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Former WHFS Deejay Cerphe Colwell Remembers the Alternative-Rock Station

Colwell reflects on his time as every Washington teen’s cool big brother.
Cerphe Colwell on fellow WHFS deejay Josh Brooks’s porch in Frederick. Photograph by Deborah Jaffe.

In its heydey in the 1970s and ’80s, radio station WHFS functioned as a barometer for cool: Devotees were too hip for Top 40, too edgy for DC101. HFS promoted local bands while helping launch national acts like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Blondie. For the past year, North Potomac filmmaker Jay Schlossberg has been assembling Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM, interviewing former deejays Cerphe Colwell, Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, and Josh Brooks, plus musicians who fed—and fed off—the HFS phenomenon: Marshall Crenshaw, members of Little Feat, Bill Payne, and David Bromberg. Here Colwell talks about his time as every Washington teen’s cool big brother.

What was so special about WHFS?

HFS made eye contact with the audience. The deejays were creative. My set list might start with John Coltrane, the Moody Blues, the Beatles, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, then bluegrass that segued into Frank Zappa. You had to kind of come along for the ride. Now [at radio stations] the sets are on a hard drive. You go off the list, you get fired. You have a car payment and mortgage, so you play “Free Bird” and go home.

How did you make connections with so many prominent musicians?

In 1976, George Harrison was promoting his album Thirty Three & ⅓at a press junket. I was wearing a tantric-yoga button on my lapel. He looked at it, then headed toward me. The crowd parted. He came up and said, “I’m going to get a cup of tea—would you like one?”

Who did WHFS bring to the Washington market?

Local acts like the Night-hawks but also Springsteen, Zappa, Nils Lofgren. Springsteen was playing the old Childe Harold in Dupont Circle in front of 60 people when we put his first record, Greetings From Asbury Park N.J., into heavy rotation. He was on my show many times.

What do you think is interesting about a WHFS documentary after all these years?

I was on WAVA, DC101, WJFK, Classic Rock 94.7, but the thing everybody wants to talk about is HFS. We were able to get up close and personal with acts, the club scene was powerful, there were beautiful girls, fights in bathrooms, surly managers—that whole thing. It was rock ’n’ roll.

This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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