WHFS-FM, the Washington area radio station that was a pioneering purveyor of alternative rock to generations of young music fans, did a programming U-turn yesterday by ditching the genre for a Spanish-language, pop-music format that transforms it into the largest Spanish-language station on the local dial.
In an instant, the station abandoned the likes of the White Stripes, Green Day and Jet for middle-of-the-road superstars such as Marc Anthony, Juan Luis Guerra and Victor Manuelle.
The switch reflects both changing demographics and a corporate war of attrition involving Washington's two major radio station owners, Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WHFS, and Clear Channel Communications, which owns WHFS's chief competitor, DC-101.
Despite its self-proclaimed "legendary" status, WHFS (at 99.1 on the dial) has long trailed DC-101 in the race to win the ears of rock listeners in the Washington-Baltimore area. At the same time, Spanish-language radio is the fastest-growing format in the country, while alternative rock radio is a withering niche.
At noon yesterday, the station behind the HFStival, a popular annual concert, broadcast the late Jeff Buckley's 1995 hit, "Last Goodbye." And then came something that WHFS listeners hadn't heard before in the station's 36-year history as the arbiter of cutting-edge rock:
"WHFS transmitiendo desde la ciudad capital de America:
"Esta! Es! Tu! Nueva! Radio!"
"Transmitting from America's Capital City: This! Is! Your! New! Radio!"
Lanham-based WHFS is now "El Zol," where they're "siempre de fiesta" -- always partying. (Zol plays off sol, the Spanish word for sun, and is a station brand of the Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. which owns other "Zol" stations.)
Although radio insiders have discussed the likelihood of WHFS changing formats for many months, the switch came as a shock to former employees and fans who grew up listening to the radio station that, since the late 1960s, had gained a reputation as the place to go for new music. Radio stations often switch formats and often without promoting the change in advance.
WHFS was among a handful of stations that developed the album-oriented format: The music was alternative and free-form, featuring such groups as Led Zeppelin, the Who and Yes, but with the occasional bluegrass or other unexpected ditty. Disc jockeys weren't confined to the strictures of a corporate-mandated playlist. They played what they wanted.
Out of this freewheeling approach came the station's music festival, which grew from an offbeat spring event to a nationally recognized bacchanalia that last year drew 65,000 people to RFK Stadium.
"Certainly this will have major ramifications for new music in Washington, D.C.," said Seth Hurwitz, owner of the city's 9:30 club and producer of last year's HFStival, with featured 36 acts. "They were always the forerunner for presenting new music," said Hurwitz, who began his career in 1976 as a disc jockey at the station. "They were a vital fabric of Washington's culture."
WHFS began as a classical music station, then switched to pop music in the early-to-mid-1960s before turning to rock about 1968. The moves were orchestrated by Jake Einstein, who began as an advertising salesman and became one of the station's owners in the mid-1960s.