Cerphe, Catching Radio's Newest Wave

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Four years after he fell in love with rock-and-roll while watching the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Don Cerphe Colwell packed up his guitar and followed a girlfriend from suburban Boston down to American University.

"The girl lasted a semester," says Colwell, but within weeks, the freshman met another AU student who invited him to work part time at a radio station that was experimenting with a new kind of music programming.

By day, WHFS was a middle-of-the-road FM station, the kind that played Sinatra, Mantovani and Tom Jones. But at night, beginning in 1968, the station, then based in Bethesda, sold time to young rockers who desperately craved a place on the dial where they could play the album cuts and underground sounds that AM Top 40 radio would not spin.

Cerphe Colwell, who landed a part-time gig on WHFS and kept at it throughout college, joined the station full time in 1972. This month, he marks his 35th anniversary on the air in Washington, a rare feat of continuity in rock radio -- a career in which he became the first DJ in the region to play the music of Bruce Springsteen, watched as radio pulled away from its role in shaping listeners' tastes, and somehow survived a blizzard of ownership and format changes.

Cerphe, as he's known on the air (pronounced "surf"), looks the part of the aging but committed rocker. In black leather jacket, fashionably unshaven face and shaggy haircut, the 55-year-old DJ runs the afternoon shift at 94.7 the Globe (WTGB-FM), the formerly classic rock station that switched formats in February to try a blend of '60s and '70s rock standards and contemporary artists who fit in with the classic hits: Coldplay, Dave Matthews Band, KT Tunstall, Norah Jones.

The idea is to add younger listeners to the aging classic-rock audience while expanding the playlist to counter the widespread belief that broadcast radio is a place to hear established hits, but not necessarily the best way to discover new sounds.

Introducing listeners to the new was the heart of Cerphe's early years in the business. At WHFS in the '70s, "the idea of thinking about the ratings was foreign to us," he says. "It was extremely hippie radio. We did a ride board and lost cat reports: 'Bill has lost a Burmese in Bethesda.' It was self-indulgent -- if I bought a car, I would bore the hell out of people with four or five hours of car songs. But we turned people on to a tremendous amount of new music."

He would sign on in those years like this: "This is Cerphe -- we're sending out some tunes tonight for the truckers, the mad hatters, the ships at sea and especially, the ladies of the night." The music that followed was whatever the DJ wanted to play. In Cerphe's case, the tunes came from big wooden crates full of records that he hauled in from his enormous vinyl collection at home. (Only about 5,000 albums remain in Cerphe's Reston home from that legendary assemblage; he recently sold 40,000 records to a collector, and has now switched primarily to CDs and downloads.)

But by the late '70s, market research and consultants were becoming the rule at music stations, and their first and most widely heeded recommendation was to eliminate the leeway that DJs had to pick music. Instead, stations used listener surveys to create tighter playlists aimed at ever-narrower demographic slices of the audience.

"I had to choose between going off to work at the hippie bookstore and making peace with where my industry was going," Cerphe says. He stayed in radio. "You have to understand the rules of the business. It became not so much shaping tastes but being an entertainer, a friend, even a therapist."

For many listeners who grew up with Cerphe on the radio, calling in to the station during hard times is a direct line to a comforting voice, someone who has accompanied them through the years. "It came home to me on 9/11," the DJ says. "We all grieved together. I just took calls on the air all day and we just talked and talked. A door opened for me; people had gotten to know me through my show and here was an opportunity for me to get to know them."

As the iPod generation moves away from radio as its primary music source, media companies are starting to break with the highly researched, highly predictable formats of the past two decades. The Globe is an experiment by CBS Radio designed to see whether oldies and new music can be blended to capture listeners across generational lines. It's also an attempt to tap into the growing interest in things green. The station's DJs talk about conservation and global warming; Globe employees drive hybrid vehicles; and the station is paying extra for wind-generated electricity.

The green emphasis was inspired in part by Cerphe, whose wife, Susan, runs a Virginia business that designs environmentally friendly houses.

"We're building this as we go," says Michael Hughes, general manager of the Globe and CBS's other Washington stations. "Cerphe has been living green for years, and he's showing us how to do this. There really was no research backing this idea. We just knew there's a thirst for new and interesting music that's adult-friendly and not necessarily rhythmic."

Cerphe still doesn't get to pick the tunes he plays -- when he starts his shift, the songs already have been programmed into the computer -- but he's nonetheless recharged by the format shift. "One of the problems with radio is a lack of passion and personality," he says. "As an industry, for a number of years, we've let a lot of listeners down. There's been a predictability, a cloning of formats. People can sense what's real."

On the Globe, Cerphe -- a longtime vegetarian who swears by yoga and meditation -- can talk about the upcoming Al Gore Earth Live concerts or tell stories about the artists he knew back in the day (in the '70s, Cerphe sang with Little Feat at Lisner Auditorium, emceed an Earth Day event on the Mall with Jackson Browne and played guitar with Chuck Berry at Georgetown University).

It's not the same as bringing in a crate of records and building your own set of music, but Cerphe loves it all the same. It's 2 p.m. and he dims the lights in the studio inside a downtown Silver Spring office tower. The DJ cranks up the volume on Santana and then the Psychedelic Furs, and leans into the microphone: "Hi, it's Cerphe."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company