Hispanics tune to new HFS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They had heard the news and wanted to hear the music, maybe catch some uptempo salsa to start their day for a change.

In the Baltimore office of the Mayor's Hispanic Liaison, staff members yesterday tuned into WHFS 99.1 FM - which Wednesday had dropped an atom bomb on its alternative rock listeners by switching to a Spanish-language format. They found a station called El Zol. Siempe De Fiesta ("always partying") is the station's new sunny slogan, but apparently it's not partying quite yet.

"We called over there to make a request," said Jose Ruiz, the mayor's Hispanic liaison. "But there was no one there who speaks the language!" He says the call was transferred until apparently out of frustration, someone at the station hung up the phone. "Amigo, it's insane! This is an insult. Come on!"

Ruiz, much more amused than angry, was also tickled to hear a morning announcer joyfully announce in Spanish, "Thank God, it's Friday!" then proceeded to give Saturday's weather. "Me, I thought it was Thursday," Ruiz said.

There were bound to be glitches given the seemingly overnight format switch. Change can be confusing and cruel - just ask WHFS rock fans, still reeling, wondering about the fate of their beloved HFStivals, Adam and Dr. Drew's Loveline, and the Sports Junkies (headed, perhaps, to mid-days on WJFK AM), sharing their pain with their parents, and signing an online petition in e-droves.

As of yesterday afternoon, more than 11,500 signatures were on the "Bring Back HFS" Internet petition, which also posted comments. "No reason to remove this station. This was our lives," wrote one fan. "My brother's in a coma and he always listened to HFS and it was the only thing he loved," said another. "This won't stand" and "This is not cool." There were other more pointed comments, but the message was clear: HFS was their station, so bring it back. But, despite its confusion over what day it is, 99.1 is now the El Zol show.

Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WHFS, offered these explanations. The reformatted WHFS does not yet have an on-air staff. For the first 24 hours, the station was simulcasting with other stations in the Spanish Broadcasting System, a Miami-based Hispanic broadcasting company that served as a consultant to Infinity. What listeners heard was a "Best Of" show from one of the network's stations where, perhaps, it was Friday.

As of yesterday afternoon, the station had stopped simulcasting. "Right now, we're just playing music," said Infinity spokeswoman Karen Mateo. The station plans to hire hosts in the coming weeks.

As for requests for songs by Victor Manuelle, Luis Guerra or Marc Anthony or anyone else, listeners should hold off for now.

"The station is not taking listeners' requests at this time," Mateo said. "As we hire an on-air staff, that will be something that we will do."

While rockers lament the passing of a rock station (HFS stood for "High Fidelity Stereo"), others welcomed the change. It is the largest Spanish-language station serving the area's Latino population, an increasing number of whom are new immigrants. About 55,000 Hispanics call the Baltimore metropolitan area home, according to the latest census figures. Statewide, the Hispanic population grew about 15 percent between 2000 and 2003 to more than 262,000.

"I used to listen to HFS. I like rock, but I'm very happy to have the station," said Ives Martinez, president of the Association of Latino Marylanders of Anne Arundel County. "Hispanics need another media outlet to reach our community."

It's also good for business, said Enrique Rivadeneira, who owns Latin Palace, a restaurant and dance club on Broadway, in Baltimore's Latino community. Rivadeneira is also the president of Baltimore's Hispanic Business Association.

"We now have an opportunity to do promotion and advertisement," he said. "We have struggled through without it. But for many of the small businesses, there are hundreds of them now, they can now use the radio as a medium to help advertise and promote products."

Others, however, want more than just music from a Spanish-language station. Carmen Nieves, executive director of the nonprofit Centro de La Communidad in Baltimore, says a thought-provoking talk radio show is needed. "That's way more important, educating them about laws and things that may have an impact on their lives," Nieves said. "I'm happy there's a radio station that will play music all day, but that's not what we need.

"If I want to listen to salsa, I'll put a CD on my stereo."

Staff writers Mary Carole McCauley and Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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