Baltimore radio remembered
by Daniel Hess
January 12, 2005, at noon, was when music on the radio in Baltimore suddenly changed. On that day, the station at frequency 99.1 FM switched from an Alternative Rock format to a Tropical Latin music format. The move caught many, including staff at 99.1 WHFS, by surprise. However, in retrospect the move should not have been so surprising. From the increasing corporate structure of radio to the rise of internet music discovery, the tide was changing faster than many realized. Avid listeners and longtime fans of the station were shocked.
Baltimore native Scott Goodson recounted that day. "I remember going to my parents, asking them if they could check my radio, because it wasn't in English!" This same sentiment was echoed by many, including Nick Wallace. "I still remember waking up to HFS on my alarm clock, and one morning it was all Spanish. . . . I'll never forget changing the channel to 98 [rock] and hearing Adios HFS! Total kick in the you know where."
For so many in Baltimore, WHFS had become a staple of alternative rock and a discovery source for emerging artists. Steve Khuon recounted a memory from his time listening to the station. "I bought my first Audioslave album after hearing 'Like a Stone' on the station." The sudden loss of WHFS was a huge blow to the music scene in Baltimore, but what made the station so special? WHFS first started broadcasting on November 11, 1961, out of Bethesda, Maryland. Since it was the first station in the Washington, DC, area to broadcast in FM stereo, its adopted call sign was Washington High Fidelity Stereo, or WHFS. It started on FM frequency 102.3 (where it would remain until 1983). The original format of the station was actually classical music, featuring jazz after 10pm.
In what would become a trend for the station over the decades as well as radio in general, HFS was sold by the original owners in 1963, spearheaded by Jesse Alvin Jeweler (AKA Jay Allen, as he was known on the radio). Finally, in 1967, under the leadership of new general manager Jacob Einstein, the birth of what would become the rock hotbed of Baltimore began taking shape. Introduced to the idea of broadcasting fresh rock music by Frank Richards, Einstein told The Washington Post back in 1983: "We were losing so much money that another couple dollars couldn't hurt right? So, we put him on. My God, the calls! I never knew we had an audience!" Throughout the 1970's, WHFS began to hit its stride, leaning into the rock format almost completely full-time. They moved to a new location, with the message "Broadcasting from high atop the triangle towers" being heard over the airwaves. At this time, it was station policy to never play a Top 40 hit. Listeners were likely to hear obscure tracks, even from well-known artists like The Beatles. Bands such as The Ramones, Yes, Frank Zappa, and Bad Brains were all the norm to hear on HFS throughout the decade.
HFS was developing as a hotspot for music you wouldn't hear anywhere else. It was a place where the music choices were progressive and free-form. It became a place of discovery for young listeners, as Baltimore musician Michael Cochran described: "The Beatles made me a guitarist, but WHFS music in the early '80s became my primary influence for playing and writing." With every decade, the station further cemented itself as the alternative destination for those who enjoyed a different style. Musician Kurt Deemer spoke about his discovery of HFS: "One day my sister accidentally stopped short while spinning back to 98 and we were commenting on the fact that they were playing really good music. After a while, Weasel came on and started talking and we realized we were not in Kansas anymore. After that the dial pretty much remained on 99.1."
As the '80s arrived the original home for WHFS 102.3 was sold by Einstein to the owners of WTOP. He used the money from the sale to buy WLOM, which was on frequency 99.1, a more powerful frequency allowing broadcasting to a larger market. This is where Einstein would take WHFS, and where it would remain until 2005.
At this point, it would seem as if WHFS was just like any other station, albeit one that played obscure rock music to an underground crowd. However, with the rise of grunge and other rock formats coming to the mainstream in the '90s, HFS experienced a meteoric rise throughout the decade. To say it was thanks to a growing cultural taste for rock music that pushed HFS to the stratosphere would be underselling the biggest piece of the puzzle in popularity. That would be thanks to the annual HFStival, which began in 1990.
If you ask people about their memories of the station at its peak, they will mostly recount stories from this mammoth music event. It was a staple of the music scene in Baltimore, and something everyone wanted to go to. As Heather Carnes put it, "Graduation day was during HFStival that year. I so wanted to ditch the ceremony."
Billy Zero, who worked for HFS during the '90s, remembered all that went into making the event happen each year. "It wasn't a one-day thing for us. It was pretty much a ten-day thing. We got to the event about seven days out, and for the festival . . . I was up for 24 hours.
