WHFS is not going gentle into that good night. Since late December, when word of the station's sale went out, its fans have been raging. At 102.3 on the dial, WHFS is the last surviving progressive radio station in the metropolitan area, one of the last in the country. It is being sold to the Outlet Co., a Rhode Island media conglomerate that plans to turn it into a companion news station to WTOP-AM, the news-sports station it already owns.

The sale has prompted a flurry of petitioning, letter writing and call-ins, as well as ad hoc listener and advertiser committees threatening legal challenges to the sale and format change. "People have called up crying," says David Einstein, WHFS' highly regarded program director. "It's been like therapy up here."

In marking a trend to increased news broadcasting, the sale may also signal the end of a vibrant era in Washington's pop cultural growth. Sprouting out of the counter-culture spirit of the late '60s, the 2,300-watt, Bethesda-based station was never more than marginally profitable, but it quickly established and maintained a national reputation totally out of proportion to its minimal power. It was respected in the music industry as a genuinely vanguard station.

"WHFS was one of a handful of progressive music stations left in this country," mourns Sam Kaiser, national promotion director for Atlantic Records. "Those people kept the original ideal, which made FM radio the kingpin that it is today--the exposure of new music without regard to formats and ratings numbers. It's a very, very sad day. We're devastated; it's an old, familiar friend. But as something grows in size and popularity, business interests take over, there's money to be made.

"But where are we going to go?"

Atlantic is an established national label, but Kaiser's question is echoed and perhaps more acutely felt on the smaller, independent levels of the music industry: vanguard labels, adventurous nightclubs, small record and clothing stores. The impact of its demise will be felt even at other local radio stations, which have always been content to let WHFS break ground, take chances and point the way to brave new music.

The station, which had been quietly up for sale for a number of years, represents a deliberate antithesis to the kind of rock radio that dominates today's airwaves. Where others coast on proven hits, mostly by moldy or goldy superstars, WHFS provides exposure to unknown acts, experimental styles, fresh ideas. It mixes styles as disparate and eclectic as cajun and fusion, rap and reggae, R&B and rockabilly, electro-pop and African juju music.

Where others rely on high-priced consultants, outside research and demographic interpretation, WHFS programs with imagination and wit, emotion and instinct. Where others seek to "rock the nation," WHFS looks in its own back yard and encourages home-grown music. In an era of increasingly segregated airwaves, it remains an international rainbow of sound.

Recording artists these days have trouble getting vital radio exposure, seldom reaching the turntable without a big promotional budget pointed at the program director's head. But WHFS has always been receptive to newness--breaking many groups locally and nudging them to national attention. When they play older material, it's instructive rather than nostalgic. Sometimes the station's eclectic nature is overly cute or unbearably challenging, but at the heart of it is the shock of the new entwined with the sound of surprise. That lone voice may be silenced now.

WHEN WHFS was born in a Wisconsin Avenue basement 21 years ago, its lack of power was matched by a lack of imagination. The first seven years saw it dabbling in formats--easy-listening, beautiful music, classical. Several owners tuned in, turned off and quickly dropped out. In 1967 a small group of stockholders paid $140,000 for the station, which had taken its name from the acronym for Washington High Fidelity Stereo (it was the first stereo operation in Washington, as well as the first to go 24-hour rock in 1969).

Jake Einstein, the station's feisty vice president and general manager, remembers the early days, when listenership strained to reach 1,000. "We were playing Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Jack Jones. 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. I thought to myself 'My God, they'll drive us out of town!' "

Richards, the city's first progressive disc jockey, ended up brokering his own air shift. Einstein reconciled the move: "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!" Richards was succeeded in 1969 by the group that put WHFS on the ear map, Spiritus Cheese, a trio of Bard College graduates who began to feature the music and politics of the emerging counterculture; like a number of deejays over the years, they were eventually fired, ostensibly for airing an obscene Firesign Theatre tape. "In those days everybody was at everybody's throat and everybody was angry," Einstein says with an impish smile.

Over the years, the station set down and then expanded on the characteristics that made it precious to listeners known for their loyalty (many have been listening to the station for as long as a decade) and for purchasing power that far exceeded its ratings numbers (WHFS listeners are the highest per capita record buyers in the metropolitan area, according to surveys, although the station had only 1.2 percent of the market in the latest Arbitron ratings book).

WHFS is unique in that many of the disc jockeys, all of whom are known simply by their first names or nicknames, have been there for long stretches. David Einstein, Jake's son and the program director for almost a decade, has been there 13 years. Weasel, who started out engineering the Sunday ethnic shows and worked with Murray the K during his brief stint at WHFS, has been there almost 10 years.

