization, and this can be a business, a sports team, or what have you, and it's an intangible. Z100, I treated it as a human being. I'm saying that, metaphorically, because there'd be nights I'd be leaving the radio station, the only people in the building would've been myself, whoever was on the air and probably they had kids that were answering the request lines at all times, but I felt the soul of the radio station. And it was, yes, all the accolades given to Scott Shannon are deserved, believe me. But, there was a soul there, and that soul was made up of all the people involved. In sports, they talk about chemistry, and yes, there was a great chemistry there.

There was a comment made in the film that somehow Scott put together a dysfunctional family that became a family, and there's a lot of truth to that. I mean, we came from all different walks of life. But the point I want to drive home is that there was a magic that just existed among all the individuals there in all capacities, and we just found a way to make it work. If you ever want to talk about people from so many different walks of life and backgrounds and styles and characters and personalities, it was there. But there was a true passion and a love that existed among everybody. At the end of the day, the right thing always ended up on the air. It was from programming, promotion, engineering, what have you, and it was part of this magic that's there.

It's the same in the Telos Alliance, and it's something … I'm very proud of what we've done with our organization, and a lot of it was born through this place. So there's a lot of truth when I've told people there's a little pieces Z100 in everything we sell, and definitely the sound of Z100 was the genesis for the sound of what's now Omnia Processing.

Justin: That was a great point, and I think it's really cool. It's just this idea of a melting pot of all these different types of people and all these different experiences, all coming together to create something that's, as you said, kind of magical in a way. And you got to experience it in two different scenarios, both with Z100 and now with Telos Alliance.

Frank: You know, Justin, there were many times, years past, Steve and I would be working on something and it wasn't technical. It had to do with the business. Maybe we were trying to figure out how to do something sales, marketing-wise, or we were faced with some challenge. And there were times Steve would come into my office or we'd be out eating and we'd be talking about something and he would say, "you know what? This thing that we're trying to figure out, what would Scott Shannon, do?" You know, what was the approach? What did you guys do at Z100?

Or another analogy we would make that was musical, and this was in the creative aspects. We would say, "you know, when Pete Townsend was doing Tommy, how did he approach that?" Or Bruce Springsteen, and some of the music he's done, how did he approach that? So we allowed the influence of people that had nothing to do with broadcast equipment, had nothing to do with our business, but we admired how they went about projects and situations, and then borrowed, if you will, aspects of that and factored it into the company. And modestly, it's worked every time.

Justin: Well, Frank, again, congratulations on getting to be featured in the film and, of course, on all your success over the years with Telos Alliance. Worst to First, the True Story of Z100 New York is out now!

Purchase 'Worst to First' on Amazon
Purchase 'Worst to First' on iTunes
Purchase 'Worst to First' on YouTube

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Topics: Omnia, Behind the Sound

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