WHFS Documentary Drawing Big Support
'Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM' hopes to tell story of Bethesda-based station that introduced freeform radio to Washington
The original "Gates" board at WHFS 102.3 FM in Bethesda
Via Jay Schlossberg
For many who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area during the late ’60s and ’70s, WHFS 102.3 FM provided the soundtrack for a generation of protest and cultural change.
The station, which until 1983 occupied a cramped office and studio in Bethesda’s Triangle Towers apartment building, was the first freeform radio station in the area and essential for fans of progressive rock. It built a large following, produced local radio legends such as Don “Cerphe” Colwell and Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert and introduced listeners to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Emmylou Harris.
If a group of WHFS veterans and longtime fans can raise enough money, the station that beamed its music “from high atop the Triangle Towers” will be the subject of a roughly 90-minute documentary that’s in the works from director Jay Schlossberg and a team of producers.
Since launching a Kickstarter campaign last week to raise $60,000 for the project, more than 100 contributors have donated almost $15,000 and a recent fundraising concert at Bethesda’s Villain & Saint brought in another $6,300.
The film’s official Facebook page has more than 16,000 likes.
“I knew that some people would be really happy,” said Schlossberg, a North Potomac resident who got a small taste of WHFS while working there as a summer intern in 1972. “But this outpouring, I did not expect.”
One of Gilbert’s first breaks in the radio business came while working as a board operator at the station in 1971. The station, which started broadcasting in 1961, hadn’t yet fully converted into the WHFS that many came to know and love. To help pay the bills, it ran paid foreign language shows on Sundays.
Gilbert’s job was to make sure the pre-recorded Italian language show ran smoothly. One day, the host scheduled to put on a big band show in the next programming block didn’t show up.
“I’m 22. I’ve got hair down literally to my ass. I’m listening to the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service and now I’ve got to do a big band show,” Gilbert said. “So I grab these records and I start doing this show. Finally, I pop the mic and I go, ‘That was Glen Miller from 1939 with the patented sounds of the clarinet one octave above the trombone.’ I think my grandmother told me that one time. I still can’t believe I actually did that.”
Gilbert, who has lived in Triangle Towers since 1978, is working as a consulting producer on the documentary. He was one of a number of disc jockeys—Josh Brooks, Sara Vass, Mark Gorbulew, Damian and David Einstein were some others—who with the blessing of part-owner Jacob Einstein (Damian and David’s father) transformed the station by playing long cuts and virtually none of the music from the Top 40 music charts that until that time dominated the airwaves.
“HFS came along at the right time,” Gilbert said. “We went from the good old days of Top 40 radio and the two- or three-minute song to album tracks and to bands that started doing whole-concept albums and started putting politics into the music. All of a sudden, the music on the albums had meaning.
“We were the voice of youth culture and not only the voice of youth culture, but the voice of youth culture in the nation’s capital,” Gilbert said.
Schlossberg is hoping to capture WHFS’ influence in counter culture in his documentary and market the film to potential distributors including Showtime, HBO and Netflix.
“It can be a very intricate story,” Schlossberg said.
The documentary includes an interview with County Council member Marc Elrich of Takoma Park. Schlossberg said the crew hopes to interview David Simon, the author, journalist and producer of The Wire, who grew up in Bethesda and Lewis Black, the comedian who grew up in Silver Spring.
Shooting is about two-thirds finished. The funding is needed to complete the project and for music and video rights for a first attempt at a final cut that Schlossberg said will likely be complete by next summer.
Gilbert said a roughly three-minute segment featuring the station in a recent WETA documentary on Washington in the ‘70s first gave him the idea for a full-length feature documentary on WHFS. A panel of former WHFS DJs who got together for a record store event two years ago in Silver Spring sparked the interest of Schlossberg, who in his regular job provides camera crews for productions all over the world.
“Someone had posted [online] a couple photographs of the panel. I just exclaimed, ‘Oh my god. They’re all not dead yet. Somebody needs to do something about this,’” Schlossberg said.
“People tend to look back at their youth and think great things,” Schlossberg said. “I guess this entity has been gone so long now that people hadn’t really been thinking about it. It was over and done with, like someone died in the family and you move on. All of a sudden, it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
From left to right: WHFS deejays Don "Cerphe" Colwell, Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, David Einstein, Josh Brooks, Damian Einstein and Thom Grooms pictured at Glen Echo Park, via Jonathan Gilbert.