Baltimoron in DC
When You Get Caught Between Charm City and Chocolate City

Adios, My Friend WHFS

At noon, January 12, 2005, I lost an old friend I forgot I had. Local radio station 99.1, WHFS, played Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” and then promptly played Spanish-language music. WHFS is now La Zol, with a focus on salsa, meringue and tropical dance music. Bye-bye Linkin Park, hola Gypsy Kings.

Wonder if they’ll play Los Lonely Boys as a crossover artist?

How many competitors wanted to play “Mexican Radio” yesterday?

In any event, as a former radio disc jockey, I knew it was only a matter of time before WHFS was put out of its misery. The ratings have been in the cellar for a long time, consistently finishing in the bottom-third of the DC ratings and middle-of-the-road at best in Baltimore. Amazing what a difference 10 years makes.

I was part of WHFS in 1996, as an intern for the Morning Product, with Aq, Kath and Rob Timm, with the bitter Mike Giannini as producer. I had been in radio for a couple of years by that point, and figured a gig with WHFS, even as a volunteer, could get me an air shift at one of the most listened to stations in the US.

This is not a misprint – 99.1 was incredibly high-rated. #3 in DC, #8 in Baltimore once upon a time. During the mornings, approximately a quarter of million were listening at any time – huge numbers for any station outside of Tokyo, New York or L.A. I was not a major component of the show at all – I would occasionally book guests, do a funny voice on the air, or, most likely, fart in Aq’s face before the commercial breaks ended, making him almost as bitter as Mike, much to the delight of Kath and Rob.

But just being associated with the station had perks. I’d get free bar tabs at some local watering holes, just because I *MIGHT* mention the place on the air the next day. Girls who wouldn’t have looked twice at me were drawn to my WHFS-ness. My girlfriend in DC didn’t exactly like the added attention I got from ladies, but, she didn’t mind the free concert tickets.

WHFS put out shirts in 1996 – HFS – Hip Fucking Station – and my Lord was it hip then. I started the job with a bit of media success under my belt. Interned at CNN – worked for Larry King, met Ross Perot, talked to the first President Bush, met me some serious Senators (and the Senators’ lovely, single and lonely aides and staffers…). Bob Dole ate my mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. Jimmy Carter and I talked baseball. I peed next to Pat Buchanan in the 8th floor men’s bathroom. Co-hosted the #1 morning show in Ocean City with my hero, Big Don O’Brien. Did a evening alt-rock show in Virginia Beach on a dual-frequency FM station. Hosted the most popular morning show in Virginia Wesleyan College’s history – we had like 40 people in the Commons listen to the Lawrence and Gillespie Show on 640 AM, and dammit, that counts! I had gotten some free CDs sent to us by record reps. Met Hershey, Pennsylvania’s The Ocean Blue and techno superband Pigface (a.k.a. Skinny Puppy + Trent Reznor), and I thought I was destined for radio coolness.

Then I walked into work at 99.1 and saw Alanis Morrissette picking her nose. John Stewart’s asking me for a donut. Chris Rock is on the phone. Is that the guy from Guided By Voices in the john next to me? That is so much hipper than CNN on CNN’s hippest day. There, I got an email from Wolf Blitzer. WHFS, I shared a mug with Adam Corrolla. I had KFC with Weasel before a Jimmie’s Chicken Shack concert. Take that, cookies with Bob Dole. It’s no contest.

The free-form days at 102.3, back in the `70s, is legendary. Weasel, Cerphe, Bob Goodacre – legends on the local dial, all playing music that really mattered. And the deejays TOLD you why it should matter to you, too. When the station moved to 99.1, and had guys like Dave Issing, Wild Wes and long-time overnight maven Neci – they made the Judybats, Lilac Time, Kitchens of Distinction all sound like the coolest damned bands who ever lived. That they were barely known in their own hometowns was inmaterial. They were played on WHFS, and that mattered to those of us who wanted more from the radio than Bon Jovi.

WHFS made alternative music a viable format in the late ’80s. British-flavoured pop, angry Germans, sensitive American singer-songwriters had a home there, away from the Def Leppards and Madonnas. It was an alternative for people who valued good music, a bit of insight from knowledgable deejays, and something other than MC Hammer.

Then Nirvana came along. More than just making Courtney Love more popular than she deserves to be, Nirvana signaled a turning point for stations like WHFS – it was technically alternative rock, but with a slight reworking of a Boston riff, and almost instantly insanely popular with kids who liked Guns and Roses and the Yellow Rose of Texas. And, it made rock cool again for the kids who liked the Stone Roses.

Besides ushering in Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and making every band who grew up idolizing the Replacements discover feedback and power chords, Nirvana forced the alternative rock community to change. Gone was the Madchester sound from US airwaves. The Farm bought the farm, the Happy Mondays turned into the Boomtown Rats (who just simply don’t like mondays, and want to shoot the whole week down) and the slightly forgettable Housemartins discovered the beauties of the south and club dj turntables.

