Miscellaneous Rumbles

WHFS was DC’s most important radio station

1

WHFS was the soundtrack of my youth. This station made it tolerable to grow up around DC. Can’t wait for them to finish this documentary.

2

I arrived after that whole HFS cene had gone by.... WNEW FM in NYC totally ruled the 70s and 80s up there. There's a book I would like to read... 'The Rise and Fall of FM Rock Radio"

3

Bob- Thanks for posting this! I would listen to WHFS while in the area on business, starting in the early 90's. Unfortunately I missed the earlier years. I could see why you would have listened, growing up. Those days of radio were just incredible.

I see some of the clips are from 2015. Do you know if they ever finished the documentary?

4

WNEW FM in NYC totally ruled the 70s and 80s

I preferred WLIR in the 70’s.

5

WNEW FM in NYC totally ruled the 70s and 80s

I preferred WLIR in the 70’s.

– Charlie Vegas

I remember WLIR... they just didn't have the same big signal or profile, somhow, and I was just over in NJ

6

Bob- Thanks for posting this! I would listen to WHFS while in the area on business, starting in the early 90's. Unfortunately I missed the earlier years. I could see why you would have listened, growing up. Those days of radio were just incredible.

I see some of the clips are from 2015. Do you know if they ever finished the documentary?

– Metman

I know some of the people involved. They are close to finishing it. WHFS was a big part of our musical life. In my high school years you could drop by with a box of donuts and hang with the DJs for late night chats about music and stuff.

7

I arrived after that whole HFS cene had gone by.... WNEW FM in NYC totally ruled the 70s and 80s up there. There's a book I would like to read... 'The Rise and Fall of FM Rock Radio"

– DCBirdMan

https://www.amazon.com/FM-R...

8

I learned so much about music from listening to that station. They could take you from Husker Du to the Grateful Dead to Charlie Parker in the span of a couple hours and have it make sense somehow.

9

Wellllll.... since we all can't have lived in DC during "underground" radio's heyday, I'll expand the discussion to radio stations that were important where I grew up, in central Ohio. I'm sure we'll all have our own personal histories.

Getting the facts right here sent me on a bit of a mining expedition, and I find I've had two Columbus stations (WCOL and WNCI) conflated in my memories. It would likely take both of them to equal the profile (if not the style) of WHFS.

For context, it should be remembered that AM/Top Forty radio only became the punch line of hip jokes and insults to "commercial" music after rock evolved in the late 60s - not with the British invasion or even the rise of American garage bands, but with the coming of psychedelia, hippies, and "acid" rock. Then previously taboo (or coded) subject matter, experimentation with song form, and especially song length posed challenges to the format. Exactly when "the new rock" (as Life magazine called it in 1968) hit local radio stations probably depends on where you lived, but sometime between 1967 and 1970.

Prior to that, if you listened for the happenin' sounds of the day, you listened to Top 40. It's what there was. It was the melting pot of the best of rock & roll, doo-wop, girl groups, surf, soul, crossover folk, and what was left of the pre-rock mainstream pop of the American songbook. It had come of age in the mid-late 50s, catering with rock & roll and its derivatives to teens and the twenty somethings who had aged out of their teen years, and it not only survived the Brit invasion, the rise of Motown, and garage rock - it thrived. In retrospect, it only started showing its age when longer songs started stretching its 3-minute seams, and youth culture became counter-culture. The political and social upheavals that burst into general consciousness in 1967 could no longer be ignored by 1968 or '69. Times was a-changin'.

Or maybe it just seems to me (in retrospect) that AM pop radio was a vibrant and vital force because that music was so important to me; it's what I'd sneak the transistor under the covers at night, and fake a temperature to stay home from school, to listen to. But it could also be because 1230 AM, WCOL - my radio beacon through the 60s - was, I now learn, a standout station with a national reputation.

Here's what a regional radio history says about the station:

1230 WCOL-AM was simply a legendary phenomenon, both locally and nationally. Locally, WCOL was the undisputed king of Columbus rock radio in the 60’s and 70’s. Nationally, WCOL was known as the ‘breakout station’ that other stations followed closely to find out what was ‘hot’. Time and time again, WCOL would be the first to play a record and, if listener response was strong, other stations around the country would then add it to their rotation.

As was characteristic of the time, rock-oriented WCOL also played a wide variety of non-rock music, so it was common to find on the WCOL charts music of almost any genre - everything from The Beatles to Frank Sinatra to The Singing Nun to The Baja Marimba Band to Sgt. Barry Sadler.

