David Zurawik

As HFS returns to Baltimore airwaves, other stations rip new CBS version

A legendary set of call letters returned to the Baltimore airwaves Monday when CBS radio launched alternative rock station HFS at 97.5 on the FM dial.

But competitors, like Dave Hill, the head of programming at 98 Rock (97.9 FM), dismissed the new HFS as a sorry imitation of the landmark rock station that in the 1970s and early '80s built a passionate following with its progressive, free-form programming. The HFS identity expanded in the 1990s with the annual HFStivals music fests.

CBS is describing the latest incarnation of HFS as "the alternative rock music Baltimore grew up with and personalities who made it popular."

Station personalities include Tim Virgin, Gina Crash, Jenn Marin, Chris Emery and Neci playing music from Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Incubus and Green Day.

"This is built for the 40-year-old male that remembers HFS in the '90s," said Dave Labrozzi, vice president of programming for CBS Radio Baltimore.

"The station is going to built around the music that made HFS what it was," Labrozzi added. "To HFS's credit, they broke a lot of these bands, and they were really the forerunner in this format in the mid-'90s. And so, we're going to play all that stuff, and bring it all back, because nobody in Baltimore's been playing it."

Describing the new HFS as a "strategically placed radio station that's going to be a competitor to 98 Rock," Labrozzi described the target audience as "anybody above 35 that loves alternative music."

But Hill responded by saying, "I think the real story here is that CBS continues to abuse the legendary call letters of HFS."

Predicting failure for the station, Hill added, "So, now they're going to put it on this transmitter that nobody can hear, and when it miserably doesn't work in two years, they'll forfeit it begrudgingly … and once again, these legendary call letters will have been abused."

In January of 2005, some HFS fans were startled and angered when the station abruptly switched format to Latin music and was rebranded "El Zol" overnight.

Steve Yasko, general manager of WTMD, the adult alternative station at Towson University, also questioned the strength of the HFS signal and whether the station CBS introduced Monday was in any way worthy of the rich legacy the call letters carry.

He said that one of the personalities most associated with the HFS glory years, Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, appears on his station not the new HFS.

After listening to HFS Monday, Yasko said, "I didn't find it to be anything that resembled the real root of WHFS with Weasel and Damian [Einstein].… The real root of WHFS is musical discovery, it's ferreting and finding out those artists that are new and interesting and have something to say. And what I heard is commercial radio."

Labrozzi said the station's transmitter is approximately 1,000 feet high and 250 watts strong with a signal that "covers" the Baltimore metro area.