Last goodbye

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DUDES, A MOMENT of silence, please, or perhaps better yet a full-blown garage band romp and rattle in memory of WHFS, the FM radio station that passed away this week. WHFS suffered a fate common enough in radio: It changed formats. Suddenly. Goodbye alternative rock. As of Wednesday at noon, 99.1 FM is occupied by El Zol, a Spanish-language blend of Caribbean and Central American dance music.

Fans of The Hives and White Stripes will have to go elsewhere. Owner Infinity Broadcasting sees a bigger future in the growing Latino culture. And that probably makes a lot of business sense. Ratings for HFS (as fans always called it) were modest. Maryland's Latino population is growing, and El Zol is now the most powerful Spanish-language station serving the area.

But it will be difficult for listeners of the old HFS to let go. Pop music and talk formats are common, alternative rock much less so. HFS was the kind of station that played the bands you never heard of, but should have. From its launch in the early 1960s, it was always more adventuresome, more free-form, more cutting-edge than most other rock stations. Yes, it changed locations on the dial and its studio moved around (most recently to Lanham in Prince George's County), but it was always a powerful presence in the Washington and Baltimore markets.

For more than a decade, the annual HFStival concerts were a regional tradition. They lasted all day and were a chance for tens of thousands of high school and college students (and some, er, more mature rock fans) to party to the beats of metal and punk. Even as HFS ratings ebbed, the concerts never lost their appeal.

It's quite likely that Baltimore will never again hear a station quite like HFS. Certainly, there won't be an alt-rock station with its cultural impact. Radio has changed. When the station was launched, it was among the first stereo signals in the nation. Rock was in its infancy. But today, it's a victim of the fierce competition for ratings. The Spanish-language audience is simply the latest battleground.

If there's some consolation for HFS fans, it's this: FM radio isn't what it was. Forty years ago, it was the only way to hear the latest new sound. Today, there are plenty of alternatives -- satellite radio, Internet radio and downloads for your iPod. So it's not really a death we mourn, just the end of an era in the music business.

Rock on, HFS fans. And bienvenido, El Zol.

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