Most importantly, WCOL supported and routinely played recordings by local artists, which could be found listed on just about any weekly WCOL survey. As you peruse the charts, look closely and you will find local artists such as The Dantes, Pat Zill, Fifth Order, Rebounds, Chandlers, Bill Moss, Chuck Howard, Billy Maxted, Billy Graham & The Escalators, Gene Cotton, J.D. Blackfoot, Owen B., Phil Gary, Ronnie Taylor, The Capital City Rockets, Jeff Fenholt and many others. Not only did local artists appear on the surveys, but a number of them made it to the number one position.

All that is spot-on to my recollections. I listened while delivering papers in the early morning. It boomed from the PA speakers at the swimming pool. It was the soundtrack of those years. I knew the DJ's names, and I could sing along with the jingles. "Jack Maxton, what a great-great gu-uy." (He sold Chevies.)

So my radio listening up to 1968 or so didn't feel at all limiting. Of course you can't miss what you don't know even exists - but the weekly WCOL Hitline Surveys from those years (all miraculously scanned and available here) show that the music of those years was fairly represented. (Blues, of course, is seriously missing.)

But through 1967 and 1968, as I bought albums from artists I first heard on WCOL, I became aware - in a dim, junior-high-kid way - of music that wouldn't fit the established format. "Light My Fire" was edited down to 3 minutes; I bought the album, and liked the long version better. And "The End," with its brooding trance, screaming climax, obviously dark context, and 12-minute length...I knew I wouldn't hear that on the radio. The Beatles got play for anything they did, of course, and didn't break the 3-minute rule till 1969 - but "I Am the Walrus" was one weird bit of stuff, suggesting a whole nother reality shifting behind and beneath the everyday. Likewise Hendrix: sure there was "Fire," but there was also "Third Stone from the Sun." Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" made the radio...but not their long jams. We got "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love"...but not "ReJoyce." Sure, AM radio gave us "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free." But where we going to hear the whole album?

Somehow even rural adolescents in central Ohio heard of something called underground music. It was longer, improvisatory, more experimental, druggy, weird, mind-expanding, even more unacceptable to parents (and many peers) than the "commercial" fare which had paved the way for it - had evolved into it. I found ways to learn about it - occasional "underground" papers from area college towns, magazine articles, Columbia Record Club, the record section at area stores where I'd buy albums by artists I'd never heard of - if the covers were weird enough and/or the musicians had long enough hair and different enough clothes. (A surprisingly good tactic at the time.)

For about two years, I had a musical double life: still listening to WCOL-AM, but also finding this other music that we never heard on the radio. One song in particular provides a touchstone: "In-A-Gadda-da-Vida." I don't remember hearing it on any radio (though there was an edited single) before I heard the album. I must have heard the album at a party in someone's murky basement, where there were blacklights and smoke (of a mixed variety my untrained senses had yet to untangle) and lucky couples clutching and groping. (Alas.)

Well, that was it. 18 minutes! The arrangement of the song, the effects, the groove all combined (for me) to create a darkly colorful journey of a sort radio had never taken me on. I knew I'd never hear that song on the radio.

Until I did. Sometime in 1969 or 1970 there came through the ether The Incredible Progressive Rock Circus, which started as a free-form 2-hour nighttime show on the upstart WNCI-FM, also from Columbus. DJ E. Karl played bands I'd never heard - or never heard of. He played the long songs, the album cuts, the hippie music from San Francisco, the heavy and blues rock coming from England, the stirrings of what would be the progressive rock genre. For years I've carried the inaccurate memory that it was WCOL - not WNCI - which presented the IPRC. But wherever it came from, it was finally a live radio conduit to the new music we'd had to seek out on our own. It was like a secret club that only the hip kids (ok, the nerds) joined. It was a fertile oasis in what I gradually started to consider the commercial desert of WCOL AM's Top 40.

And I can look now at the WCOL Hitline Surveys of 1970 and '71 and indeed find less music that has proven over the years to matter to me. That 2-hour Incredible Progressive Rock Circus radio show (which gradually expanded over those years to provide "album music" from after school to bedtime) was pivotal for me. Seminal. It was proof that I wasn't alone in my tastes, that I existed. I was worth programming music for. There were others. We were a community...a movement. This must have been what FM rock radio was for its listeners across the country; Britain had pirate radio, we had FM. And you know it was a Real Thing because Steely Dan wrote a song about it.

It's not too much to say that the IPRC - and all the music it helped collate for me, the worlds it opened up - helped get me through three years of high school. But the greatest wonder was yet to come - and here's where WCOL comes back into the picture.

