• May 2011

Soul-Man Cerphe Colwell Talks About the Future of Radio

By Hope and Michael Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine

Don Cerphe (pronounced Surf) Colwell is no stranger to change. He got started as one of the most popular DJs in DC just a few years after The Beatles rocked the world when they arrived on the music scene.

That was around the time that the teen from Boston hitched a ride with his girlfriend on her way to American University. The relationship didn’t last, but Cerphe found a home in the nation’s capital. In 1972, while still an art major at AU, he was hired by WHFS to be its nighttime DJ.

“At the time, WHFS was mostly playing tunes by Sinatra and Tom Jones,” says Cerphe, whose job it was to play album cuts of young rockers who couldn’t get airplay by day.

Over the course of the next decade, he made a career of finding new recording artists, including the then-unknown Bruce Springsteen. However, changes in music tastes, philosophy, and ownership at the station led him to move on, and Cerphe’s signature soothing voice could be heard hosting rock shows on WAVA, DC101, WJFK, and until two years ago, at Classic Rock 94.7 The Globe.

He can be heard each weekday afternoon on 105.9 The Edge, and now calls Eco Planet Radio home. There, he hosts “The Progressive Show” and “Global Café,” as well as the “Vinyl Vault” on his own website, cerphe.com.

Despite the gyrations, one thing has stayed constant: Cerphe’s passion for green living. The practitioner of yoga and meditation, who has been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, was recently named the “Greenest DJ in America.” He was also appointed to the Global Advisory Committee by the Earth Day Network.

We recently sat down with Cerphe to talk about his illustrious career, his favorite interview, his plans for the next step in his career, and his thoughts on the future of radio.

Be Inkandescent: When you started at WHFS, DJs were known for their musical expertise as much as for their voice and radio presence. As music specialists, they provided context and background, made connections, and introduced new music. Nowadays, DJs seem to be either morning hosts who don’t play music, or play what they are told. Does DJing seem like a bygone art form?

Cerphe: Absolutely not. The industry has changed and will continue to morph, but DJs are as important today as they were during the WHFS era. While it’s true that we played whatever we wanted on WHFS, we always had a relatively small audience. Our listeners were very loyal and passionate, but were a microcosm in the Washington, DC, market.

Today, DJs are more important than ever. Where services like Pandora and Genius are an impersonal jukebox, DJs inject warmth and personality, and bring local-ness to radio. This is what we’ve always provided. Personalities are the antidote to iTunes. Especially if these personalities are music trendsetters. The very thing that differentiates an iPod from a radio is on-air, local personalities.

Be Inkandescent: As a DJ, did you ever get sick and tired of hearing certain songs over and over? How did you feel about playing certain songs you really disliked?

Cerphe: I never tire of hearing great songs. The Classic Rock I play on my FM afternoon show on 105.9 The Edge gives listeners fun memories of simpler times, a bit of escapism. That’s why we trend heavily in ratings with the adult audience. Stevie Nicks was a guest on my show last year and related similar stories of how people love to hear “Rhiannon” and “Go Your Own Way” when she performs. Concert audiences and radio listeners enjoy familiarity. A great song is much like a good friend.

Be Inkandescent: Two years ago, your stint ended at 94.7 FM The Globe, because The Globe itself ended, switching formats. Given your vast experience in radio, could you see this sea change coming? If so, when did things start shifting?

Cerphe: Yes, I knew about the change. At CBS Radio, we were trying something new and I was glad to be a part of it.

Be Inkandescent: You now have an Internet radio show. How did that come about? How does it compare to broadcast radio? There’s no interaction between DJ and listener; do you think that will change in the future? Or do you think radio as we know it will eventually die off? What, if anything, might take its place?

Cerphe: Radio today is more complicated than it was when I started. When I left 94.7, I had to wait out a non-compete with CBS and I was looking for a creative outlet. I have such a love for music and for art, and Internet radio pushed all my buttons. In broadcast radio, a large team of people steers the ship and makes decisions.

With Internet radio it’s just me, a microphone, and the songs I choose to play. One thing I love about Internet radio is that I can take an idea and carry that thread through an entire show. If I’m having a lousy week, I play a lot of dark, moody stuff and if all’s right with the world, I rock out! It’s like journaling, but with music, it’s cathartic. If you miss the original, free-form spirit of WHFS, my Internet show, www.ecoplanetradio.com, has a lot of the mojo of what Damian [Einstein], [John] “Weasel” [Gilbert], and I did there.

Be Inkandescent: Throughout your career, you had a talent for spotting the next big musical hotshot. What were you looking for? Did you ever flub? Did you help boost or discover a new talent? What was the highlight of your DJ career?

