- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

While classic-rock radio continues to thrive in other cities, the format has become a dead letter in Washington — and two veteran area DJs couldn’t be happier. “I’m just going back to where I started,” says Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, weekday morning host on WTGB-FM (94.7 “The Globe”), which last February ditched the all-oldies format of WARW-FM to make room for a variety of punk and alternative-rock titles, in addition to current indie-rock.

Mr. Gilbert and the Globe’s afternoon host, Donald “Cerphe” Colwell, were part of the founding generation of FM rock. I recognize them both immediately the first time we meet — Mr. Colwell, in his black leather jacket and slicked-back hair, and Mr. Gilbert, short and wiry.

There’s no mistaking these guys for accountants.

The pair crossed paths at American University in the late ‘60s and, before they’d even graduated, landed jobs at WHFS-FM, the storied underground rock station. Mr. Gilbert, a walking, talking Wikipedia of rock history, remained there for 33 years. Mr. Colwell migrated to other stations, including WWDC-FM (DC 101), before winding up at WARW.

“We had a sense of what we were doing, but, being kids, we were flying by the seat of our pants,” Mr. Colwell, a Boston native, says. “What we were doing hadn’t really been done before.”

The FM-rock underground in its earliest phase was raw and technologically challenged.

Over lunch, Mr. Colwell and Mr. Gilbert, both 58, laugh as they recall fumbling with reel-to-reel tape decks. Blackouts of up to a half-hour weren’t uncommon — and so tiny was their listenership that no one called to complain.

“It was sort of an evolution and a revolution at the same time,” says Mr. Gilbert, who grew up on Long Island. “FM was very underdeveloped in those days. Nobody even had the receivers.”

Eschewing the hit singles found on the AM dial, the progressive-minded DJs at HFS — where rock music was heard only at night until 1971 — embraced eccentric art-rockers like Frank Zappa, blues revivalists like Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal, as well as singer-songwriters like John Prine.

The motley format was especially well-suited to the post-‘60s counterculture. “We were very verbally against the Vietnam War. We made no secret of that,” says Mr. Colwell.

“The singer-songwriter Phil Ochs came into the studio the night before he did the [1973] Counter-Inaugural Ball,” he continues. “It was very politically motivated. Frank Zappa would come in and talk politics.

“Doing that kind of radio here in Washington, D.C., was really interesting. I’m amazed that I wasn’t wiretapped for some of the things we did.”

As the ‘60s receded and the ‘70s gave way to the Reagan era, a funny thing happened to the music Mr. Colwell and Mr. Gilbert cut their teeth on: It became “classic rock.”

Worse, the format eventually curdled into a perpetual loop of about 450 titles that are burned onto every baby boomer’s brain.

That’s just fine for listeners whom Edison Media Research president Larry Rosin describes as “pure classic-rock people.”

“Most markets have very successful classic-rock stations,” he says.

Not so the District.

At the time of the format switch last year, WARW posted a market share of 1.5, according to the ratings research firm Arbitron Inc. (the share reflects the percentage of the listening public that tunes into a given station during 15-minute intervals).

The Globe, a CBS Radio property, has since seen a slight uptick (1.8), but still lags behind the region’s top stations.

“Anytime you change formats on a radio station, you typically lose the existing audience faster than you build loyalty to the new one,” says Globe program director Lorrin Palagi.

The Globe is gambling that the more diverse, so-called Triple A (adult album alternative) format will appeal to a younger base of listeners.

Edison’s Mr. Rosin points to stations such as KBCO in Boulder, Colo., and KINK in Portland, Ore., as successful commercial models of the format (like KBCO, the Globe calls its programming “world-class rock”). Both prosper in towns with well-educated populations whose politics lean crunchy.

In that spirit, the Globe promotes environmental stewardship alongside its music programming.

The Triple-A pitch, says Mr. Rosin, goes like this: “If you liked classic-rock in its first iteration, there are songs that have been made in the last 27 years that you might like.”

Trustworthy on-air personalities are crucial here.

As Mr. Gilbert explains: “If I give you something brand new, and I put it in a context that you know and like, all of a sudden, you come along with me. ‘I like that Zeppelin song, but what was the one you played right after that? I like that, too.’ All of a sudden, you’ve made a connection.”

The idea to expand the palette at 94.7 grew partly out of the weekly evening feature “Box Set,” where Mr. Gilbert focused on one band or artist and offered in-depth commentary along the way.

There was the familiar classic-rock fare, but gradually Mr. Gilbert made his way through late-‘70s punk (the Ramones, the Clash) and early-‘90s grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam).

If listeners responded enthusiastically at night — when their attention is at its most elusive — why not during the morning rush hour and at work?

The result is a station that plays Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie and Feist in between classics by the Who and the Rolling Stones.

Will the IPod generation tune in?

Mr. Colwell and Mr. Gilbert are at least willing to try to find out.

These are DJs, after all, who remember when car stereos with an FM dial were available on an option basis.

Here, from DJ Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert’s daily morning show earlier this week, is a representative sample of WTGB-FM’s new “Triple A” (adult album alternative) format:

The Black Crowes, “She Talks to Angels”

Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”

Jack Johnson, “Good People”

The Cars, “Dangerous Type”

Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World”

Bob Marley & the Wailers, “Is This Love?”

Blondie, “The Tide is High”

Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

Devo, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

Natalie Merchant, “Kind & Generous”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Manic Depression”

Gomez, “See the World”

Queen (w/David Bowie), “Under Pressure”

Live, “I Alone”

Talking Heads, “Stay Up Late”

Ingrid Michaelson, “The Way I Am”

The Doors, “Love Me Two Times”

Coldplay, “Yellow”

The Alarm, “Rain in the Summertime”

The Who, “Eminence Front”

Death Cab for Cutie, “Soul Meets Body”

Patti Smith, “Because the Night”

Traveling Wilburys, “End of the Line”

Bruce Springsteen, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”

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