So, yes, I am alleging that Kurt Cobain founded the career of Fatboy Slim. And a band with the memorable lyric of “don’t marry her; fuck me.”

WHFS rode the wave pretty well for a while – grunge is essentially hard rock, Britpop is still a reworking of Beatles songs, every singer-songwriter is still Bob Dylan’s little bitch, and angry Germans are still angry Germans, no matter if their name is Faust, Kraftwerk or Rammstein. Names change, but the anger remains. Combining these disparate musical genres into one successful station took talent, and 99.1 pulled it off.

But, like how hip-hop killed Top-40 in the `80s, grunge would essentially kill alternative. Ironic, since most people exposed to the music in the `90s think grunge *IS* alternative. Alternative was much more – New Wave Depeche Mode met Goth Bauhaus met Prog Rock Yes met Alt Rock REM. The Pet Shop Boys could coexist nicely with XTC, and the Cars didn’t seem to mind. U2 would simply just try to save the world.

But, where there is genius, there is a host of imitators. For every Stone Roses, there is the not-nearly-as-brilliant Seahorses. Siouxsie and The Banshees = Great. The Creatures = Not so much. And, as talented as Nirvana, and their immediate contemporaries were, their imitators were simply trying to get a quick buck. fIREHOSE were pretty deep, but Loud Lucy was just kinda loud.

And don’t even get me started on the Toadies. Jesus….jesus….jesus….

I loved Pat Ferrise, the old music director at WHFS. Bob Waugh, the APD, had a pretty keen ear for pulling the wheat from the chaff. But, when the ear starts getting surrounded by crap, pretty soon you can only seperate the not-as-crappy from the really-crappy. I mean, when Hootie and The Blowfish were seling 12 million records, these guys wouldn’t play their songs because they were TOO sell-out sounding. Never mind that damned near every other alt-rock station in North America was playing “Hold My Hand” or “Let Her Cry.”

How Dave Matthews got through on their watch is beyond me. I have a few Dave Matthews Band CDs, and I still don’t have a clue what the hell he’s singing. “Ants Marching” had a beat, but I’ve not smoked enough pot to understand the attraction to “Don’t Drink the Water.”

But, hey, I’m sure even Da Vinci had a doodle pad. I’ll give them a pass. Bob introduced me to Tony Bennett. Not in a CD, but in person “This is Tony Bennett.” Hearing Tony Bennett say the words “Nice to meet you, young man” is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard in my life.

I left WHFS after doing the air shift after the 1996 HFStival. I had been running around RFK all day, hanging with Garbage (remember back when they were still good?), Everclear (the band, and, some of the booze), and photographing the lovely Gwen Stefani whenever possible. I was exhausted, having been up since 5:30 AM, getting Aq drinks, hanging with Johnny Riggs and Dave Grohl, taking pictures with John Stewart and, indeed my sexual highlight, getting hugged by Jewel.

Almost 9 years later, and my chest STILL hurts…but in a good way.

Post Aq, Kath and Rob, pre-Lou Brutus, there was Tom Perry, Sherry and Alan Scott. Tom Perry goes down in my book as being one of my favorite people in the business for one simple fact – he made sure I got to hang out with the Barenaked Ladies, one of my favorite bands.

My internship had ended, and I was doing some commercial voice-overs once in a while, whilst trying to get a part-time air shift at WHFS. So, I still saw the guys once in a while – enough they knew my face, but that was about it. However, Tom remembered I was a huge BNL fan, and had been a vocal proponent of the band in 1996, slightly before the release of a certain song about an old apartment, but it’s not *really* about an old apartment, but a slightly psycho ex-boyfriend. At any rate, I persuaded the Pat Ferrise person to go see BNL with me in concert at the 9:30 Club. At the time, the Ladies had no commercial potential in the US, according to Misters Pat and Bob. After seeing the 9:30 packed with people, singing every song, Pat changed his tune, and WHFS became the first radio station outside of Canada and US border towns to add “Old Apartment.” Barenaked Ladies became famous, and I became unemployed. Fair trade?

Tom remembered this, and wanted to make sure I’d get to meet the band. So, he invites me to be part of the morning show again, for a glorious day, in which I not only got a couple of photo ops, but shared donuts, coffee, t-shirts with the lads. When the band started playing music, and then asked me to sing along, I damned near passed out. I finally figured out, at 23 years of age, why teenagers went apeshit for the Beatles. I got to do backing vocals on “Old Apartment,” recorded on WHFS’ “Just Passing Through” disc, and my “Woooo!!!” lives on in semi-permanent digital format. If anything topped the HFStival , it was hanging out with the five guys from Canada, and knowing that, in my own small way, I helped them out.