Cerphe: I was one of the first to play Bruce Springsteen on radio, and I appreciate Rolling Stone magazine associate editor, Dave Marsh, for crediting me in the Springsteen biography, “Born To Run/Two Hearts” for that. As a new artist, Bruce came to town and played The Childe Harold, a tiny club in DC. There were only around 60 of us there, and I invited him to be a guest on my show. That was the start of an amazing ride that began in 1973. It wasn’t enough to just hear his music, you had to see it, too! Even then it was like seeing my brother or best friend on stage. I really connected with Bruce … still do.

It’s hard to pick just one highlight. I have been onstage MC-ing a number of his shows, it’s great fun. I was one of the first true Bruce believers and that’s a great short list to be on. Also, the band Little Feat included me on their seminal live album, “Waiting for Columbus,” which was recorded at GWU/Lisner Auditorium during multiple nights of sold-out concerts.

Another special moment was getting to know Frank Zappa and testifying with him on Capitol Hill during the infamous Senate Porn Rock Hearings on record labeling. Frank’s opening statement set the tone, saying, “How dare you, this is like treating dandruff with decapitation!” Frank was kind enough to include me in his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book” and recently his son, Dweezil, was a guest on my show when a statue of his dad was unveiled in his hometown of Baltimore. I miss being able to pick up the phone and call Frank. He always made me smile.

Be Inkandescent: Have you ever considered using that access and perspective in another medium, say an interview show, a book, or other venture?

Cerphe: Yes, if the right opportunity presented itself. I would have a very entertaining screenplay … the things I’ve seen in radio and rock ‘n’ roll, you couldn’t make up.

Be Inkandescent: Have you stayed in touch with Weasel, Damian, and the other folks from WHFS? I’m sure a lot of people miss those days; the hand-off between you and Weasel was pretty entertaining.

Cerphe: I occasionally see some of the WHFS folks — Thomas Grooms is the overnight host on 105.9 The Edge, so I see him a lot. I’m sure I’ll see Damian at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival this summer. We usually co-host that event in Annapolis.

Be Inkandescent: You have to tell us about your collection of 8,000-plus CDs that are proudly displayed as art in your dining room. We understand that this is a small part of your total collection, which at one time included 40,000 record albums?

Cerphe: I know it’s old-school to have CDs. I could put them on an iPod but I wouldn’t have this wonderful library wall-treatment! I sold my entire album collection a while back to one very motivated buyer, but kept a few items just for their cool factor. Vinyl sounds great and I’m still buying certain releases on LP, like Bruce Springsteen’s last three albums, the entire Tom Waits catalog, the new Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews Band, the latest Arcade Fire, and Kings of Leon.

Be Inkandescent: You are known for your calm, cool approach, which in previous interviews you have attributed to your passion for yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism. What influenced you to embrace this?

Cerphe: This lifestyle just made sense to me when I became a vegetarian 38 years ago. Hey, balance is good. The longer I do it with diet and meditation, the better I feel.

Be Inkandescent: Your passion for being “green” is also well known. In fact, you were named the “Greenest DJ in America.” How do you see the proliferation of Green playing out in the future?

Cerphe: I was honored to be named “Greenest DJ in America” by Earth Day Network and at the same time appointed to the Global Advisory Committee alongside Leo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Philippe Cousteau, and others. This country has so many lawyers and not enough biologists. I’d like to see a shift in that dichotomy. Overcoming formidable odds regarding the safekeeping of our planet requires each of us to be good stewards of Mother Earth. This common goal, with hard work and smart politics, can become a health and economic benefit on so many levels. Every day is Earth Day.

Be Inkandescent: What are your plans for the future. And, if you could do anything in radio, what would it be?

Cerphe: I’m really a one-trick-pony; I want to continue doing compelling radio and to understand the new listener — their technology and sociology. The iPad is the new radio, the new television, the new magazine or newspaper, the new book, maybe even the new computer for some users. I believe on-demand listeners will opt for short- or shorter-form radio, whatever that turns out to be.

I like the concept of building the new radio station in the digital world around a group of like-minded people (not that different from what we did on WHFS!). Then you service them, talk to them, put them in touch with each other (music, food, lifestyle) in a way they couldn’t achieve elsewhere. In other words, entertainment that can be carried around on mobile devices and eventually available anywhere from the cloud. This is the direction I’m going in with my Internet Progressive Show and Global Café on EcoPlanetRadio.com. “Rock without rules, music without borders,” consumed on demand. I love it. The future is here.

Click here to listen to Cerphe’s Progressive Show on EcoPlanetRadio.com.