In its glory days in the late 1970s and early 1980s, WHFS was the seat of a cultural community on Bethesda’s Cordell Avenue. The alternative-rock station occupied the second and third floors of the Triangle Towers apartment building, where many of its DJs lived.
Before corporate-owned stations devised playlists based on market research, the WHFS “jocks” broadcast sets that spanned genres and formats, based on themes, the weather or their moods.
Few jocks were better known or more loved than Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, famous for his raspy, high-pitched voice and encyclopedic musical knowledge, which enabled him to jump from 1940s jazz to Delta blues to modern rock within one cohesive set.
Gilbert followed WHFS to Annapolis after the original station was sold in 1983. But by 2005, when WHFS faded from the airwaves for good, Weasel and the free-form programming that had made WHFS famous were long gone.
“By the mid-1990s, the magic was gone, and the station had become cookie-cutter,” says Gilbert, who left WHFS in 2003 after 33 years. “Corporate owners were tightening up playlists. Free-form people like us started getting out of the way.”
Today, Gilbert is still culling dreamy, expansive playlists from a vast music library in the Triangle Towers. But now, those playlists air on the Baltimore-based public radio station WTMD (89.7 FM). And he pulls albums from his personal library, housed in a storage room near the same one-bedroom, fourth-story apartment he first rented as a WHFS jock in 1978.
WTMD General Manager Steve Yasko tried recruiting Gilbert when the station first switched from smooth jazz to adult alternative eight years ago, but the timing wasn’t right. When the station tried again last year, Gilbert proved difficult to locate..
When Gilbert stepped out of the elevator at Triangle Towers on a recent weekday — the same elevator in which he once escorted performers such as Jerry Garcia and the Beach Boys up to the station — it was easy to see how he has stayed under the radar.
At 61, Gilbert is 5-foot-4 and balding, with tendrils of salt-and-pepper hair covering his ears. His only distinguishing feature is the face that earned him the nickname “Weasel,” for its similarity to the one on the cover of the Frank Zappa album “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”
After leaving WHFS, Gilbert spent time at WARW “The Arrow” and its successor, WTGB “The Globe.” When WTMD’s program director found him, Gilbert was doing freelance radio work.
This time, the timing was perfect.
Since November, Gilbert has broadcast his unique brand of free-form radio from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays (7 to 10 p.m. Fridays during lacrosse season).
The theme of his first show: “Good-time music is back on the radio.”
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