Generally, I was up by 3, broadcast starts at 5:00. We're at the festival, broadcasting at 5:00, I was part of that. So, I'm on the air talking, hey I'm going to the hotel to pick up The Chemical Brothers, be back in a little while. Doing that first thing in the morning, day of. Then right to 'gates open' [there were] interns everywhere, making sure that goes okay. Then it is just on to the logistics of the day."
The HFStival was the hit thing each year in Baltimore, attracting huge artists from around the country. Artists such as Iggy Pop, Foo Fighters, Green Day, The Offspring, Moby, Red Hot Chili Peppers-the list goes on and on. It was a tradition that went on as recently as 2011, despite the many changes to the station and smaller comebacks that it made after 2005. A tradition that many people look back on with great fondness.
Chris Burkett described the lead-up to the festival: "Stayed up all night the night before, showed up at the parking lot at 5:30 am, and partied like it was 1999. Gates opened at 11." Once the festival was underway, the atmosphere was blissful. Andy Hall recalls one of the early festivals: "First HFSstival I attended was 1991 . . . held at Lake Fairfax in VA. Violent Femmes headlined. King Missile was there. Everyone was throwing pizza boxes during 'Blister in the Sun' like frisbees."
This was everything that HFS had stood for, this amazing counterculture for all those craving something different in life. It was this attitude of going against the grain that so many enjoyed. With events held that had such romantic names as the HFS SnowJob, how could you not get a kick out of the anti-establishment vibe that this station gave? It was a true wave that had gone from an underground current to complete mainstream notoriety.
Despite this new wave of popularity, the cracks that would bring about the eventual demise of HFS had begun to show. It was something endemic of not just this single radio station, but of radio in general as the '90s marched on, giving way to the 2000s. Billy was at the ground floor of it all, watching things slowly change. "When I started, there was a webmaster, multiple sales people, and arenas for sales. We had multiple producers, multiple air shifts in '94. By '95 to '96 those consolidations happened, and you literally saw all these companies buying the station, having to eke out of it as much value as they can, to leverage out their next buy. So, in that, you'd see people like me-I was working what felt like 80 hours a week making 34 grand a year. Don't get me wrong, though. It was the coolest job in the world, and I got to drive the HFS van."
As the decade wore on, things only got bigger for HFS, as far as acclaim and events. It seemed as if every concert coming to the Baltimore, Washington, Virginia area had some mark of HFS on it. Whether doing live broadcasts from the venues or just running promotions, the station was everywhere, but perhaps this large a footprint should have been a warning sign of the things to come. As Billy mentioned, it was about value for a future buyout, so the goal was not to get more fans on board. Rather, it was to increase how much the station could be worth. At the time, though, it felt great, as if HFS was something that would be around another 30 or 40 years at least. Sadly, this was not to be.
When the station seemed to be at a complete peak in 2005, the wave finally crashed in what seemed like an impossibility to anyone who had ever listened to HFS. The station suddenly changed over to Tropical Latin, eventually being completely rebranded to El Zol. Amber England shared her experience on the day of the switch: "The day they canceled the station, I was driving by myself and I honestly thought my radio had broken. As soon as I got to where I was going, I had a friend come out to my car to look at it with me. I said one moment I was jamming out and the next it started playing Spanish music and I think it's broken."
At the time, the biggest reason given for the switch was changing demographics in the area. Billy Zero had already left the station before this happened, but he gave his thoughts: "Someone upstairs that had no clue on the heritage of this area, with that station, that's never lived in this region listening to it, made a decision that that frequency would be better as a Spanish station. That was it. It was really just the fact, simply the fact, that they could make more money off that frequency with Latinos in this market. Period, end of story, bottom line. That's what I think."
If you had asked anyone in the '90s, '80s, '70s, maybe even at the ground floor when WHFS first started, they would probably have said the station was going to be a part of Maryland radio forever. What began as a group of people identifying a growing subculture of radio listeners became an underground sensation, then a regional success story. It defied the odds and carved out a place so deeply for so many people that you could simply utter the letters HFS, and someone will have a story to tell. Seeing the sheer outcry that came out of the sudden loss of such a beloved station further pushes the argument for one thing, which is that sometimes an algorithm is wrong, sometimes the numbers are off. Had HFS stayed on 99.1 past that day in 2005, maybe it would have continued on as a legacy, still blasting alt and indie rock to this day. It could be the very sudden loss that came on January 12, 2005, that will forever give the call sign WHFS a legendary status for generations to come. That and many other stories from this station are for another day, though.
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