Monday, January 12, 2015

remembering WHFS, which went off the air 10 years ago

A few weeks ago, I talked about how kids growing up in Montgomery County today see the world differently than older residents did. There’s one change in the mindset seemed to really grabbed commenters: the loss of WHFS, an alternative rock station that got its start in a Bethesda apartment building and went off the air 10 years ago this week.

WHFS, whose call letters stood for Hi Fidelity Stereo, went on the air in 1961 as an easy listening station at 102.3 FM. Back then, the station broadcast from a second-floor studio at Triangle Towers, an apartment building on Cordell Avenue. Soon after, the station began playing some progressive rock music; in 1969, it went all-rock. In 1983, then-program manager Jake Einstein and a group of investors bought WHFS and moved it to the familiar 99.1 frequency.

Those years at the studio in Bethesda were the station’s heyday, which is the topic of a new documentary called documentary called “Feast Your Ears.” Despite its small size and weak signal, HFS had an outsize reputation both in the DC area and nationwide due to its freewheeling DJs and eclectic playlist.

To those listeners, HFS died in 1994, when Einstein sold the station to a corporate broadcaster that turned it into an alternative rock station and played more popular music. But it’s also the HFS that kids in my generation grew up with.

The station’s history gave this preacher’s kid, whose friends primarly listened to showtunes and swing music, a taste of rebellion. But HFS was ubiquitous at the same time, making me the member of a band of outcasts that just happened to include everyone. Our bus driver Mr. Wood put on HFS every afternoon on the way home. Our school even held a concert called BHStival, named after the annual HFStival summer festival, where student bands played for a whole afternoon.

Then, one day 10 years ago, I jumped on the bus to find salsa music playing. Alex, the wise-ass in the back of the bus who only wore black, yelled "PUT ON HFS!" as he did every day. Little did we know it was already on, as at 12 noon HFS had abruptly become El Zol, a Latin music station.

Kids identified with HFS, even if it had strayed far from its roots, and mourned its loss. When a petition went around demanding that Infinity Broadcasting bring HFS back, thousands of people signed it. There was even a protest outside HFS’ remote studios in downtown DC.

But the demise of HFS also reflected a larger shift that were happening around us. My friends and I were the ones gobbling up free music on Napster or buying songs off of iTunes, making radio an increasingly irrelevant source for new music. Meanwhile, the DC area and Montgomery County were becoming more diverse. And as people’s tastes in music diverged, broadcasters no longer considered alternative rock to be commercially viable, just as they had with progressive rock a generation earlier. Even at BHStival, the most popular student bands were the go-go and hip-hop bands, not the rockers and punks.

A few months later, WHFS resurfaced as a block of music on 105.7, a Baltimore-area station. In 2011, it returned to the airwaves full-time at 97.5, but this time broadcasting from Baltimore. Today, it’s at 104.9. Driving around Bethesda last weekend, I tried, and failed, to get WHFS on my car radio.

If you’re lucky, though, you can catch WRNR, an Annapolis station that picked up where HFS left off in the 90’s. While it may not the same as whatever iteration of HFS you personally remember, it’s always a good source for hearing something new.

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