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Remembering WHFS: The beloved progressive station that was ‘exactly the opposite’ of radio today

Mention the call letters “WHFS” to music lovers of a certain age, and don’t be surprised if a smile instantly appears on their face, or a twinkle seems to light up their eye.

Memories of a magic place right out of the ’60s counterculture playbook — of airwaves where you never knew what song you’d hear next, only that it would be a good one; of a land populated with people named Cerphe, Damian and Weasel; of a community where informality and congeniality were the watchwords, and corporate-speak was avoided at all costs — will do that to a person.

“Free-form progressive radio, it’s an era that’s gone,” says Jay Schlossberg, a one-time employee of the tiny Bethesda-based radio station with the outsized reach. Schlossberg hopes to recapture at least some of that magic with “Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM,” a documentary that should be ready for release this year.

“Radio — the whole business has changed. It’s corporatized, homogenized and pasteurized. And ‘HFS was exactly the opposite,” Schlossberg said.

From the late-’60s until it left Bethesda in 1983 (the call letters resurfaced in Annapolis at a different location on the FM dial, but Schlossberg’s film never leaves suburban D.C.), WHFS was a music lover’s paradise. Its playlists changed at the whim of whichever DJ was on the air — a big no-no in today’s pre-programmed radio formats. There was a distinct counterculture vibe to the station, and an air of informality that sometimes made it sound more like chatting with a friend than listening to the radio.

And the music. Schlossberg rattles off names like Emmylou Harris, The Nighthawks, Danny Gatton, Grin (which included a young Nils Lofgren, now playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), all of whom had D.C.-area connections, and all of whom could be heard regularly on WHFS. So could just about anyone else playing in that vein, especially if they were outside the mainstream; if an act was really popular, chances are you’d hear one of their more obscure songs, not the hits everyone else was playing.

Schlossberg says he came up up with the idea for the film about five years ago, when he saw some photos from a Record Store Day panel held at a Silver Spring record store. It was a reunion of some of the WHFS deejays — including such ’HFS giants as Josh Brooks, “Bob Here” Showacre, Jonathan Gilbert (far better known as Weasel, a name he still goes by on Towson University station WTMD), Damian Einstein (just Damian to his listeners) and Cerphe (Don Cerphe Colwell, but forever known by his middle name).

“A light bulb just went off,” Schlossberg says. “There they were — Josh, Bob Here, Cerphe, Weasel, Damian. I looked at the photograph, and I said out loud, ‘Oh my God, they’re not all dead yet. Somebody needs to tell the story.’ That’s my quote, and I’ll live by it.”

A trailer for “Feast Your Ears” that’s up on YouTube includes photographs of Dennis Wilson, Cyndi Lauper, Lowell George and Joan Armatrading visiting the station, plus testimonials from Roger McGuinn and Jesse Colin Young.

“They were almost a cult radio station,” Little Feat’s Bill Payne says in the trailer. Adds Marshall Crenshaw, “’HFS, of course, was outstanding, they were, like, top of the heap.”

At the forefront of all this was station general manager and part-owner Jake Einstein, who had started at the station’s advertising department in the md-’60s. As WHFS rose in popularity, Einstein became something of a local hero, steadfastly championing the station’s quirky reputation, urging his DJs to play the music they wanted to play.

“He was the face of ‘HFS,” Schlossberg says of the Baltimore native, who died in 2007 at age 90. “He was a bigger-than-life personality, a promoter, just very good at that sort of thing.”

Most of the WHFS alums who are still around show up in “Feast Your Ears,” and all were eager to help in Schlossberg’s attempt to recapture some of the station’s magic, he says.

“We’re going to tell the story as truthfully as we can,” he says. “I want to honor the DJs, I want to honor the owner, I want to honor the fans, and then the local and national musicians. And then the venues that played the music that the radio station was broadcasting.”

Funding for “Feast Your Ears” began with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $66,000. In all, “well in excess of $100,000” has been raised to finance the film, which is largely completed, says Schlossberg, who runs Media Central, booking local crew and equipment for film shoots all over the U.S. and in more than 100 other countries.

The final element is compiling the soundtrack, which could take a few more months; the final budget, he says, depends on how much the song rights cost.

“Music rights can be expensive,” he says.

But the finished product will please WHFS’ fans, Schlossberg promises. Not only will they hear so many of the old voices once again, they’ll get to hear audio clips of some of the DJs at Woodstock; see an interview with one of the two men who founded the station in 1961 (when it played mostly classical, jazz and beautiful music — pretty much the antithesis of what WHFS would become); even revisit Bethesda’s Triangle Towers building, home to the station in its heyday.

With some luck, he says, they’ll connect with the movie the same way they connected with the radio station. Negotiations are still under way, but Schlossberg hopes the documentary will have both a theatrical run and be available for streaming.

“There was a whole cultural community around the station,” Schlossberg says. “They had a ride board, a housing board, a jobs board. They had a vegetarian cookbook in 1975. I mean, it became more than just your latest favorite hits. It was really plugged into the community itself.”

Learn more about the “Feast Your Ears” movie at feastyourearsthefilm.com.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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