Legendary Classic Rock DJ Cerphe Signs Off as WTGB Switches Formats

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

No more Zeppelin. No more Skynyrd or Tom Petty or Rolling Stones. And not a whole lot more Don Cerphe Colwell, either.

Classic rock and the DJ who brought that music to local radio audiences long before the rock was considered "classic" are both fading from the airwaves. Beginning Monday, Colwell's station, WTGB (94.7 FM, "The Globe"), will switch to playing contemporary pop tunes. With the demise of the region's only classic rock outlet, the music that helped transform FM radio into a cultural force in the 1970s will become just another baby boomer memory.

Colwell -- who has always gone by his middle name, pronounced "surf," on the air -- is arguably the voice of Washington's rock generation. As an undergraduate at American University in the early 1970s, he began working part time at a little FM station in Bethesda called WHFS, where he explored records by such artists as Jimi Hendrix and interviewed such up-and-coming talents as Bruce Springsteen.

WTGB's end closes a chapter for FM radio in the Washington area. Until the rock era, AM radio was the dominant force, with narrow, Top 40 playlists. But in the late 1960s and early '70s, lured by the static-free FM sound, young people across the country turned in droves to the free-form, album-rock format pioneered by stations like WHFS. The music was introduced (and personally selected) by DJs such as Cerphe, Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert and Damien Einstein, who became minor stars in their own right (Gilbert was let go by WTGB in October).

Over the decades, Colwell, 57, never left the local airwaves, and never strayed far from rock. He joined WHFS full time in 1973 as it grew from hippie outpost to tastemaking mainstream force. He outlasted changing musical styles and the radio industry's periodic convulsions and eruptions. For years, he was the knowledgeable and smooth-voiced "rock guy" at such stations as DC101, WJFK and the Arrow 94.7, the predecessor of the Globe.

Until yesterday, that is, when Cerphe signed off his final afternoon shift. The Cerphe-selected soundtrack for the day included the Beatles' "The End" ("And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make") and Jeff Buckley's "The Last Goodbye" -- the song that carried WHFS off the air in 2005 when it switched from alternative rock to Spanish-language pop tunes.

"It's been an amazing run," said Colwell, trying to sound as upbeat as possible yesterday in an interview. "Most people in radio don't get to stay in the same job, or on the air, for a very long time. The only business with a higher turnover is Taco Bell."

Commercial radio had been in decline even before the recession, beset by competition from Internet streaming, satellite radio and iPods. But classic rock stations have their own set of problems. The audience for such a format is no longer so young, or very large, making the station less attractive to sponsors. WTGB has ranked in the top 10 among adult listeners only once in the past five months, and it typically finishes about 14th overall among adults.

Colwell, whose business card lists his title as "Music Guru," was loath to criticize WTGB's management, or the often repetitive, research-generated playlists of many classic rock stations. But he said he believes that the genre still has resonance: "People like to go back 25 years. They hear a song and they remember what was going on in their lives back then. It takes you back to a kinder, gentler time."

If he had his own station, he said, he would keep some of the popular acts of decades past but add new music to expand the playlist: "If I could, I'd put [WHFS] of the '80s together with what we're doing now, add [new music] and put it in a blender and hit liquefy."

The station's switch to a contemporary pop format -- it will be called "Fresh 94.7" and will play such hitmakers as Kelly Clarkson, John Mayer and Jason Mraz -- is motivated by a desire to attract a larger, younger and more female audience, primarily women between the ages of 18 and 49. Classic rock performed "well" in the ratings, but "we're in the business of delivering mass audiences," said Michael Hughes, vice president of programming for CBS Radio's four local stations, which include 94.7 and the former WHFS. Hughes calls Colwell "one of the most knowledgeable and respected musical experts I've known."

Colwell said he didn't ask to become part of the new station, and probably wouldn't have fit in anyway. "Could I do it? Yeah," he said. "I really love radio, and I really love Washington. But I'm really not a Kelly Clarkson kind of guy. I'm more of a Springsteen, U2, Coldplay guy."

Cerphe won't disappear entirely. CBS has offered him an occasional role as a "musical correspondent" on a sister station, WJFK (106.7 FM), which has a talk format. He'll do interviews with touring musicians and report stories from time to time. He's also considering working for a company, started by his wife, that designs energy-efficient houses.

As for the abrupt end of his regular radio gig, Colwell said he has no hard feelings. "We're living in a time when things are rapidly changing and the way people use radio is changing," he said. "You have to constantly entertain them, and you have to perform well consistently. I understand that. This is radio. It's a numbers game."

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