In the sunny and green late May of 1972, seniors got out of school a few days early, and on the last day, around noon. After 13 years, we were suddenly (if only momentarily) free. The sky was more vivid, the air sweeter. My buddy Kenny had put a new car stereo in the red '64 Mercury convertible he drove; it was loud, it had woofers, it sounded BIG. We were riding in that car when we first heard Yes's "Roundabout" - the whole 8-minute technicolor fantasia. It was the middle of the afternoon when there wasn't supposed to be music like this on the radio (as if there had ever been music like this). W. T. H. was happening? Mountains had come out the sky, and stood there. Had the Age of Aquarius suddenly dawned?

For a few years after, it seemed so: WCOL-FM, previously a religious station, had gone to a 24-hour FM album-rock format. Suddenly my imagined furtive little clan of underground musical (and cultural) revolutionaries had busted out of our subterranean dens, blinking in the bright light, and were everywhere. If Yes, fergawdsake, was on broadcast radio...I mean, what miracles were waiting?

I was off to college a few months later, and my listening was thereafter mediated mostly not by any radio, but by the album collections of similarly avid music lovers from all over the country, all with their own playlists and interests. My horizons broadened exponentially. During summers at home, I'd have my own albums to listen to - but when out and about, I was aware of WCOL-FM's domination of the airwaves. Seemingly all the kids who'd listened to the AM version in the 60s had now moved over en masse to the FM album rock side. In retrospect, the years from 1973 or so through the mid-80s were glory years for FM radio. It was the era of what we now call "classic rock," and while that classification can be a bit of a yawner - yeah yeah, been there done that - still. It was something.

Alas, that something became a caricature of itself, with playlists as tight as AM had ever been - and with less musical variety as rock was increasingly formulized, commercialized, and homogenized. At the same time it was increasingly infected with the strained vibe of a constantly hyped party. Laid-back was the new ambitious. Hippies became stoners. It got...dumber. In intoxicant terms, it morphed from weed and hallucinogens to pot and beer. FM became its own bloated, restrictive juggernaut. The songs were may have been louder and longer, but the new boss was the same as the old boss.

But man. There for a couple of years, underground radio had been salvation. And for 8 minutes in 1972, it seemed like ascension.

10

There for a couple of years, underground radio had been salvation.

...and it saved me from the heartbreak of top 40 disco.

11

I lived in the DC area from 66-69 and wish I could remember the call letter of the underground station I listened to. They played heavy stuff like CCR's long version of Suzie Q!

12

Marc, does "WGTB, one nation underground" ring a bell? Georgetown University student run alternative radio. Always having run-in’s with the administration.

13

Afraid not, Bob.

14

As Proteus said, we all had "that" station that molded our listening ear. Pre 1960, rock stations just didn't exist. If you heard rock on the radio, it was likely on a country station. But 1960 was when things really started to change.

Our local country station started playing more and more rock and roll, then dropped the C&W format all together. If you were lucky enough to live in the Midwest, you listened to WLS out of Chicago, and if you were really lucky, CKLW out of Windsor, Ont/Detroit. Even small town radio stations started playing rock along the crooners and Big Band and easy listening. Clear channel AM stations like WLS ruled the airwaves, tho. The 50KW transmitters ensured that a huge chunk of the country could receive them. The local 5KW stations had their following, but just weren't in the same league. I was lucky enough to get to the WLS studios on my 8th grade class trip in '63. (Saw a tape cartridge--8 track---there for the first time. Cassettes two years later.)12 years later, I was DJing at a small Michigan radio station when FM started taking over the airwaves.

Each of us has had "that moment" when the song on the radio just hit our senses perfectly. Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" screaming out of an AM radio in my car while cruising down a twisty two lane road is forever etched in my mind. It doesn't really matter what station it was, just that we all had "that song" on "that station" sometime in our formative years----and we'll never forget it.

15

"The Flagship of Rock N Roll". I was dependent on the station for many musical introductions. I distinctly remember Lowell George and Linda Ronstadt doing an acoustic "Willin" in the studio - and I also recall hearing how fragile and unpredictable life can be; “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Cerphe (DJ) used to say (quoting Shakespeare) back in the day.

16

I lived in the DC area from 66-69 and wish I could remember the call letter of the underground station I listened to. They played heavy stuff like CCR's long version of Suzie Q!

– Mark G

Maybe WHMC out of Gaithersburg?

17

I wish I could remember, Bob but its just too vague a memory. Maybe I never knew the call letters, but I do remember feeling like I was living life on the edge by listening. My dad was an Army Officer stationed in DC so the idea of his kid listening to some hippie music was viewed as suspect behavior. He warmed up to the idea later, though.

