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Jake Einstein, 90; Took Area Radio From Pop to Rock

Under Jake Einstein, WHFS promoted local bands and brought musicians into the studio for interviews and performances.
Under Jake Einstein, WHFS promoted local bands and brought musicians into the studio for interviews and performances. (By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Jake Einstein, a colorful radio innovator who launched the Washington area's first alternative rock station, WHFS-FM, which left a lasting mark on the region's music scene in the 1970s and 1980s, died Sept. 12 at his home in Potomac from emphysema and complications from an aneurysm. He was 90.

Mr. Einstein had been a newspaper columnist, speechwriter and advertising salesman before becoming general manager and part-owner of the low-rated 2,300-watt Bethesda station in 1967. Within a year, he introduced rock-and-roll to a staid musical lineup, and the station's fortunes began to rise.

In 1971, WHFS -- then broadcasting at 102.3 FM -- became Washington's first 24-hour rock station and quickly blossomed into a cultural force. Mr. Einstein gave his young DJs freedom to broadcast whatever they wanted, and for the next 12 years WHFS was at the center of Washington's progressive music scene, attracting a loyal following of students, musicians and young urbanites.

It was the first local station to play such bands as REM, U2, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and the Cure. It furthered the careers of then-undiscovered stars Bruce Springsteen, George Thorogood and Emmylou Harris, who sometimes showed up at the studio. WHFS played the records of many local groups as well, including Tru Fax & the Insaniacs, the Bad Brains and Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.

"It seemed like an unlikely place to be the center of Washington's music culture, but Jake took a chance, and it paid off for him," said Mike Schreibman, president of the Washington Area Music Association and a part of the D.C. music scene since the 1960s. "He gave voice to a type of radio that, without him, wouldn't have happened. It was a real sense of community."

When Mr. Einstein became general manager of WHFS, the station had been on the air for six years and was lucky to draw 800 listeners a night with its format of pop, light classical and jazz.

"Then a guy named Frank Richards came in one day wearing cutoffs and a leather vest, played me a tape of rock music from Los Angeles," Mr. Einstein told The Washington Post in 1983. "We were losing so much money that another couple of dollars couldn't hurt, right? So we put him on. My God, the calls! I never knew we had an audience!"

In 1969, three would-be DJs -- Joshua Brooks, Sara Vass and Mark Gorbulew -- approached Mr. Einstein with an idea for a free-form rock-and-roll program. They went on under the name Spiritus Cheese (derived from a cheese company in New York), and a new era was born.

"It was Jake's vision that FM radio and rock-and-roll were about to collide," said Mr. Einstein's daughter, Rose, who briefly worked at WHFS. "He saw it as an all-night format that would sustain a station."

Within months, WHFS was drawing an average nightly audience of 32,700 listeners. Spiritus Cheese lasted just a year -- someone complained about a four-letter word in a Firesign Theatre skit broadcast on the air -- but by then the station had found its niche.

The station's rock-and-roll DJs -- who included Mr. Einstein's sons David and Damian as well as Tom Grooms, Adele Abrams and Josh, Cerphe and Weasel -- became known for their shrewd and esoteric musical selections drawn from the station's 20,000-volume record library. They explored the byways of rock, blues, jazz, reggae and even classical music but seldom included tunes from the Top 40.

"There were no restrictions," said Jonathan Gilbert, who began broadcasting as Weasel on WHFS in 1972. "We would play everything from [experimental composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen to bluegrass -- sometimes in the same set."


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