Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hasta la vista.

WHFS-FM (99.1) — the local rock ‘n’ roll radio station that made its name in the 1970s with a free-form, free-flowing, playlist-free sound but later adopted a more mainstream style — flipped its format to Spanish-language music yesterday.

The move was not unexpected. WHFS — one of five stations in the Washington area owned by industry giant Infinity Broadcasting Corp. — has struggled to gain listeners for years, and rumors have persisted that it would move to take advantage of the region’s Hispanic population boom.

It was not clear yesterday what will happen to the Junkies, the free-wheeling quartet whose popular morning-drive show was the lone bright spot at WHFS, or the station’s other disc jockeys. An Infinity spokeswoman said some hosts would be offered new jobs at other stations in the area.

Also up in the air is the fate of the annual HFStival and winter Nutcracker rock concerts. The spokeswoman said they might continue, although people familiar with the situation said that was unlikely.

The death of WHFS saddened older listeners and triggered memories of a period in the 1970s and early 1980s when it was the coolest station in town, introducing the region to musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris and the Cure.

Even some local Hispanic residents who have clamored for a Spanish-language station with a strong signal found their joy tempered by the nostalgia yesterday.

“I’m going to miss it. I grew up in Bethesda. I remember when HFS was on Cordell Avenue. My wife is going to be bummed as well,” said Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, president of Maya Advertising & Communications in Washington.

WHFS immediately becomes the strongest Spanish-language radio signal in the Washington area, Mr. Vasquez-Ajmac said. A handful of stations that now play Spanish-language music have weaker signals that cannot be heard in all parts of the region.

The switch occurred yesterday at about noon, when WHFS’ rock tunes stopped and listeners heard Hispanic-influenced music.

Infinity, a subsidiary of media monolith Viacom Inc., has renamed WHFS “El Zol,” an unorthodox spelling of the Spanish term “el sol,” which means “the sun.”

The station will play a blend of Caribbean and Central American dance music, including salsa, merengue and bachata, according to Infinity. Listeners are likely to hear mainstream acts such as Marc Anthony.

“We have made clear our desire to expand into this burgeoning market and believe this move marks an important step in our commitment to Spanish radio,” said Joel Hollander, Infinity’s president and chief operating officer.

Hispanic listeners make up about 10 percent of the Washington area’s radio market, according to the Arbitron Inc. ratings service.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio chain, recently announced plans to increase its Spanish-language programming.

Karen L. Mateo, an Infinity spokeswoman, said the format switch likely will result in layoffs, but she was unable to provide a definite number.

The Junkies — John Auville, Eric Bickel, Jason Bishop and John-Paul “J.P.” Flaim — learned of the format flip after concluding their show yesterday, say people familiar with the situation.

The members of the group who were contacted yesterday did not return messages or declined comment.

The Junkies joined WHFS in October 2002 and lifted the station’s ratings, helping it close the gap with Elliot Segal, the morning man at rival rocker WWDC-FM (101.1). Industry executives said Infinity could move the Junkies to WJFK-FM (106.7), where they once hosted weekend and evening shows.

WJFK will lose its star attraction, Howard Stern, when he moves to satellite radio next year.

Although never a ratings powerhouse, WHFS saw its fortunes fall and its reputation diminish when original owner Jake Einstein sold it in October 1987, triggering a series of ownership changes that eventually put it in the Infinity empire a few years ago.

It has hovered near the bottom of the local Arbitron ratings heap in recent years, although it performed better in Baltimore, where its signal was somewhat stronger.

Mr. Einstein and several partners founded WHFS — its call letters stood for High Fidelity Stereo — in 1961 with a middle-of-the-road format. It lost money until Mr. Einstein sold its afternoon-drive slot for $160 per day to three young disc jockeys who called themselves “Spiritus Cheese” and it picked up a following on local college campuses.

By 1971, the die was cast, and WHFS — which was then broadcast at 102.3 FM — switched to a round-the-clock progressive rock format.

“In those days, the fact that you could turn on the radio and hear some of these acts was a big deal. ‘What, Pink Floyd? What, Jimi Hendrix? What, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”?’” said Damian Einstein, Jake Einstein’s son.

Damian Einstein is now the music director at WRNR-FM (103.1), a small Annapolis station that has preserved the old WHFS style and employs several of its former luminaries. He was asked if the death of WHFS saddened him.

“It does and it doesn’t. It’s been quite some time since I worked there, and it’s changed dramatically since then. Everything has,” he said.

WHFS generated $12.4 million in revenue in 2003, according to the most recent estimates by BIA Financial Network Inc., a Chantilly media research group.

All-news powerhouse WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) generated $37.1 million in revenue, the most of any station in the Washington area.

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