“Spiritus Cheese” sounds like a character from a Harry Potter novel or perhaps an incantation a Hogwarts wizard might chant to make Stilton palatable to the lactose intolerant.
In fact, “Spiritus Cheese” was “the Washington area’s most imaginatively programmed radio rock show.” At least it was in 1970, when those words appeared in The Washington Post.
Spiritus Cheese was also the trio of Bard College graduates who created the program and basically made the WHFS of local legend — a Bethesda-based radio station that in the 1970s and early 1980s occupied 102.3 on the FM dial and a special place in the hearts of Washington-area music lovers.
The connection? NRBQ was what you might call an ’HFS act. Others included Little Feat, John Prine and Bonnie Raitt, groups that if you only ever listened to that station you’d assume were huge everywhere.
The documentary is being produced by North Potomac’s Jay Schlossberg, whose day job is providing camera crews for productions all over the world. He worked one summer at the station as a teenager and was a fan after that. His movie will cover the station’s history up until 1983, when WHFS was sold.
Jay told me that he had missed a 2013 panel discussion on WHFS sponsored by local music figure Joe Lee but that he was inspired when he saw a photo taken there of some of the old DJs.
Jay said: “I uttered the words: ‘Oh, my God, they’re not all dead yet. Somebody has to do something about this.’ ”
By “do something about this,” Jay didn’t mean hunt down the DJs and dispatch them one by one, but make a documentary about them and their beloved station.
The story really starts in 1969, when Mark Gorbulew, Sara Vass and Joshua Brooks came down from New York City in search of a home for their “underground” radio program. What they found was WHFS, an easy-listening station that didn’t have many listeners.
Spiritus Cheese — named after a defunct New York City cheese factory — struck a deal: They would pay the station $160 for each show they broadcast. Before long, ratings had risen, they were on the air every night but Sunday — and they shared a $100 weekly paycheck from the station.
Their programs didn’t follow strict playlists, but they weren’t entirely free-form. The Spiritus shows were thematic, exploring an artist (Bob Dylan, say), the artists who inspired the artist, and the artists inspired by the artist. It was an approach that was to inform future WHFS DJs such as Cerphe, Weasel, Damien Einstein, David Einstein, Adele Abrams, Diane Divola, Bob “Here” Showacre, Ty Ford and Don Grossinger.
“I always used to say we made eye contact with listeners,” said Cerphe Colwell, who worked at WHFS for eight years during the 1970s and now produces an Internet radio program from his home in Leesburg, Va. “People listened for a number of reasons. A lot of listeners were in our cohort. We were all in our early 20s. I was like your designated driver. You had to kind of trust me and come on my ride. I might take you on two wheels as we went around the bend, but I’d always get you home.”
It’s easy to succumb to rose-colored headphones when remembering WHFS, but Jay thinks there really is no equivalent today.
“With satellite it doesn’t matter where you are,” he said. “That sense of community, of belonging, you can’t get that anymore in radio. It’s not what it was. It probably never will be.”
Jay has interviewed many of the artists whose records were played on WHFS. In September he’ll launch a Kickstarter fundraising effort. And Wednesday at Bethesda Blues and Jazz he’ll be selling “the first new T-shirt and bumper sticker for WHFS for 32 years.” Jay hopes he’ll have a rough cut of the documentary by the spring of 2016.
And what became of Spiritus Cheese? In April 1970, Sara Vass broadcast a Firesign Theater performance that had been taped at the Marriott Twin Bridges during a convention of college newspaper editors. The Post’s Paul Richard reported, “The skit included a four-letter word and a reference to masturbation.”
Fearful that the FCC would come down on them, WHFS management banned Sara for a month. Upon her return, station management announced a new advertiser was interested in sponsoring her Saturday night show, but wanted her replaced by a male voice. On his next show, fellow Cheese Gorbulew decried the station’s “male chauvinism.” He was fired. Sara left, too.
I guess the moral is: The Man at WHFS might not have been as scary as at other stations, but there’s always The Man.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.