18

As Proteus said, we all had "that" station that molded our listening ear. Pre 1960, rock stations just didn't exist. If you heard rock on the radio, it was likely on a country station. But 1960 was when things really started to change.

Our local country station started playing more and more rock and roll, then dropped the C&W format all together. If you were lucky enough to live in the Midwest, you listened to WLS out of Chicago, and if you were really lucky, CKLW out of Windsor, Ont/Detroit. Even small town radio stations started playing rock along the crooners and Big Band and easy listening. Clear channel AM stations like WLS ruled the airwaves, tho. The 50KW transmitters ensured that a huge chunk of the country could receive them. The local 5KW stations had their following, but just weren't in the same league. I was lucky enough to get to the WLS studios on my 8th grade class trip in '63. (Saw a tape cartridge--8 track---there for the first time. Cassettes two years later.)12 years later, I was DJing at a small Michigan radio station when FM started taking over the airwaves.

Each of us has had "that moment" when the song on the radio just hit our senses perfectly. Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" screaming out of an AM radio in my car while cruising down a twisty two lane road is forever etched in my mind. It doesn't really matter what station it was, just that we all had "that song" on "that station" sometime in our formative years----and we'll never forget it.

– wabash slim

Growing up in Windsor, CKLW was on in my house during the day.....Tiger baseball was on in the evening on my dad's transistor on the front veranda. When we moved to Oakville in the early '60's, it was CHUM from Toronto during the day - signal changed, weaker for the evenings - and CKOW in Hamilton for our RR fix. We got our music business fix from them as well.

19

Recently, Our home university, The University of Evansville, sold their radio station to a christian radio entity. The alumni that went to school there for broadcast journalism was up in arms. I used to listen to the best Jazz and college music in the 80's. they played "X", "Echo and the Bunnymen" and all sorts of "not radio play" music. I used to gripe about how you could only pick up the signal if you were within a 3 mile radius but my best friend was an Electrical Engineer student and he tweaked the signal and I could reach them 30 miles away. Glorious!

It's very sad to see this end.

20

In the early '60s we lived in Heidelberg Germany. We didn't have TV but our radio options were Armed Forces Network, local German Stations, Radio Luxembourg and sometimes the pirate ships in the Channel.
AFN was a curious mix of popular recordings such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and reruns of old radio shows such as Gunsmoke and Outer Limits. We'd get the Ed Sullivan show and some other TV audio broadcasts. Radio Luxemboug was great with the latest UK bands but the reception was hit or miss. We'd listen on a large SABA table top radio (which also functioned as my first guitar amp).

21

Tim, you brought back that time so vividly. And even though I came up a just bit later, so many of my sentiments echo yours. My babysitter’s high school age son would play COL FM and I’d first hear names like Gentle Giant and Pentangle. A magic wondrous time.

22

It’s worth a mention amid all the baby boomer self congratulations about the heady (pun somewhat intended) days of early FM that by the early 1980s most of those stations were congealing into the classic rock format and REDUCING their playlists to a canon of favorites intended to better sell light beer and tickets to monster truck rallies. Tim hits the nail on the head in his comments above. The real magic of WHFS was that it managed to continue to evolve the spirit of free form FM by playing new rock music from the margins of what was popular well into the 1990s.

23

...and the DJs atWHFS were always welcoming us high school kids and let us go though their massive record library.

24

Hope that nasty wet spot in the ceiling tile didn't indicate a big leak that ruined some records!

25

It’s worth a mention amid all the baby boomer self congratulations about the heady (pun somewhat intended) days of early FM that by the early 1980s most of those stations were congealing into the classic rock format and REDUCING their playlists to a canon of favorites intended to better sell light beer and tickets to monster truck rallies. Tim hits the nail on the head in his comments above. The real magic of WHFS was that it managed to continue to evolve the spirit of free form FM by playing new rock music from the margins of what was popular well into the 1990s.

– Junior Q Man (Ryan M)

Ah, the joys of corporate radio! When one entity owns dozens (or more) TV and radio stations, that's what you get. I was lucky in some aspects that I worked at a small town station in SW Michigan (Niles, MI---WAOR AM/FM) that was privately owned. The call letters AOR stood for Album Oriented Rock. On AM, we covered the town's news, even having high school sports aired for awhile. Sunday AM had religious broadcasting, in the afternoon it had MOR stuff, Saturday night was Soul (beloved DJ XL Foxx had a huge following) and the rest was rock. AM side shut down at sunset, so FM went live, during the day, FM was automated. Mostly AM was small town stuff, FM was rock. Not being part of a huge corporation, we had a lot of freedom to play whatever we wanted, and weren't tied to a set list. It felt a lot like WKRP.


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