FREDERICK — Josh Brooks knows radio.
Brooks, now the national sales manager for 99.9 WFRE and 930 WFMD in Frederick, interviewed musicians including Allen Toussaint and Stevie Wonder during his days as a disc jockey at 102.3 WHFS in the Washington area.
Brooks said his interest in radio started when he heard the programming on listener-supported 99.5 WBAI of New York while attending Bard College.
“They used to play some wild things on there,” he said.
The first recording of musician Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant” was done in the WBAI studio, Brooks said.
Out of college, Brooks got a gig as a traffic manager and producer at 106.7 WRVR in New York before he and his friend Mark Gorbulew, along with Gorbulew’s girlfriend, Sarah Vass, decided they were going to start their own radio show.
“We thought, ‘Some station will hire us — everything will be fine,'” Brooks said. But, he added, “We got laughed at.”
Eventually, in 1969, 102.3 WHFS, based in the Washington area, decided to give Brooks and his partners a chance.
“They said, ‘We’re not going to hire you, but we’ll sell you airtime,'” Brooks said.
The three friends dubbed themselves Spiritus Cheese after the Spiritus Cheese Co. on Greenwich Street in Manhattan. They had two hours of airtime on weekdays, and on Saturdays they were on air from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sundays from midnight to 6 a.m., but a lot more time was put in behind the scenes.
“We would have to work 14 to 16 hours a day when we were starting out,” Brooks said.
Behind-the-scenes work included researching bands, obtaining records, selling ads, collecting money from advertisers, promoting themselves and going to concerts to interview musicians.
“It was pretty much nonstop, and we loved every minute of it,” Brooks said.
A month and a half after Spiritus Cheese began broadcasting from WHFS, the DJs had a stroke of good luck: An old acquaintance, musician Johnny Winter, got them backstage at Woodstock.
“We had access to anybody we wanted,” Brooks said.
Brooks said he got taped interviews with Jerry Garcia, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix’s conga player, Jerry Velez.
“After Woodstock, we started playing our tapes on air and word got around. … We figured people would tune in,” Brooks said.
And they did.
The buzz about Spiritus Cheese grew to such a level that The Washington Post placed an article about them on its front page.
Brooks said WHFS saw the success of Spiritus Cheese and soon began its transition from “beautiful” music (it used to play melodic and classical-type music) to alternative rock.
“When they decided to expand their format, they fired us, and then they hired us as regular DJs,” Brooks said.
Soon after, Brooks’ partners left the station, but Brooks stayed at WHFS full time for nine years and part time for two more.
While working as a DJ at WHFS, Brooks said everyone from Frank Zappa to Little Feat to Springsteen came through the station.
“Pretty much anyone you can think of who was popular at the time,” he said.
Brooks also got to work with famous DJs such as Donald “Cerphe” Colwell, Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert and Damian Einstein.
He eventually left DJing because he wasn’t able to make a living from it.
After a few years of managing and promoting bands, and a few odd jobs, such as running a real estate title company, Brooks got into the sales side of radio.
In 1987, he went to work in sales at WFMD/WFRE, then owned by former Redskins announcer Jim Gibbons.
He left there in 1990 to become the general sales manager at Key 103.1 WAFY, when they first went on the air. Brooks worked at there for 13 years and then worked for a couple of years at a video production company.
“I tried retiring after that, but only lasted about four months. … I was getting underfoot with my wife,” he said.
Around this time, Brooks was offered a job in sales at 99.9 WFRE and 930 WFMD, which is owned by Clear Channel.
“I had always thought of corporate radio as ‘The Big Monster’ — something I detested,” Brooks said. But Blaine Young, WFMD radio host, and Doug Hillard, market manager at Clear Channel, persuaded Brooks to take the job, and he remains there today. Since then, 99.9 WFRE and 930 WFMD have become part of the Aloha Station Trust LLC.
Since Brooks has been in the radio industry, it has changed drastically.
Now, “most stations are highly formatted and only play certain songs,” he said. He added there is a lot of great music the radio doesn’t play because the new rule of the business is to always play what is familiar to listeners.
Brooks himself has also changed, too.
“Little Feat was up in Frederick to play the Weinberg [Center for the Arts] recently and I hadn’t seen them in 30-plus years,” he said. “I remembered the last time I talked to them it was all ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,’ but this time it was all [talk] about physical ailments, the cost of tuition for our kids — old guy talk,” he said.
Although things are different now, the music world hasn’t forgotten the contributions past DJs like Brooks made to the local music scene.
“Each year the Washington Area Music Association has an awards show where they hand out ‘Wammies’ [sort of DC’s version of the Grammys],” Brooks said.
“This past February they gave a ‘Special Achievement’ Wammie to David Einstein (program director of WHFS for 20 years, and Damian’s brother), Jonathan ‘Weasel’ Gilbert and me for our support of local music while we were at WHFS,” he said.
Brooks, too, still carries those days at WHFS in his heart.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I miss it.”