Local disc jockey reflects on years in the business and changing music tastes

(Donald) Cerphe Colwell’s 45 years in the D.C. area’s music scene began in 1971, when Colwell, then a “struggling art major” at American University, was invited by Steve Walker, a DJ at Bethesda-based station WHFS, to visit the station.

Colwell was hired to work the 7 p.m.-to-midnight shift on Saturdays.

“I saw the world with fresh eyes,” Colwell said of the experience. He said he’d been fascinated by radio since his childhood in Boston, when he listened to a transistor radio in bed at night. Colwell would go on to work for several years at WHFS – the first station in the area to broadcast in FM stereo.

“There was a real feeling of creativity and community,” Colwell said. “I could go from the Beatles to John Coltrane. I went around and talked to bands who were being ignored by the larger stations and invited them to come on my show. Bands loved to come to our studio because we didn’t put time limits on them. Frank Zappa would come on and talk about all kinds of things. We were one of the first five radio stations in the country to play Bruce Springsteen’s music. Bruce played five or six sets on on my show.”

Colwell said one of the most memorable episodes of his career occurred in 1977, when he attended a media event in D.C. promoting George Harrison’s new album, “Thirty Three & 1/3.”

I was in the hotel room with George and a whole lot of other reporters, and I had a tantric yoga pin on my lapel, and George caught sight of it,” Colwell said. “The crowd of reporters parted as George walked over to me and he said, ‘May I get you a cup of tea?’ I was about to weep. A Beatle was offering to get me a drink!” Colwell interviewed Harrison at the WHFS studio shortly afterward.

Colwell’s work led to his witnessing and involvement in several political events in the area.

“In 1971, there was a huge anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington, and the Metropolitan Police made a mass arrest and locked up thousands of people behind a chain-link fence near RFK Stadium,” Colwell said. “I went down there to cover it. I look through the fence and I see an older gentleman in glasses and sport coat. It was Dr. Benjamin Spock.”

Spock, one of the most influential American pediatricians of the 20th century, was heavily involved in the antiwar movement, including helping draft resisters migrate to Canada.

In 1985, Frank Zappa invited Colwell to join himself, folk singer John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder in testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee against labeling objectionable content on commercially sold music.

The hearing was held in response to the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee founded by Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, and the wives of other prominent Washington figures to increase parental control over children’s access to music containing profanity or references to sex or illicit drug use.

“Frank was the first to testify, and he opened up by saying, ‘Ladies, how dare you? This is like treating dandruff with decapitation,’” Colwell said. “Nobody realized what an articulate guy he was.”

After leaving WHFS, Colwell worked at WAVA in Arlington, DC101, program director at WJFK where he was responsible for managing Howard Stern and G. Gordon Liddy's talk programs, and 94.7 FM which was then a classic rock station called “The Arrow.” 

Colwell laments the decline of locally oriented and creative radio stations.

“In the late 1970s and 1980s, radio began to get more corporate,” Colwell said. “WHFS was sold to a bigger company, and then a bigger company, and then a bigger company before being sold to CBS. DJs haven’t picked music for about 35 years. The corporate offices in New York or Los Angeles send out a playlist of required songs. That’s why you hear the same 120 songs over and over on the radio nowadays.”

Colwell currently hosts “Cerphe’s Progressive Show” twice daily on the Internet radio channel Music Planet Radio. The program features vintage and new material from classic rock artists. Colwell views the program as a step toward a renaissance of the D.C. area’s cultural and music scene.

“When I started out, there was a great club scene,” Colwell said. “There’s a lot fewer places to play now. Thank God for the 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club does a great job, but they have trouble filling their seats. There’s a lot of great talent and people who have migrated to the area, bringing lots of different styles with them, and we need an infrastructure that supports that. Part of what we’re doing at Music Planet Radio is trying to build that infrastructure, just like we did in the early days of WHFS.”

Last year, Colwell published his book “Cerphe’s Up.” Co-authored with Stephen Moore, the book is an account of his life and career. The book recently entered its second printing, and Colwell promoted it at the Kensington Day of the Book and Gaithersburg Book Festival.

“For people who grew up in this area, it will be a trip down memory lane,” Colwell said, “But what I hope that most people take away from reading it, is that you should be passionate about what you do, whatever you do.”



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