Another son, Damian Einstein, survived a near-fatal auto accident and after a long recovery reclaimed a prized slot; his wife, Patti Ebert, is the station's advertising sales manager. Sara Gillies and Milo (Robert Sheperdson) were Maryland teen-agers who grew up listening to 102.3 and eventually went to work there. It was an intense extended family, given to shouting matches and warm embraces. "They knew my idiosyncracies, and each other's," says Jake Einstein. "That was part of our strength and also part of our weakness."

The air staff is, collectively, one of the best in town, with a tremendous love for and knowledge of all aspects of contemporary music. They can program on a theme or a mood, a phrase or a whim . . . or a challenge from a listener. They have played it all, from obscure imports to national, regional and local releases by the likes of the Nighthawks, Root Boy Slim, Tommy Keene and the Slickee Boys, all of whom have benefited from support. "We can weather the loss," says Slickees' guitarist Martin Kane. "But it's worse for the new local groups that HFS would play; now nobody will. We found a lot of people coming to hear us for the first time because of having been played on HFS."

"Everybody has their own discretion," says David Einstein, who continues to speak of the station in the present tense. "We don't just sit there and wait for record companies to throw us duplicate records. Hopefully, our position has been to nudge people, to say that this stuff works, that it can survive on the radio!"

There have always been problems, as well. The station's weak signal made for spotty reception; the audience was young and mobile and didn't show up in the ratings, though its purchasing power was evident on the retail level. The laid-back nature of the deejays was cloying to some, and others couldn't get past the station'sboundlessness. And there was always the image problem with advertising agencies that often didn't know what to make of this odd crew; ultimately, a great deal of WHFS' advertising came from small businesses--nightclubs, record shops, boutiques--that had nowhere else to turn.

"We were at a disadvantage in the late '60s," says the senior Einstein, who adds he was labeled "the oldest hippie in town. What competition we had out there beat us to death with that image. But people grew older and a little wiser, protest grew quieter, the murmur of the mob died down; people went to work and we held our audience, increased our audience."

The music, played in long, free-flowing segments and casually back-announced, was always at the center, but there were other ingredients in the stew: announcements for free rides and available jobs, two-hour segments in which listeners got to come in and program their favorite music, listener-written vegetarian cookbooks with chapters like "All You Knead Is Love" and "Honk If You Love Cheeses," appropriate for a station whose one-time mottos were "Feast Your Ears" and "Home Grown Radio." It was charming, folksy and something that the listeners grew very accustomed to; WHFS was theirs.

But after 16 years, says Einstein, it was time for the station's stockholders to realize at least a modest profit: "1982 was a 26 percent better year than '81, but we lost money in '81; it was a marginal profit in '82."

There were other offers over the years, but WHFS held out for cash. "This is a great paper town," Jake Einstein laughs. "Your money and anticipatorial profits! Twenty people bought this station in the last four years, but nobody ever put up any money. Finally a guy comes by and does it."

Einstein's office is cluttered with petitions and hundreds of letters protesting the sale and the proposed format change. The sale is a fait accompli, he implies, though steps are being taken to protect the format and the personnel, to keep the spirit alive. Einstein says he has already talked to several stations on both AM and FM about adopting the format, possibly in the evening or overnight hours (a number of advertisers have told him they would support such a move). There are several stations that are "interested, except it isn't a format; you'd have to pick up the deejays and put it together. But if they go slick or the hype route, then they lose their whole identity. WEAM, WMAL, WAVA, WLMD all came into our format and left. If we pass, there will be a void, a definite void."

ALTHOUGH a spokesman for Outlet says an "agreement in principle" for purchase of the station for $2.1 million in cash is in effect, the deal must still receive the approval of the Federal Communications Commission. Given Outlet's extensive broadcast holdings and solid reputation, and given that the FCC's tendency is not to get involved in question of format, that approval would seem to be routine. In the meantime, several ad hoc committees (of both listeners and advertisers) have sprung up with petitions and individual letters to WHFS, the FCC and Outlet; however, listener protests at WRVR in New York and at WGTB here several years ago had no effect.

Outlet, which owns all-news WTOP-AM and nine other broadcast facilities, has inadvertently been cast as the villain in this piece, though even WHFS program director David Einstein says "it's really just a real estate deal." It's expected that much of the content of WTOP-AM will be simulcast on the FM side, and that the staff will be shared.