I was also standing near Tom when Jewel had hugged me at the HFStival. She must have thought I was his younger brother or something, and just wrapped her arms around me like she was a long-lost friend…granted, a long-lost friend with sweater meat the size of a small fishing vessel.

It was shortly thereafter that WHFS really started to lose it, though. Tom moved west, Johnny Riggs got busted with kiddie porn and drugs, Linkin Park came out (sorry kids, they really, really suck, period), Gina Crash tried her best in the mornings, Lou Brutus was never really comfortable there, and Milk was just so…Milk. Nice guy, but, come on – he wasn’t a trained a deejay at all, and sounded like he would have been perfect back in the free-form days. And I don’t understand the hype over emo, kids. It sounds like slightly less British Britpop. Britpop without the wit.

The Sports Junkies were brought in like a hospice nurse sent to take care of your senile great aunt with Alzheimer’s disease – every once in a while the ole’ girl has a moment of clarity, but at the end of the day, la grande dame est morte.

Then again, and I think Mike Giannini would agree – we still miss cute ginchy girl in promotions. Jackie, I think, was her name. The world changed when she left.

WHFS simply could not keep up with its demographic. When Damian left, when Weasel left, when Kath left, came back, and left again, the old-time listeners kept leaving, too. Johnny Riggs may have had his demons, but damn it, he was a personality. Aq was a little weird, and I loved him for it. But they were all real fun on 99.1, and the station needed them more than any radio consultant, any focus group, any marketing study could ever reveal.

To focus on today’s kids is to completely lose focus. Kids today float between music styles easily and without thinking. Bubblegum teenage princesses (who all sound exactly alike to me) share space on the kids’ collective iPod with the brilliant Coldplay, the fun Blink 182, the insanely popular Eminem and the completely unexplainable Nelly, all while U2 is still trying to save the world. When I was 16, being a Cure fan, being a Depeche Mode fan, being a Smiths fan – it all meant SOMETHING. You identified with your music, and WHFS was a lifestyle choice. It meant you were just that little bit cooler than your less-enlightened brethren. Now kids switch music like an old-fashioned telephone operator.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing for them. I listened almost exclusively to WHFS, so I never heard any of the classic, old-school hip hop. I have no nostalgia for Warrant because that was a band that pushed me to WHFS in the first place. They sucked; the Replacements didn’t. For every MC Hammer I avoided, there was a De La Soul I missed. Hopefully these kids can take advantage of this diversity in musical styles, and produce something more, something where the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

If, in the end, the music still mattered, then WHFS’ music was getting better lately. More Killers, more Franz Ferdinand, more Keane – the station was getting back to a more consistent sound. Even folks who swore off WHFS were slowly adding it.

While writing this, I have finally discovered the importance of Tom Perry in my life. I always thought Pat, or Aq, or Alan, or even the Scottish dude, or maybe even the dear Weasel, was my favorite person from the station. But I never got to sing with Alan on the air, and I never got hugged by a busty folk singer with Pat. But, I did share a chicken thigh with Weasel, and you can never take that away from me.

So, Tom, if you ever read this, thank you. Sincerely and utterly, thanks.

I’m sure that somewhere in this great metropolitan area, there are kids lamenting the loss of 99.1, WHFS. Kids who may have identified with Tim Virgin, or the Junkies, or who called into Loveline. They may never warm up to DC101, 98 Rock, 103.1 WRNR, 104.1, WTMD, or any other station that plays some of the same songs as 99.1 did. They are shocked, probably in the same way folks 20 years ago were shocked when 102.3 WHFS became Progressive 99 WHFS, or 15 years ago when that freeform style became a suggested playlist, or 10 years ago when it became as tightly formatted as any other station in the market.

What happens next? The Junkies will be back at 106.7, the sales guys will sell for somebody else, the production guys will produce someplace else, and the HFStival will just be a fond, fuzzy memory. Bands will still come to the region, and, hell, the Nationals will need the stadium this year anyway. 99.1 will instantly become the number one radio station in restaurant kitchens across the metro. Cinco De Mayo will have a new soundtrack, and the margaritas will be flowin’. Latin dance music is a big deal nowadays – try to find a single, mid-20s girl in Adams Morgan who HASN’T taken salsa dance lessons, I dares ya – and the Spanish-speaking community in the region deserves a good, powerful signal and a station to call their own…much like 3 generations of people who simply enjoyed good, diverse, eclectic, thought-provoking music did.

And now, as a Spanish station in the middle of the FM dial, WHFS can finally once again be The True Alternative.

– me

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2 Responses to “Adios, My Friend WHFS”

  1. That’s a pensive blog. -Aq

  2. You’re welcome. You may have gotten a hug from Jewel, but I watched her curl up on her hotel bed and make “kitty” noises. It’s not as good as it sounds – it was actually kinda creepy.

    Tom


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