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The End of an Era: WHFS Radio

By: Bob Morrisson

On Wednesday, January 12, 2005, and without any fanfare, WHFS FM radio switched from its alternative rock format to El Zol, a national Spanish radio network. While this may be seen as a terrific boon to the burgeoning Hispanic communities of the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas, I see it as a terrific loss.

I am not a fan of alternative rock music. I do like a variety of musical styles and I can switch quite comfortably between them, i.e., Beethoven, Beatles, and Bluegrass. While there are specific alternative (or "underground") pieces that I have enjoyed listening to, this genre was never something I went out of my way to hear.

WHFS was a local treasure, something you don't find in most cities. It was something Washingtonians could brag about, even if they did not care for it's musical style. With its demise it is as if our radio landscape has become all chain restaurants and hotels, with no more local diners or roadside inns. With the exception of a few small low power stations there is nothing unique left on Washington's airwaves.

WHFS FM Radio began as a small radio station in Bethesda, Maryland in the early 1960s. The call letters stood for Washington's High Fidelity Stereo. In the early 1970s WHFS became a progressive rock station. In 1983 it moved to a much more powerful transmitter in Annapolis Maryland and soon evolved into the definitive alternative rock outlet in this area.

During that time Washington had a number of unique local stations, each with its own style and radio personalities. While many stations played their music as decreed by their management, these other stations blazed their own paths.

A good example is Felix Grant. For 30 years WMAL AM featured Felix Grant's The Album Sound, a jazz program. Felix would walk in with a pile of records and tell the engineer what to play. Felix aired the music that he considered worthwhile. Each evening's program was unique and always enjoyable.

I listened to Felix Grant regularly. Some of what he played was not exactly to my liking but I always knew that a few minutes later there would be something that I would enjoy. Felix did not play the same things day after day. Instead, he created a unique listening experience every evening.

It was Felix Grant, and his friend Charlie Byrd, who introduced the sounds of the Boss Nova and Brazilian jazz to Washingtonians. This music soon took the country by storm. Felix also helped bring Jamaican culture and Reggae music to America. Apparently much of the US agreed with his taste in music.

Click Here to learn more about Felix Grant.

Would this have happened on one of today's mega-radio stations? I think not. Advertising dollars would be at risk as the station worried about public opinion. After all, what corporate executive could rely on the likes of Felix Grant or Charlie Byrd to know what Americans really like to hear on the radio when they have access to polls, metrics, and demographics presented by professionals.

I wonder what those executives would do if a young fellow named Elvis Presley appeared in their studio to cut a record for his mother. How would they react to four young men from Liverpool England with mop-top hair cuts and a very different musical style, and who had named their band "The Beatles"? What would they say of Barry Gordie's brilliant mix of Black Gospel and Blues targeted at both black and white audiences and dubbed "Motown"? In today's market they would probably be considered irrelevant and shown the door.

As Felix Grant did with jazz, the WHFS disk jockeys brought to the airwaves the music they thought was worthy to be played. There were no board room decisions, no conferences with the advertisers, and no payola. It was simple: If the DJ liked the tune it received air time. If the DJ did not like the tune it might be heard once and then discarded.

For its many fans WHFS was a rare treasure. Over the years I worked with several WHFS fans, who played their music on the job. I got to like the DJs and a number of the pieces they played, although I will admit that much of it was beyond me. I fondly remember hearing Jethro Tull playing Bouree on his flute, which was used as a bridge between program segments. But what I really liked about WHFS was its free spirit.

After one of their DJs suffered an injury that made him less than a marketable voice on the radio he was promptly canned. His fans staged rallies and demanded his return. He came back shortly thereafter. Perhaps his voice really was flawed but no matter, his fans loved him. I congratulate the station for doing the right thing.

WMAL has gone to a talk format. The zany antics of Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver (aka the voice of Smokey the Bear) are long gone. The afternoon ad-lib team of Trumbull and Core is no more. Tom Gauger's daytime show, a production number featuring music plus interesting guests, is history. About all that is left of the "old" WMAL is Chris Core, who has come into his own as a talk show host.

The Joy Boys are no longer on WRC chasing electrons to and fro and driving Washingtonians crazy with their wacky skits; Willard Scott is doing TV weather and Ed Walker plays old-time radio on other stations. WDCU was sold to a cable TV interest, displacing a number of fascinating announcers. WTOP went to an all news format long ago, sending DJs such as that wonderful gentleman, Eddie Gallaher, to other stations.

One by one all of the radio stations that helped give Washington its character were taken over by the conglomerates and/or converted to talk, news, or sports formats. Now, most of the radio personalities are part of a multi-city network. There are some newer local personalities floating around but unfortunately many of them are popular because they keep their toes a fraction of an inch from the line of decency the FCC has drawn in the sand.

The demise of the other stations left WHFS as Washington's only "real" local radio station, featuring original and unique programming and a high power transmitter. While there are still a few unique stations in the area most are very low power and have a limited audience.

So it came as a shock to the citizens of Washington and Baltimore to learn that the corporate owner of WHFS had changed the station to El Zol that fateful afternoon. The change came about without warning to the listeners and, if the media reports are accurate, to the staff as well. At noon the rock announcer gave the station ID and was then displaced by a Spanish speaker.

The final minute of WHFS can be heard at the link below, as submitted by Mike Sica to www.hfstival.com. There is no closure, no welcoming of the new announcer, nothing.

Click Here for that fateful, final minute in the life of the real WHFS Radio.

It is a sad commentary on our life in the USA that we must watch as large corporate entities slowly gobble up every piece of what we once held dear to our hearts, selling and trading it to satisfy the needs of their stockholders. This is our heritage. This is what makes us who we are. Now, it seems, all of that is for sale to the highest bidder.

No, I was not a great fan of the music featured on WHFS radio. But I loved having the station around and I loved what it represented, which was the freedom to be different. This was the station for those people who did not fit into the rather boring mold cast for us by large corporations and the media advertisers. It was the station for those who liked to think for themselves.

Perhaps it will come as a surprise to the many WHFS faithful to learn that your loss has been mourned by large numbers of us who were not WHFS listeners. Many people I know were outraged and in shock when they learned of its demise. Yes, WHFS has been a legend to far more than its fans.

WHFS is now one more of my many fond Washington memories that are now history. I, and thousands of its fans, will truly miss it.

 
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01/15/05