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Teens: 'I want my HFS!' Radio: Arundel teens value rock station WHFS-FM as a source of alternative music, even though the station's disc jockeys aren't quite the rebels their young listeners imagine them to be.

When managers at the McDonald's in Edgewater decreed that their teen-age workers couldn't listen to WHFS as they slapped together Big Macs, the response was predictable -- unhappy burger flippers.

Young people across the county swear by the station with a reputation for nonconformity and attitude. The alternative rock station has built a mystique out of eccentric disc jockeys who play local artists and unusual records.

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In the words of one of those McDonald's workers, Eric Wenzler, 18, who said management banned the station because the workers weren't working hard enough: "HFS was chill; it was the best."

To Wenzler and other teens, listening to a station that plays songs from a list made up by some executive in Los Angeles is just too mainstream for rebellious youths to handle.

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There's irony to the reputation of WHFS (99.1 FM). The station might have the sounds and the attitude that teens like, but it's not the ardent rebel they have come to consider it. WHFS does pull songs from a play list, and it has widened its repertoire to include more mainstream music in recent years, largely to attract more listeners.

Also, many of the station's DJs are thirty-somethings with families and years of experience in the business who nonetheless have an almost mystical reputation among young listeners.

The station's alternative, radical reputation that appeals to so many county youths dates to the station's inception in 1968 in Bethesda, when the original owner allowed the station's DJs to play and talk about whatever they wanted. And they did. The DJs played everything from local artists to records many people didn't even know were in the stores.

The station moved to Annapolis in the 1970s, then to Landover in 1988, although it still broadcasts from the tower in Crofton.

Despite the station's efforts to include more listeners, its ratings have steadily declined in Baltimore and Washington in the past two years. Yet, teen-agers county-wide have remained among the station's most loyal fans. WHFS has kept its spot throughout the 1990s at the top of the county's list of most popular stations, coming in first place last winter.

Program director Robert Benjamin said WHFS still considers itself the only truly alternative station and has introduced more new bands in the past five years than any other station.

"We have to have enough of a listening base to survive," Benjamin said. "It would be easy to only play local bands or unknown artists, but we wouldn't be very successful."

Broadening its music to include more widely popular artists is also a strategic move. Station executives know Anne Arundel teens devoted to WHFS for its alternative aura have nowhere else to go except home to their compact disc players.

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Many county teens, often a good 10 years younger than the station's target audience of 25- to 40-year-olds, don't know the marketing side. They just know that, for them, WHFS is their best option on the dial.

They listen to the morning program called "Morning Product" on their way to their classes and summer jobs. At work, many listen to "The Weasel" and Bob Waugh's afternoon shows. And on some county beaches, WHFS is so prevalent that other stations get drowned out.

"HFS is the bomb," said Brian Hardy, 16, of Shady Side, pointing with his pizza for effect. "I've listened to them ever since I could, like, turn the radio knob."

Hardy said he has a good feel for the DJs, not that he knows them.

"If they were here hanging out, they'd understand where we're coming from and the pressure we're under," he said, pushing his long hair away from his face. "They'd, like, go out with us and hang out and walk around the mall and stuff. Maybe they would look old, but they'd be kids inside, like trapped in an older person's body. And they'd have long hair."

Haley and Heidi Sudduth, 15-year-old twins from Mayo Beach, offered the image they have of two "Morning Product" DJs, Mike Giannini and Tom Perry.

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"I know they are totally cute," Haley said. "They're totally cool. They're, like, the kind of person that would do anything on a dare. They probably have long hair and, like, wear really baggy pants and clothes with a chain wallet."

"Yeah, but definitely skaters," Heidi chimed in. "I bet they're in their 20s and look like skaters."

Carrie Eusantos, 17, said, "They look hot and probably have their tongues pierced." Eusantos has never seen them either.

The reality is a little different.

It's just before 5 a.m., and the members of the "Morning Product" team are straggling into the station armed with coffee. They hardly look like all-night partyers stumbling in from a nearby club, as many listeners imagine.

For the "super-alternative" show, Perry, 31, wears jeans and a blue, short-sleeved shirt. His tongue isn't pierced; in fact, the only jewelry he is wearing is his wedding band. His black hair, done up in a Elvis-like hairdo, is graying slightly on the sides.

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Shari Elliker, 35, the only member of the crew with long hair, joined the cast in September. She is wearing a simple black dress with little make-up and a gold watch.

Mike Giannini, the youngest looking of the three, is also wearing jeans, which he has carefully pegged at the ankles. But Giannini, 30, has bleached blond hair and wears Converse shoes, making him the most "alternative" of the bunch.

Morning show staple Rob Timm, who does the news, is out sick.

"I'm not going to go around in those big floppy pants with a chain hanging down to my knees," Perry says as he lounges in a chair in their office.

As the morning wears on, the show varies widely from music to a discussion of teen callers' most embarrassing moments. By the time the show ends, the group looks weary.

The hours "are awful," Perry says. "I wake up at 4: 30 on weekends now, and you start getting mad because the stores don't open until 10 a.m."

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And their free time?

"I actually have a really boring life," Elliker says. "I do stuff with my husband, play with my dogs, go out to eat a lot."

"I try to have a semblance of a normal life," says Giannini, who plays in a band on weekends in Baltimore.

"I drink," Perry says.

Although they might not have the rebellious lifestyles their younger listeners envision, the three say their attitudes and humor allow them to blend.

"The listeners aren't wrong, because we are immature," Elliker says.

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"Yeah," Perry said, adding that, like most teen-agers, he still laughs at every rude noise he hears.

Pub Date: 7/10/97


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