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WHFS: For Many, The Only Alternative

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page C01

Wednesday's abrupt morphing of modern-rock radio stalwart WHFS-FM into El Zol, a Spanish-language pop station, caught many, including WHFS's on-air staff, by surprise and touched off considerable protest and sorrow.

WHFS has taken a few steps down this road before. In 1983, the original WHFS (102.3), located atop Triangle Towers in Bethesda, was sold. Its new owners changed the call letters to WKTS and the format to easy listening.

WHFS's 1978 lineup, from left: Damian Einstein, John Gilbert, David Einstein, Bob Showacre, Diane Divola, Tom Grooms. (1978 Photo)

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But that time WHFS was simply mum, not silenced for good. It emerged three months later in Annapolis, a little farther down the dial at 99.1. It displaced "mood music" WLOM, and according to a Washington Post account at the time, "the change was sudden, unannounced and greeted by more than a few hoots from regular WLOM listeners, one of whom called the new music 'garbage.' "

Similar reaction could be found in a washingtonpost.com chat room Wednesday and yesterday. Many younger listeners bemoaned the passing of WHFS's "modern rock" era, while older people recalled the good old progressive-rock days, when WHFS deejays chose their own music, disregarded format distinctions and deftly mixed rock, reggae, blues, R&B, folk and whatever, embracing new acts and encouraging homegrown music. Back then, they didn't rely on consultants and outside research in deciding what to play.

Those glory years were the 1970s and early '80s, when WHFS's motto was "Feast Your Ears. " It was the last surviving free-form progressive station in the metropolitan area, and one of the last in the country.

But that was a long time, and several owners, ago.

Over the last 15 years, WHFS was still regarded as a key alternative-rock station. But though it sustained several elements of the original WHFS -- a small but incredibly loyal audience, as well as a national reputation far outpacing its low ratings -- the station, owned since 1996 by Infinity Broadcasting, was perhaps better known for its annual stadium-rocking HFStival concerts than for its programming. (Indeed, WHFS's rival station, DC-101, is honoring "the legendary WHFS" through the weekend by featuring bands that performed at various HFStivals.)

The station's storied history was saluted by listeners in the chat room, but many also took aim at what they saw as its decline.

"They unceremoniously killed off a great radio station that's been an institution to Washington DC for the past 20 years," wrote "EG." "So be it, if that's how Infinity does business."

But "jahhbo" differed: "Another corporate owned entity with a ten-song playlist has passed into the night. It wasn't always like that." And from "dooeduke": "As if we needed another reason to dislike DC radio. I stopped tuning in for the music years ago -- the programming had become as repetitive and vanilla as every other corporate station in the area."

For many, the turning point came in 1987, when Jake Einstein, who headed a group that had bought WHFS 20 years earlier for $140,000, sold it for $8.2 million to Duchossois Communications, a division of Duchossois Industries Inc., the world's largest maker of automatic door openers.

Getting from Duchossois to Infinity took a decade and involved a 1994 sale to Liberty Broadcasting, a 1996 resale to SFX -- which promptly traded WHFS to Westinghouse-owned CBS for two Dallas stations -- followed by Westinghouse's purchase of Infinity Broadcasting that same year, and capped by Viacom's 1999 purchase of CBS.

All that simply reflects how much radio has changed, and how much the stakes have risen, since WHFS first went on the air in 1961, its call letters standing for Washington High Fidelity Stereo. WHFS was the first stereo operation in Washington, as well as the first to go to 24-hour rock in 1969. The station's first seven years found it looking for a format until deejay Frank Richards bought his own air time and brought rock music to WHFS in 1968.

The following year, Spiritus Cheese, a trio of Bard College graduates, began to feature the music and politics of the emerging counterculture, also paying to have their show aired. They became full-time staff when Einstein finally took the station all-rock in late 1969 -- though two of the Cheeses, Mark Gorbulew and Sarah Vass, soon quit over advertiser resistance to having a female deejay.

The other Cheese, Josh Brooks, stayed at WHFS for nine years, seven of them shared with Donald "Cerphe" Colwell, who now resides in afternoon drive time at WARW, playing as oldies many of the same tracks he once played as new. WARW is also now home to Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, whose weirdly distinctive voice and programming were legendary on the late-night shift from 1972 to 1979. He was at WHFS until 1999.

David Einstein, one of Jake's sons, was program director at WHFS for 20 years. Another son, Damian Einstein, survived a 1975 truck crash that killed two of his friends; after spending two years in rehab relearning how to walk and talk, he returned to WHFS as a deejay. In 1989, when the station's new general manager told Einstein his halting, slightly slurred speech and delivery were bad for business and tried to move him off the air, thousands of longtime fans signed petitions and jammed an eight-hour Bring Back Damian concert held in a Wheaton parking lot.

The decision was reversed, but Einstein finally walked away from the station in 1994, resurfacing (along with several other old WHFS jocks) back up the dial at WRNR, his father's new alternative music outlet in Annapolis. Some folks think that's when WHFS died.

WRNR is the closest thing to free-form radio you'll find in Washington today -- and not all that close, either -- but it suffers from a weak, 6,000-watt signal that makes it hard to pick up in much of the metropolitan area. The 50,000-watt incarnation of WHFS settled in Annapolis two decades ago because from there, its signal was powerful enough to reach both Baltimore and Washington. But the strong signal sent out increasingly weak programming. The alternative and modern rock sounds of the '90s, while more adventurous than what other rock stations might be playing, were similar to what DC-101 was playing, particularly after "alternative" became mainstream in the mid-'90s.

Today, there are lots of ways for people to hear new music and a wider representation of older music. Young rock fans are more likely to find new music on their video-game soundtracks than on most commercial rock stations.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company