Progressive radio boom offers Baltimore listeners a genuine alternative All Over the Dial

January 13, 1995|By Brian Fitzmaurice | Brian Fitzmaurice,Special to The Sun

Alternative radio, a staple of Baltimore's musical life for more than 25 years, is experiencing a resurgence with the growing popularity of two small stations fighting for the hearts of progressive rock fans.

WHFS, the granddaddy of area alternative rock stations, now shares the airwaves with the progressive free-form station WRNR in Annapolis and an Adult Album Alternative station from Philadelphia that sends its signal to the area via WKHS on the Eastern Shore.

But even as those stations are generating excitement among listeners, WHFS is enjoying some of its strongest ratings ever. New ratings out yesterday put the station in eighth place among all local stations -- just a notch above WIYY (98 Rock). A year ago, WHFS ranked 11th and WIYY 5th.

The resurgence of alternative radio is part of a national trend, as stations capitalize on the huge appeal of such groups as Pearl Jam and the Gin Blossoms. Billboard magazine says modern rock is the nation's second-fastest growing format behind '70s oldies.

This area, of course, has a history of passion for stations with a broad-minded musical format -- among them such old favorites as WRTI in Frederick, WCVT in Towson, WLMD AM in Laurel, WKTK in Catonsville, WGTB in Washington.

But none has been more popular -- or more resilient -- than WHFS, the station Jake Einstein founded in Bethesda in 1967. For 15 years, progressive rock and home-grown talent flourished at WHFS on Cordell Avenue, next to the legendary nightclub the Psychedelly.

Mr. Einstein moved the station to Annapolis in 1982 and sold it six years later. The new owners moved to Landover and changed from the eclectic, progressive format that had been WHFS' hallmark to a more mainstream version of modern rock.

That has led to a debate over whether WHFS has left the alternative edge. "People ask if alternative has gone mainstream," acknowledges music director Robert Benjamin. "I

suppose it has. The quality of the music, though, hasn't changed at all. It's just that more people like it."

While it may be more mainstream, Mr. Benjamin says the station remains dedicated to discovering new artists and introducing them to its listeners.

"When we believe in an artist, a song, we get very enthusiastic about it and we will play things a lot," he says. "We've found that's the best way to do it. We're always changing. The music is always changing."

Still, listeners hungry for more progressive and varied programming are finding it on WKHS or WRNR. Their popularity, however, is hard to measure since both are small stations without nearly the range of 50,000 watt WHFS.

Nevertheless, both have developed a following among music fans as they offer a mix many feel has been missing from local alternative radio -- everything from Frank Zappa and Harry Connick Jr. to the Ramones and the Subdudes.

"I like the new material on WHFS, but find more frequently on WRNR music you just don't hear anywhere also on the radio," says Baltimore radio fan Mark Hopkins.

Who could argue when WRNR is giving airplay to such music as Austin Lounge Lizards' bluegrass version of Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage," or the Annapolis group Duende's flamenco guitar interpretation of Santana's "Black Magic Woman?"

Doing it again

It's no surprise the WRNR would succeed as an alternative radio station, since it was founded by the same man who brought the area WHFS.

After a six year absence from FM radio, Mr. Einstein jumped back into it in January 1994, when he bought a tiny station with a studio in Annapolis and a 6,000-watt tower in Grasonville, a small town just across the Kent Narrows bridge on the Eastern Shore.

The station, then known was WXZL, played a heavy metal format. Mr. Einstein switched the format to one that re-created the progressive sound and feel of the old WHFS days, and last fall he changed the call letters to WRNR, for rock 'n' roll.

He's also brought in some Bethesda alumni -- deejays John Hall, Bob "Here" Showacre, and most importantly, his son Damian Einstein, who ended his long stint at WHFS last fall to join his father in this new venture.

Known simply by his first name, Damian is among the area's most well-loved rock deejays. In the early days at WHFS, he played the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Bruce Springsteen before the rest of the country had even heard of them.

Longtime listeners are thrilled to hear Damian back in his natural element, a station where he can focus on blues, local music and on-air interviews. Dean Rosenthal, a slide guitar player and band leader in Annapolis, says it is nothing short of an honor.

"Without him there is so much we never would have heard over the years," he says.

WKHS, the other relative newcomer on the local alternative radio scene, also has deep roots. The roots, however, are in Philadelphia, where WKHS receives a signal from a station that has broadcast out of University of Pennsylvania for some 50 years.

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