A Sad Announcement in the POST
WHFS Changes Its Tune to Spanish
Alternative Rock Pioneer Targets Latino Audience
By Teresa Wiltz and Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A01 WHFS-FM, the Washington area radio station that was a pioneering purveyor of alternative rock to generations of young music fans, did a programming U-turn yesterday by ditching the genre for a Spanish-language, pop-music format that transforms it into the largest Spanish-language station on the local dial.
In an instant, the station abandoned the likes of the White Stripes, Green Day and Jet for middle-of-the-road superstars such as Marc Anthony, Juan Luis Guerra and Victor Manuelle.
The switch reflects both changing demographics and a corporate war of attrition involving Washington’s two major radio station owners, Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WHFS, and Clear Channel Communications, which owns WHFS’s chief competitor, DC-101.
Despite its self-proclaimed “legendary” status, WHFS (at 99.1 on the dial) has long trailed DC-101 in the race to win the ears of rock listeners in the Washington-Baltimore area. At the same time, Spanish-language radio is the fastest-growing format in the country, while alternative rock radio is a withering niche.
At noon yesterday, the station behind the HFStival, a popular annual concert, broadcast the late Jeff Buckley’s 1995 hit, “Last Goodbye.” And then came something that WHFS listeners hadn’t heard before in the station’s 36-year history as the arbiter of cutting-edge rock:
“WHFS transmitiendo desde la ciudad capital de America:
“Esta! Es! Tu! Nueva! Radio!”
“Transmitting from America’s Capital City: This! Is! Your! New! Radio!”
Lanham-based WHFS is now “El Zol,” where they’re “siempre de fiesta” — always partying. (Zol plays off sol, the Spanish word for sun, and is a station brand of the Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. which owns other “Zol” stations.)
Although radio insiders have discussed the likelihood of WHFS changing formats for many months, the switch came as a shock to former employees and fans who grew up listening to the radio station that, since the late 1960s, had gained a reputation as the place to go for new music. Radio stations often switch formats and often without promoting the change in advance.
WHFS was among a handful of stations that developed the album-oriented format: The music was alternative and free-form, featuring such groups as Led Zeppelin, the Who and Yes, but with the occasional bluegrass or other unexpected ditty. Disc jockeys weren’t confined to the strictures of a corporate-mandated playlist. They played what they wanted.
Out of this freewheeling approach came the station’s music festival, which grew from an offbeat spring event to a nationally recognized bacchanalia that last year drew 65,000 people to RFK Stadium.
“Certainly this will have major ramifications for new music in Washington, D.C.,” said Seth Hurwitz, owner of the city’s 9:30 club and producer of last year’s HFStival, with featured 36 acts. “They were always the forerunner for presenting new music,” said Hurwitz, who began his career in 1976 as a disc jockey at the station. “They were a vital fabric of Washington’s culture.”
WHFS began as a classical music station, then switched to pop music in the early-to-mid-1960s before turning to rock about 1968. The moves were orchestrated by Jake Einstein, who began as an advertising salesman and became one of the station’s owners in the mid-1960s.
Einstein’s son, Damian, a longtime on-air personality on WHFS, said yesterday that the station’s reputation as a maverick programmer began to decline more than a decade ago, at the beginning of a rapid consolidation of ownership in the industry.
“They really weren’t interested in the music anymore,” said Einstein, who was one of WHFS’s best-known personalities and who is now the program director at WRNR-FM, a small alternative rock station in Annapolis. “There really wasn’t that much creativity there. Having been there for so long and having done so many things there, of course it’s sad. But I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Doing what they’ve got to do includes wooing the Latino radio market, the fastest growing in the business. The audience of Spanish-language stations has grown 37 percent since 1998 and currently accounts for about 9 percent of all listeners. (Some radio experts believe that this understates the actual audience, as it does not take into account the large numbers of undocumented Latinos for whom the radio is a vital source of information.) In 2003, Latin album sales increased 16 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In the Washington area, the Hispanic population has grown more than 25 percent in the last four years, Infinity says. “El Zol’s” playlist is aimed at the region’s largely Central American population, featuring Caribbean and Central American dance music, mostly salsa, merengue and bachata.
The station will target radio’s “money demographic”: Adults ages 25 to 54. Washington has five other radio stations aimed at Spanish speakers: WBZS-FM, WPLC-FM and WKDL-AM, all owned by Mega Broadcasting; WILC-AM, owned by ZGS Broadcasting; and WACA-AM, owned by Entrevision.
Spanish-language radio programs have scored some notable successes in recent years. In New York, “La Mega” (WSKQ-FM) has a morning show that frequently trumps Howard Stern in the quarterly Arbitron ratings, according to Seth Rosen, media director for Reynardus and Moya, a New York-based advertising agency that caters to the Latino market.
The Viacom media conglomerate owns Infinity Broadcasting, which in turn also owns Washington area stations WPGC-FM and AM, WARW-FM and WJFK-FM. Recently, it has been flipping some of its weaker-performing stations across the country to a Spanish-language format, reflecting an industry trend. The switches have been prompted by Infinity’s alliance with the Spanish Broadcasting System Inc., the nation’s largest Latino-controlled radio broadcasting company. Infinity owns an equity interest in the Florida-based company, which served as a consultant on the WHFS reformatting.
“We did extensive research about the Washington, D.C., market,” said Infinity spokeswoman Karen Mateo. “We realized there was a void there for approximately 10 percent of the market.”
The switch leaves the futures of WHFS’s on-air personalities and other employees in question. Although Infinity has not announced personnel changes, insiders speculate that the station’s most popular personalities, the Sports Junkies, will probably be reassigned to WJFK-FM.
No decision has been made about the future of HFStival, Mateo said.
Despite the arrival last year of Lisa Worden, a highly touted programming director, WHFS’s progress in the ratings has been slow. The station ranked 20th overall in the most recent Arbitron audience survey, and ninth among its key target audience — listeners 18 to 34. WHFS’s demise as a rock station will likely benefit its chief rival, DC-101, but could also help more pop-oriented music stations such as Z104-FM and Hot 99.5, said Jim Farley, a veteran of Washington radio who is a vice president of WTOP, the all-news station. WTOP’s owner, Bonneville International, also owns Z104; Clear Channel owns Hot 99.5, as well as DC-101.
“HFS is an institution around here, but the station has been struggling for a while,” said Joe Howard, Washington bureau chief for Radio & Records, a research and analysis firm that also produces an industry magazine.
“I think Infinity saw this as an opportunity to attack an underserved market.”
Staff writer Sean Daly contributed to this report.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
This is truly a time of flux… it seems like all the institutions I grew up with are rapidly falling away.
I peripherally worked in radio (in the Einstein era) and had opportunity to meet with the folks over at HFS many times. In fact, one of the old DJs (Sharree? the distinctivly voiced african american woman) made off with a treasured album of mine, the Shaggs’ PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD, which I loaned her to play on the air. And she did, many times.
It was that kind of place. The kind of place where a DJ with a speech impediement could have a fair shake (so what if he was the owner’s son? He was great!), or a DJ with a high nasel falsetto instead of the phoney-baloney Ryan Seacrest radio voice would become a cult figure (Weasel, now working an oldies station in the area– if that’s not a sure sign of the apocolypse of radio, I don’t know what is).
It was that kind of place.
Back when there was a music scene in DC, it was WHFS that fostered it, dutifully tramping out to basement bars to introduce acts or run little music festivals. Stuff that other DJs would turn their noses up at.
We’re witnesing another victim of the Clear Channel borg-ification of radio. We won’t see their like again.