A one-time national retailer that got into broadcasting in 1922, Outlet currently owns five television and five radio stations (four of which have music formats, mostly rock but including one all-classical outlet in Detroit). Outlet says it has not ruled out the possibility of retaining WHFS' current format. "We're not going all-news," says corporate vice president Howard Kay. "We will increase the news currently at about three minutes per hour because we have the resources. And we will try to find spots in our organizations [for WHFS employes]. But our plans are incomplete."

A significant increase in news content would make WHFS the only news-oriented presence on the FM side, and give it a stronger presence in parts of suburban Maryland, where WTOP-AM's signal is currently weak at night, affecting its broadcasts of Bullets, Caps and Orioles games. "Our programming at this point is certainly not finalized," says senior vice president Dick Rakovan. "We expect it to complement our news format. We recognize that people have developed a long-time relationship with and long-term loyalties to WHFS. But the general public misunderstands: It's very expensive to run a radio station in this market. We want a higher level of news than currently exists here; the news appetite in Washington, D.C., is tremendous, and 70 percent of listening in this market is to FM."

AFTER THE sale was announced, the initial reaction of shock was followed by a profound sense of loss and, in some cases, a feeling of betrayal. In almost every conversation with representatives of Washington's musical community--listeners, musicians, promoters, record company reps--one word jumped out again and again: "Devastating."

"If that format were to disappear, it would be a devastating blow culturally and business-wise at a time when nobody needs it," says Seth Hurwitz, a concert promoter who also books the 9:30 club. "A majority of the shows that I have done would simply not have happened without them. For a club like the 9:30, it was a lifeline. Most of rock radio's attitude in this area is to find reasons why not to add a record or do a promotion. At WHFS, their attitude was yeah, let's try it. You have to have that from a cultural viewpoint in a city."

"The most important thing WHFS has done has been to give Washington a good sense of musical community," says Ben Liss of Cellar Door Productions. "And they've given the musical community a good sense of identity by being supportive of a lot of local acts who otherwise wouldn't have had a forum."

"I'm devastated," says A&M Records promotion manager Al Marks. "What it's going to do to my record company in this market is devastating. What it's done for us over the years has been incredible--The Go-Go's, Joan Armatrading, Joe Jackson, Human League. That station has done more good for more record companies than could ever be counted."

Sheldon Michelson, of the Record and Tapes Ltd. chain, adds, "It's going to hurt our sales for developing artists. Nobody else is playing that stuff. I'm still going to buy, but not as much, because I don't think I'm going to sell as much, because people are not going to be as hip to it. If WHFS plays it, people want it. People are not going to know what's happening without that station."

"Most rock stations go for a restricted format, programming a certain sound for a certain audience," says Van Wyckoff, branch manager for the giant Warner/Elecktra/Atlantic group. "WHFS is not interested in that mainstream, in charts, in magazines, in what people say they should play. They're interested in things that are new, that are different; they play everything other people won't play. And by exposing new music, it's beneficial to our industry, for God's sake, because most of our discoveries are new music. We spend a lot of money exposing new acts, new types of music with very few stations to go with it.

"Anything different that's got a buzz on it, WHFS'll give it a shot . . . No one else will even consider it. It's a very serious loss for us. They ask so little and they give us so much. Where's the audience going to go?"

DAVID Einstein outlines several options, some of them (trying to find another, last-minute buyer for the station) not particularly viable at this late stage. Listener reaction could prompt Outlet to retain or become flexible with the existing format. It's more likely that the format could move elsewhere in block form, "perhaps from 7 p.m. to midnight, or midnight to 6 a.m. Eighty percent of most AOR (album-oriented rock) stations' advertising dollars come between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.; the financing comes in your day-parts. And at night they're playing basically the same thing as during the day." Such a deal, admittedly radical, could even be struck with Outlet, since news listening diminishes after 7 p.m. And with AM stereo around the corner, such a format could revive that band's moribund status, much as rock pushed FM to dominance in the '70s.

"If the place is out there once we're sold, then that's where we'll go and remain viable," says the younger Einstein. "We'll have a home or we won't have a home. We'd love to move as a team, but it's so premature; we're trying to keep our options open in as many directions as possible. "It's an attitude that's going away, not just a kind of music. But we'll go right to the last day with the same kind of dignity and pride that's kept the station alive as long as it has. We'll probably have one big concert somewhere and have a good time and then move somewhere else or do what each of us has to do."

In the meantime, he's pleased at the level of listener response. "It proves that there's an audience out there that Outlet may not have perceived. The most positive thing anybody can do now is fill out a piece of paper and send it in.

"WHFS has been there for such a long time that people have grown up with it. And Washington," he adds, "is into monuments."

Those other monuments, however, are federally protected.