Bethesda progressive rock station WHFS-FM (102.3), the last surviving "free-form" music station in the Washington area, has been purchased for $2.1 million by the Outlet Co., owners of WTOP-AM (1500), an all-news station. The new owners will change the station's format to all-news, according to Bruce Sundlun, president and chief operating executive for the Outlet Co.

The acquisition, subject to FCC approval, will take effect in March, Sundlun said. "The station, when acquired, will be operated to complement WTOP-AM . . . This is the first acquisition by Outlet Company since we became a pure broadcaster." The Outlet Co., which owns five television stations and five other radio stations, including WTOP, sold its last retail division last month.

"This is another statement of our interest in the Washington broadcast area. We think it's the top news market in the country," Sundlun said. Jake Einstein, owner and general manager of WHFS, could not be reached for comment.

"It's definitely a detriment to Washington culturally. It's all downhill from here," said WHFS disc jockey Jonathan Gilbert, a.k.a. "Weasel." "This station has been an important alternative--most recently we helped break Marshall Crenshaw, the latest in a long line dating back to Bruce Springsteen and David Bromberg," said Gilbert, who has been with the station since it became the first Washington-area FM station to program 24-hour progressive rock in 1971. "I'm sad to see it go--it was 12 years of my life," Gilbert said.

WHFS also broadcasts 11 hours of ethnic programming weekly and has helped launch such rock acts as Little Feat, Joan Armatrading and Washington's Nighthawks, among many local bands.

"It's going to hurt Washington, losing WHFS, for what they represent now," said Van Wyckoff, area branch manager for Warner/Elektra/Asylum Records. "They are a tremendous venue for new music here, the only one in this area, in fact. They play almost all forms of music at one time or another, that's very unusual in this day and age."