Last Friday, a reader sent an outraged note to the Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, saying it was " just insane, ridiculous" that we hadn't done an obituary on Jake Einstein, who had developed the Washington area's first alternative rock station, WHFS-FM, in Bethesda. The reader said our oversight was "just unforgivable. Absolutely unforgivable. No excuse."
Well, we got the the obituary in the paper on Sunday, Sept. 16, four days after Einstein died and two days after the reader's aggrieved protest. So far, as of Tuesday, Sept. 18, it's the only obituary about him to run anywhere. This might be a good time to explain that, although we do our best to get obituaries into the paper as soon as we can, and although we can do some miraculous things here on the Obits staff, we're not mind readers and can't write about a death when we don't know it's happened.
Many people seem to assume that we learn of every death in the Washington area the moment it happens. Unfortunately, there is no central Death Registry, no online source, no bell that rings in the office. In most cases, we find out about a death the same way you do -- someone in the family calls to tell us.
In the case of Jake Einstein, that call never came. No one in his family called, none of his former employees called or wrote, no radio station got in touch with us. We didn't know he had died, in fact, until we got the angry e-mail.
Second, obituaries are about people, not about institutions. Even though WHFS was a widely known Washington station in its heyday (Einstein sold it in 1983, then re-established the station in Annapolis), Jake himself was something of a mystery. There were many stories about the music and deejays of WHFS, but not one article had ever written about Jake Einstein, the man who made the music happen.
I was finally able to reach a couple of members of his family, as well as some former employees, but even they had little knowledge of Jake's life before he took over the management WHFS in 1967 and, a year later, introduced rock-and-roll on local FM radio. It took a day and a half of prodding and repeated phone calls to learn about the early years of Jake's long and adventurous life. (Who knew he once had a newspaper column titled "Einstein's Theory"?)
Moreover, there are certain niche subjects that some of our readers have an encyclopedic knowledge of -- rock-and-roll is one, military history is another -- and these readers sometimes take issue with a nuance of interpretation or a fact that is slightly off. (I have yet to hear from military person about an obituary of a musician -- or from a music fan about a general.) All I can say is we endeavor to be as thorough and accurate as possible, but time is always our enemy, and we realize there is always someone out in Readerland who know more about a particular subject than we do.
From one day to the next, we don't know if we'll be writing about a military offiicer, scientist, musician, foreign-policy expert, gas-station owner, teacher, writer -- or an eccentric businessman who brings rock-and-roll radio to an entire generation. That's what makes the job interesting.
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