There was something familiar about the protesters who marched along 7th Street NW on Saturday, encouraging drivers to “Honk 4 HFS,” three days after the venerable alt-rock station WHFS-FM was switched to a Latin-pop format. In spirit, they were much like the kids who protested the Jan. 1979 closure of WGTB-FM, Georgetown University’s free-form station, or the 1983 sale of the original WHFS.

The 100 or so marchers, many of them Maryland teenagers, showed the same loyalty to their favorite station and the same passionate attachment to the music that helps define them. What had changed dramatically since WHFS’s early days as a rock station was not the listeners, but the radio business. It’s now dominated by a handful of national companies, notably Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting, which bought WHFS in 1996.

“We’re here to let Infinity know we want our radio station back,” said Evan Woodard, the 18-year-old Laurel High School student who organized Saturday’s demonstration via his Web site, tsrally.com. The site includes a link to an online petition. As of Monday morning, more than 27,000 people had signed, requesting that El Zol revert to modern rock.

That’s not likely to happen. Broadcast radio is increasingly turning to “urban” and Latin formats, as more affluent listeners switch to satellite radio, cable music channels, and portable music players. (In fact, there was speculation last year that Clear Channel would shift DC101, WHFS’s principal Washington-area rival, to a Latin format.) Rock and other longtime formats are weakening, and overall broadcast-radio listenership is declining.

While not as popular as it was a decade ago, rock remains the top-selling genre of music in the United States. According to Recording Industry Association of America data for 2003, the most recent available year, 25 percent of recordings sold are rock, well ahead of the next largest category, hiphop, which has 13 percent. But both in radio formats and in listeners’ preferences, rock is fragmented into many subgenres: classic and modern, metal and power pop, punk and “adult alternative,” which is easy listening for people who grew up on the Beatles and the Stones. It’s simpler to alienate rock listeners than to build a consensus—which is why Washington-based XM, the leading satellite broadcaster, offers 14 different channels of the music.

In the end, the things that were distinctive about WHFS and its market were trumped by the things that weren’t. The local station’s modern (or alternative) rock format developed organically; for years it was advertised as “homegrown.” But that format had been corporatized by Infinity, which then saw no reason not to scrap it in response to sagging ratings and demographic trends. While many older WHFS listeners responded with sadness to the El Zol switch, they probably hadn’t listened to the station in years. Like the death of George Harrison, rock’s departure from HFS was a significant moment of passage, but one that had little to do with their contemporary lives.

“Underground” rock radio first infiltrated Washington as it did most other cities: championed by a few young music fans and relegated to off hours and low-power, low-listenership stations. The first local show that played non– Top 40 rock was the 1968 Subterranean Sound Experiment, broadcast only on Sunday evenings on WMOD-FM, then an oldies station. (It’s now WMZQ-FM, a country station.)

Later that year, free-form rock arrived at WHFS, then mostly a pop (aka MOR or middle-of-the-road) station. (Ironically, at the time the station also did blocks of “ethnic” programming.) The DJs purchased airtime for their evening shows, on which they played and said pretty much whatever they liked. A year later, the music they favored became the station’s principal format.

At the time, FM was considered a backwater, and many younger pop-music fans (and most cars) still had only AM radios. But FM had better fidelity, and WHFS was the first local station to broadcast in stereo, which suited the intricacies of psychedelic rock. D.C. became one of the first markets where FM’s listenership surpassed AM’s.

WHFS played some of the acts, such as Led Zeppelin and the Who, that would later be mainstays of the commercialized version of its format, known as album-oriented rock (AOR). But its early programming was much more idiosyncratic than that, featuring acid-folk acts such as the Incredible String Band and Pearls Before Swine, the anti-psychedelic Velvet Underground, and lots of Firesign Theatre, which specialized in an absurdist update of the old radio serial.

The station’s listenership grew, in part because there was no competition from a college alt-rock station with a regionwide signal. By the early ’70s, the station had come to emphasize roots-rock and singer-songwriters, a combination derided by some listeners as “granola.” WHFS resisted punk in the late ’70s but in 1981 switched to a New Wave format, the predecessor to modern rock. Although playlists replaced individual DJs’ choices, WHFS retained its national reputation as a station that would “break” new acts.

In 1983, WHFS suffered its first death when its then-owner, Jake Einstein, sold its low-power 102.3 license. (It’s now WMMJ “Majic 102.3,” an “urban oldies” station.) But the station was quickly reborn at 99.1, with a more powerful signal that reached both Washington and Baltimore. That’s the license that was eventually sold to Infinity, after the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed owners to control far more stations, and a handful of companies came to dominate the business. WHFS became nearly interchangeable with DC101, and as ratings declined, Infinity didn’t bother to experiment with new formats that incorporate more older songs or more unfamiliar material.

In recent years, the station was better-loved for its concerts, notably the highly successful HFStival, than for its programming. (Some observers have speculated that the festival’s profits kept the station’s format alive.) The day after El Zol rose, DC101 began taking call-in “HFStival memories” with requests for songs by bands that played there. It was a way to look gracious while making a bid for WHFS listeners (and maybe for the festival as well).

Much of this is ancient history to Woodard and his cohorts, some of whom adjourned to Hooters to warm up after three hours marching past the MCI Center, the Gallery Place theater and shopping complex, and the Asylum Wake Skate Snow shop. (WHFS used to broadcast live from the last—which is why the modern-rock boosters chose the area for their demonstration.) Wearing a white T-shirt covered with hand-written slogans and comments, Woodard touted a demonstration this coming Saturday in Baltimore, where WHFS’s ratings were higher (and the Latino population is smaller). He predicted a higher turnout there, if only because he would have a full week to organize.

The popularity of the station’s concerts was reflected among the young, ethnically diverse pro-WHFS demonstrators sipping sodas at Hooters. The station’s 2001 Christmas concert, volunteered 17-year-old Courtney Viqueira, “changed me from a teeny-bopper into a rock chick. Rock has got emotion. It’s real.”

Tim Battle, 18, saw the light at a WHFS-promoted Ozzfest. “Thanks to them I no longer listen to rap,” he said as the restaurant PA played Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Band on the Run.” (Asked to identify the song, Battle said, “I have no idea.”)

Woodard liked WHFS, he said, because of its Saturday-night techno show and because “it was very adult about things,” without being as raucous as other commercial rock stations. Yet even he admits that “the music unfortunately started to drop off at the end.”

And what will he listen to if Infinity spurns his campaign to return rock to 99.1? “Sadly to say, DC101. I might, I might.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Doug Boehm.