Alternative rock station WHFS (99.1 FM) bit the dust yesterday, unexpectedly switching to a Spanish-language and music format - a decision that jolted the station's many fans.
"There was no notice and no explanation," said Cindy Lindstrom, 20, a longtime listener from Perry Hall. "At 12:01 p.m. today, the radio station went silent. At 12:05 p.m., there was music in Spanish. Fifty people must have called me today. Everyone's in shock. No one knows why."
In a news release, Joel Hollander, president of Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WHFS, said the format change will serve more than 400,000 Hispanic customers in Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis.
The new station is named "El Zol," and it will play a blend of Caribbean and Central American dance music including salsa, merengue and bachata. The station is targeted at Latinos ages 25 to 54.
"There exists a tremendous opportunity for Infinity to launch a Spanish-language format in Washington, D.C., where almost 10 percent of the population is not being directly served," Hollander said. "El Zol will be the most powerful Spanish radio station in the area, and will provide listeners with the music, entertainment and information relevant to the many segments of the Latino culture."
The format change caught many by surprise - including at least one of the station's advertisers, who attended a meeting Tuesday where Infinity officials tried to persuade her to buy a year-long advertising package on Infinity's five Washington-area stations.
"Our advertising agency found out that WHFS was becoming a Spanish-language station because their media buyer has signed up for breaking news alerts," said Marcy Baer, marketing director for the Towson University graduate divisions.
"Surprise, surprise. Why not be upfront about what you're doing instead of pulling the wool over the eyes of your advertisers?"
Infinity spokeswoman Karen Mateo said the station will try to find jobs for WHFS' approximately 50 employees at one of the company's four local sister stations: WPGC (1580 AM), WPGC (95.5 FM), WJFK (106.7 FM) and WARW (94.7 FM). The station's staff will be announced "in the next few weeks," she said.
In one sense, the format change wasn't utterly unexpected. The station's ratings had been slipping steadily over the past several years. In 2004, it was in 22nd place, a decline of three places since 2000. Nearly everyone will admit that WHFS was not the pioneer it had been in its heyday.
But the station had a hold on its listeners far more powerful than was apparent from the raw numbers.
WHFS debuted in 1961, but emerged a decade later as a cutting-edge progressive rock station under the leadership of Jake Einstein. Since the early 1990s, it has sponsored the HFStival, a two-day music event with three stages that became a must-attend affair for alternative rock fans, drawing as many as 90,000 people.
"Not only did they play good music, they were into the local band scene," Lindstrom said. "They've done a lot for bands like Good Charlotte, O.A.R. and Lowlife and helped to get their music out."
Media Web sites were buzzing with the news yesterday. The operators of www.dcrtv.com published an appreciation of what they called "the old, glorious days."
And at WRNR (103.1-FM) in Annapolis, disc jockey Rob Timm played a tribute to his former station at 6 last night.
"Not many of us were lucky enough to work at a station that you can become as passionate about as we all were at WHFS," Timm said in an interview. "It really was, at one time, one of the most influential radio stations in America in terms of rock music."
But not everyone was in mourning. WHFS pioneer Einstein said the move makes good business sense.
"It's smart as hell, there's no question about it," he said. "You're getting a heavily Spanish population, to begin with. And people relate to the Spanish language, especially in music. You go to the clubs, and that's what they're booking."
WHFS' chief rival, WIYY (97.9 FM) was openly celebrating. The station Web site (www.98online.com) carried this message: "Adios HFS! We're still going strong after 28 years!"
98 Rock broadcast yesterday afternoon from Nacho Mama's in Canton, doing "free enrollment" for orphaned WHFS fans. Customers who brought in their WHFS merchandise could exchange each piece for a comparable item with the 98 Rock logo. In addition, the station plans to give away 500 T-shirts displaying "Adios WHFS" on the back, and the WIYY logo on the front.
"It's exciting for us, a huge opportunity," WIYY program manager Dave Hill said. "This ends a 20-year battle, and we won."
But perhaps the happiest group is the Baltimore area's burgeoning Latino population. Until now, there were just two stations that broadcast Spanish music - WILC (900 AM) in Laurel and the tiny WYRE (810 AM) in Annapolis.
About 55,000 Hispanics live in the Baltimore area, according to the 2000 census, although advocacy groups think there may be twice as many.
"We were just starving for that means of communication," said Enrique Rivadeneira, who owns Latin Palace, a restaurant and dance club in Fells Point.
Sun staff writers Chris Kaltenbach and Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.