by Alex Cosper
originally published in the December 2000 issue of VirtuallyAlternative Magazine
The call letters stood for Hi Fidelity Stereo when the original station went on the air in 1961. WHFS, starting out on the 102.3 frequency, was the first multiplex stereo station in the Washington D.C. area. The station did not land on its current 99.1 frequency until over twenty years later when the staff moved from Bethesda to Annapolis. In the mid 60s ownership changed from the Military Corporation to Hi Fidelity Broadcasters for about $150,000. The company consisted of a couple of entrepreneurs who owned hotels and motels, a former navy guy and a couple of lawyers. The new owners shifted the format from a mix of classical, middle of the road, show tunes and jazz at night to pretty much middle of the road.
Then in 1968 the station began to complement it's MOR format with brokered progressive music shows at night. "Electric Brew" hosted by Barry Newman and Frank Richards was the first of three brokered shows in those early days that featured progressive music. Then came "Spiritus Cheese," hosted by Josh Brooks, Mark and Sarah and featured the Firesign Theatre. Another was "Through The Looking Glass" with Fred Surkey. Soon other dayparts began to feature the underground music of the time that wasn't being played elsewhere on commercial radio.
In this early period the GM was Alvin Jewler, who pretty much instructed PD Jules Henry on running the program. But in 1973 Sales Manager Jake Einstein, who was 15% owner of Hi Fidelity Broadcasters, added GM duties as Jewler stepped down. Jake was given equity for turning the station around. Jake's two sons also worked at the station. David Einstein had been on the air since 1969 and became PD when Jake took over. Damian Einstein had an air shift late at night.
At the time HFS transmitted from a 150 foot antenna above a 15 story luxury condo complex called Triangle Towers in Bethesda. The studios were located on the second floor. By 1971 the morning show featured the legendary Murray The K whose producer Steve Leeds is now the Senior VP/Promotion at Universal. Leeds brought in his roommate and weekend board op, Weasel, to help engineer the morning show. Weasel would go on to do nights in the 70s and afternoons in the 80s and 90s.
Leeds remembers the seminal period: "When I got there, there were two stations playing progressive music. There was WMOD, which had a couple hours a day of progressive music and HFS had a show brokered at night called 'Through The Looking Glass' with Mark and Sarah. They were like the artsy freaks of the time. They had the whole Georgetown scene wired and they had a couple hours a day where they would program progressive rock music. That expanded and I think the station eventually saw the interest from an audience. It was originally a small stick in Bethesda, Maryland. I think everything the station did at the time was really entertaining because it was homegrown. I think the word is organic...it was music made out of passion and not out of finance." The music flow of those early years was very unpredictable and compelling as Leeds observes, "You'd go from Bonnie Raitt to Bessy Smith to Hound Dog Taylor to some Jimi Hendrix. It would just all flow. The enemy at the time was the Superstars format. Lee Abams was in vogue then. We'd play Zeppelin, Clapton, tons of Byrds, Dylan, Donovan, Van Morrison, Allman Brothers. Murray used to love horn bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. Those wouldn't get played."
One of the early night jocks who commanded attention was Cerphe (pronounced surf), probably the star of the station according to Leeds. His real name was Don Colwell and he would open his show every night with the instrumental Rolling Stones song "2120 South Michigan Avenue." Leeds recalls the recurring rap he did: "This is Cerphe, we're sending out some tunes tonight for the truckers, the madhatters, the ships at sea and especially ... (whisper) the ladies of the night. This is Cerphe and I'll be here playing rock and roll music for you the next couple of hours." Cerphe used to have tons of crates of music that he brought in for his show. A lot of the music was from independent labels. He was one of the longest running jocks at the station other than Weasel and Damian. Cerphe started at HFS in 1969 and stayed with the station until 1977. Today he plays classic rock from 3-8p at HFS sister station WARW.
All the jocks programmed their own shows. They said whatever they wanted and played whatever they wanted. Leeds remembers how some of the jocks would get these stoned raps: "Hey, listen I'm inside your radio right now and I could really take control. You know that little red dot that says stereo? I can make that go off and on. Watch this." Jocks were not hired at the station because of their pipes, they were hired because of their knowledge of music and how well they could segue songs together. Another jock who came and went was weekender Johnny Walker in the early '80s. Walker had worked at KSAN/San Francisco before the freeform rocker flipped to Country. He eventually ended up at BBC Radio 2 in London. Milo also worked at the station in the early '80s, doing nights. He ended up becoming a union stage hand for concerts in the D.C. area.
In 1983 Jake Einstein and his new partners acquired WLOM, a 50,000 watt Beautiful Music station in Annapolis. Jake officially became majority owner, as well as General Manager and Sales Manager. HFS staff were given severance while the station went off the air for a couple of months while the transition went through the FCC. The entire staff then resurfaced at the 99.1 frequency in Annapolis in October 1983. Although it was a different group of owners, the common thread was Jake and his staff. It was still WLOM for the first month but they called it Progressive 99 until they were able to secure the WHFS call letters. They now covered Washington D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis, jumping from 3,000 watts to 50,000 watts. Meanwhile the 102.3 frequency went dark for awhile and then came back as an easy listening station called WTKS. Today it's WMMJ, an urban oldies outlet.
