Einstein's son, Damian, a longtime on-air personality on WHFS, said yesterday that the station's reputation as a maverick programmer began to decline more than a decade ago, at the beginning of a rapid consolidation of ownership in the industry.
"They really weren't interested in the music anymore," said Einstein, who was one of WHFS's best-known personalities and who is now the program director at WRNR-FM, a small alternative rock station in Annapolis. "There really wasn't that much creativity there. Having been there for so long and having done so many things there, of course it's sad. But I guess you gotta do what you gotta do."
Doing what they've got to do includes wooing the Latino radio market, the fastest growing in the business. The audience of Spanish-language stations has grown 37 percent since 1998 and currently accounts for about 9 percent of all listeners. (Some radio experts believe that this understates the actual audience, as it does not take into account the large numbers of undocumented Latinos for whom the radio is a vital source of information.) In 2003, Latin album sales increased 16 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In the Washington area, the Hispanic population has grown more than 25 percent in the last four years, Infinity says. "El Zol's" playlist is aimed at the region's largely Central American population, featuring Caribbean and Central American dance music, mostly salsa, merengue and bachata.
The station will target radio's "money demographic": Adults ages 25 to 54. Washington has five other radio stations aimed at Spanish speakers: WBZS-FM, WPLC-FM and WKDL-AM, all owned by Mega Broadcasting; WILC-AM, owned by ZGS Broadcasting; and WACA-AM, owned by Entrevision.
Spanish-language radio programs have scored some notable successes in recent years. In New York, "La Mega" (WSKQ-FM) has a morning show that frequently trumps Howard Stern in the quarterly Arbitron ratings, according to Seth Rosen, media director for Reynardus and Moya, a New York-based advertising agency that caters to the Latino market.
The Viacom media conglomerate owns Infinity Broadcasting, which in turn also owns Washington area stations WPGC-FM and AM, WARW-FM and WJFK-FM. Recently, it has been flipping some of its weaker-performing stations across the country to a Spanish-language format, reflecting an industry trend. The switches have been prompted by Infinity's alliance with the Spanish Broadcasting System Inc., the nation's largest Latino-controlled radio broadcasting company. Infinity owns an equity interest in the Florida-based company, which served as a consultant on the WHFS reformatting.
"We did extensive research about the Washington, D.C., market," said Infinity spokeswoman Karen Mateo. "We realized there was a void there for approximately 10 percent of the market."
The switch leaves the futures of WHFS's on-air personalities and other employees in question. Although Infinity has not announced personnel changes, insiders speculate that the station's most popular personalities, the Sports Junkies, will probably be reassigned to WJFK-FM.
No decision has been made about the future of HFStival, Mateo said.
Despite the arrival last year of Lisa Worden, a highly touted programming director, WHFS's progress in the ratings has been slow. The station ranked 20th overall in the most recent Arbitron audience survey, and ninth among its key target audience -- listeners 18 to 34. WHFS's demise as a rock station will likely benefit its chief rival, DC-101, but could also help more pop-oriented music stations such as Z104-FM and Hot 99.5, said Jim Farley, a veteran of Washington radio who is a vice president of WTOP, the all-news station. WTOP's owner, Bonneville International, also owns Z104; Clear Channel owns Hot 99.5, as well as DC-101.
"HFS is an institution around here, but the station has been struggling for a while," said Joe Howard, Washington bureau chief for Radio & Records, a research and analysis firm that also produces an industry magazine.
"I think Infinity saw this as an opportunity to attack an underserved market."
Staff writer Sean Daly contributed to this report.