If you’re like me and live in the Washington, DC area, you know that flipping through the radio stations is an exercise in frustration. You basically have the choice among no less than three classic rock stations with identical lineups of tired 70s dadrock, some top 40 channels, a few hip-hop/rnb networks, a couple of bro-rock stations featuring imbecilic Morning Zoo programs, classical and NPR at the bottom of the dial, and the rest is filled out by latin stations or those “mix” channels that are non-stop Cyndi Lauper and Maroon 5 (basically, music for dentist’s waiting rooms).
Before I continue: yes, I do sometimes listen to the radio, unlike most people under the age of thirty. There’s something reassuring and familiar about the FM dial, despite how its rarely a fulfilling experience. And forgetting higher tech stuff like satellite or HD radio, FM is actually a hi-fi format. If you can get a strong signal, you can get high quality stereo audio for free, provided that the commercials and DJs don’t make you tear your hair out. Something cheap and simple like this one from NAD Electronics can get you started off.
The sorry radio offerings around DC are probably the same around most U.S cities, but there was once a great local channel that met a sad demise: WHFS 99.1 . It had been around since the 60s and was eclectic from the get-go: mostly playing prog, art rock and jam bands. In the eighties it took a turn towards indie and “college rock” genres and was the first radio station to play tons of influential groups.
I have many fond memories of listening to this station as a child in the early 90s : rainy Saturdays riding in the back of my dad’s old Pontiac Sunbird to the strains of Soundgarden or The Psychedelic Furs. It was the first place I remember hearing dozens of bands: The Pixies, The Chameleons, Kitchens of Distinction, R.E.M., Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Depeche Mode, Jesus Jones, Stereo Mcs, Big Audio Dynamite, Catherine Wheel, Violent Femmes, Butthole Surfers, The Cure, I could go on and on. Not to say that all of it was good, but it was all memorable. Every so often I’ll come across a song that sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll surmise that I must have heard it before on HFS.
By the end of the nineties, the station was starting to go downhill: you were more likely to hear Papa Roach and Eminem rather than Concrete Blonde and The Smiths. This reflected changing demographics and tastes which is entirely understandable, but it just sucked to hear the station losing its focus (but at the time, my middle school-self actually preferred nu-metal and hip hop so it only sucked in retrospect). Finally, WHFS met it’s demise on January 12, 2005 when it suddenly switched to playing some kind of Mexican polka music. I recall riding home from school in my friend’s car, turning it to HFS and laughing, thinking it was all a lame “wacky” joke. Alas, the switch was permanent, and DC lost its only listenable radio station. Others tried to fill the void, e.g 94.7 “The Globe” which was very HFS-esque for a while then switched to bog standard mix format.
We could blame ClearChannel like a lot of people do, but radio’s demise owes a lot to evolving technology and demographics. The only major bit of hope I see is the fact that the latest iPod Nano has an FM tuner feature…but why would anyone under the age of 40 bother with that when there’s podcasts and free MP3 downloads compatible with the same device?
For further listening, I found a blog that features old tape recordings of 1980’s WHFS and other alt/indie stations.