Jake Einstein left when Duchossois Communications settled on ownership in 1989. Duchossois would hang on to the station for four years before selling to Liberty Broadcasting in 1993. The new GM was Alan Hay who worked with Consultant Dennis Constantine, now PD at KINK/Portland. Together they chose to fill the programming chair with Tom Calderone, replacing David Einstein in 1990. It was Calderone who began to streamline the structure and shift the focus from ecclectic AOR to a more current-driven Alternative. Calderone left in 1991 to program WDRE and Robert Benjamin was hired as PD after his experience at WXRK/New York. Four months after Benjamin's arrival, he brought in his friend from WXRK, Bob Waugh, to do mornings and handle the MD duties. In the early '90s the station moved to Landover, MD, where the staff worked for several years before eventually landing in Lanham, MD.
Jake Einstein ended up taking over WRNR in Annapolis in late 1993, where he tried to bring back the old HFS. He tried to do it by luring some of the heritage HFS personalities to his new station. His son Damian had been with HFS since 1970 and had survived a serious automobile accident in 1975. He left in 1994 to do middays at his father's new station. Bob Showacre, who had done an afternoon slot at HFS until 1990 was also brought in, as was John Hall, who did weekends at HFS in the '70s. Weasel was asked to come over as well, but Weasel was happy at HFS, where he continues to work today. One by one Jake began replacing WRNR personnel with his old crew. One of the people Jake let go was morning man Allen Scott, who ended up becoming the morning co-host on HFS.
In 1993 the station began doing HSFtivals at RFK Stadium. They had done festivals in previous years at fields but never before in a stadium. Attendance jumped to over 50,000 at the first HFStival. It was that year that also marked a surge in the ratings, cementing the station's top five 18-34 position and putting HFS ahead of its rock competitor WWDC (DC101). HFS reached an all -time 12+ high as an Alternative station in the spring of 1995 when it jumped to 4.4 in Washington D.C. and 4.9 in Baltimore. This was the glorious period for many Alternative stations around the country, reaching record highs and leading the rock scene in respective markets. "The rock station in town at that time didn't really have a clue about what we were doing, to be honest," reflects Bob Waugh. "That was a time where there was just a lot going on with a lot of new bands that were very successful quickly. I think that they had fallen out of touch with what the market wanted. Whatever shared audience we had, they were deferring to us because I think the competition was guilty of becoming a bit stale."
In the mid 90s the station changed hands from Liberty Broadcasting to SFX Entertainment briefly before CBS/Infinity took over in 1996. During this time the morning show began to go through a series of changes. Bob Waugh had done the morning show for five years and then moved to middays. He was succeeded by the team of Kathryn Lauren and Tony Aquaviva, aka "Aq," who now works at 98 Rock in Baltimore. That lasted for a year and a half. Then Tom Perry from 91X in San Diego joined Kathryn. After Kathryn's temporary departure it became Tom and Sherry Eliker for awhile. Then Blue Brutus arrived in 1998 and did mornings for about a year. In May 1999 HFS went on a talent search for a couple of months and brought in a bunch of different people to try out. They ended up settling on night jock Gina Crash as the show became "The Morning Crash" with sidekick Allen Scott.
In 2000 Weasel celebrated his 30th anniversary with the station. He holds the record for longest-running employee in HFS history. Weasel continued to do afternoons through March 1998 when he moved on to pursue internet radio consulting. He continues to do a weekend shift. Johnny Riggs succeeded Weasel in afternoons and held the shift through 2000.
Today HFS continues to be a cultural force in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis. When you add up all the listeners it's one of the highest cuming Alternative stations in the country. The HFStival has grown to be an expected massive annual event of over 90,000 patrons. From its early progressive days to the present time the spirit of HFS has been to break new artists and explore the cutting edge of music. As Steve Leeds summarizes the station's evolution, "It was a very unique situation that really helped shape the marketplace. I think there is still a residual impact today. Most of those listeners now understand what HFS has had to become to be commercially viable." Bob Waugh summarizes it this way: "I think there's always been a degree of experimentation and adventure here. That really hasn't changed that much. We've never been afraid of putting an unknown band on the air that we believe in to see if it clicks so long as there is that intuitive sense in a music meeting or among any one individual within these walls where that person is really passionate about something."
Note: In July 2003 Program Director Robert Benjamin resigned and was replaced one month later by KROQ Los Angeles Music Director Lisa Worden. Another change included a new morning show called the Sports Junkies in October 2002. Bob Waugh left the station in January 2004. One year later in January 2005, Infinity Broadcasting switched the format of WHFS to Spanish. Nine days later, however, Infinity resurrected the legendary station at WHFS.com featuring the same staff.
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