The staff at Modern Rock WHFS-FM (99.1) must feel like they’ve stumbled into a time warp and been transported back into the merger-mania days of the late ’80s.
In May, ‘HFS owner Duchossois Communications announced that it had agreed to sell the station to Philadelphia-based Liberty Broadcasting for $15.6 million. Now, with that deal still pending, there are reports that Liberty is poised to enter into a “strategic alliance”—i.e., some sort of merger—with D.C.-based Four Seasons Communications, which owns local oldies outlet WXTR-FM (104.1).
What would such a pact mean for WHFS’ regionally unique format? In all likelihood, nothing. Nevertheless, some on-air changes may be afoot at the station.
According to the Washington Post, Four Seasons President Robert Longwell believes that Liberty would emerge as the surviving entity in any merger of the two radio groups. And since announcing their intention to buy WHFS, Liberty executives Jim Thompson and Mike Craven have made clear that they plan to retain the Modern Rock format. First, they point out, the station is doing well in both ratings and revenue.
Second, there really isn’t any other viable format hole to fill in the Washington market. Even in the unlikely event that Thompson and Craven don’t end up running the combined group, those factors would still weigh heavily in any debate over the future of the WHFS format.
Besides, pairing ‘HFS, which does well with listeners 25 to 34, with older-skewing WXTR would allow the combo’s owners to offer advertisers a potent tool for reaching the lucrative 25 to 54 age group.
(There will be amusing irony involved if the current merger talks do give Four Seasons an ownership interest in Liberty and WHFS. Four Seasons is owned by the Carlyle Group, a D.C.-based investment group that counts James Baker, Frank Carlucci, and Richard Darman among its directors. Thus a Liberty/Four Seasons merger could give three Reagan-Bush stalwarts a piece of a radio station that was until recently playing a record called “Smoking on the Devil’s Johnson.”)
While the song will apparently remain the same at WHFS, there may be some shuffling of the station’s on-air lineup in the next few months. According to a station source, management has given more than passing thought to moving late- evening host Aq (real name: Tony Acquaviva) to the morning- drive shift, where his considerable talents would be put to better use. In this scenario, current morning man Bob Waugh would segue to the midmorning shift. Such a move would allow Waugh to escape those grueling pre-dawn wake-up calls and focus more attention on his responsibilities as the station’s music director.
Waugh says he has not had any discussions about moving to middays but hints that he could see the merit in such a move.
“I don’t know anybody that likes it,” he says of getting up at 3 a.m. “I suppose if you’re making bucketloads of money you can justify it. But for somebody like me who has other responsibilities, you end up putting in a lot of 12-hour days at the radio station. Another thing for me is getting out to see new music [acts], which is kind of impossible [while working mornings].”
WHFS General Manager Alan Hay declines to comment on possible lineup shifts, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss any changes until after the sale to Liberty—and any deal with Four Seasons—has closed.
“There’s really nothing to discuss,” Hay says. “We do have some exciting ideas, but right now we have to be the best radio station we can be as we are.”
Also to be resolved before Waugh resets his alarm clock: What to do with current midmorning host Damian Einstein. The last time ‘HFS tried to move the speech-impaired Einstein from his shift, he filed a handicapped-discrimination complaint with the state of Maryland and was ultimately returned to the daily lineup. That battle still echoes through the station in the form of a related wrongful termination suit and other legal actions filed against WHFS by Einstein’s wife, former ‘HFS National Sales Manager Patti Ebbert.
Though l’affair Ebbert drags on with no end in sight, WHFS has been exonerated in a lesser personnel beef. According to Duchossois Assistant General Counsel Mark Tone, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently dismissed DJ Neci Crowder’s 1992 complaint against the station in which she alleged that management’s decision to move her from evenings to the graveyard shift (midnight to 5:30 a.m.) was racially motivated. She also claimed that a two-day suspension she received for saying “fuck” on the air was racially motivated—because other ‘HFS jocks allegedly received lighter punishments for similar offenses.