Rita Houston, an integral part of the soul of WFUV for the last 25 years whose broad knowledge and passion for music made her a nationally recognized tastemaker, died on Dec. 15 in her home in Nyack, New York, at age 59. The cause was ovarian cancer.
“It is hard to imagine a WFUV without Rita Houston,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham.
“She has expertly shaped the station’s programming and been one of its prominent voices for many years, and of course has been a beloved member of the station on the air and off. Our hearts go out to her wife, Laura, and their families, in their hour of grief. I know you join with me in keeping Rita and all who loved her in your thoughts and prayers.”
Houston joined WFUV in 1994 and rose to the position of program director in 2012. From that perch, she was responsible for driving the ethos of the station that is summed up in the slogan “Music discovery starts here.”
Chuck Singleton, WFUV’s general manager, announced news of Houston’s passing in an on-air message to WFUV’s listeners on Dec. 15.
“Rita was the north star of WFUV’s sound and its public service, guiding the station’s musical direction for decades. She was a New York original, a trailblazing woman of exceptional talent who shaped a unique style behind the microphone—informed and informal, intimate, warm, genuine. But also, one of tremendous joy,” he said.
“You may know that Rita had been fighting cancer for six years. Her courage and resolve were an inspiration. Cancer or no cancer, she gave her all every day to her dear Laura and their family—to her friends and colleagues, to WFUV and our listeners, and to artists and music lovers everywhere.
An Immediate Connection to Radio
A native of Mount Vernon, New York, Houston got her start in radio when a faculty adviser at Westchester Community College gave her an evening slot at the college’s radio station. In March, she recounted the feeling of going on the air for the first time for singer Joseph Arthur’s podcast Come to Where I’m From.
“I was just so happy, and I don’t even know how I knew what to do. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, you know?” she said.
“It was the ’80s, so I think I probably played Nu Shooz or something. I don’t think my first song was Velvet Underground or Richard Thompson. I just remember thinking, ‘I like this talking into a mic, I like this feeling.’”
DJing paid very little, so Houston eventually took a job as an engineer for ABC Network News. The mic lured her back though, and in 1988, Paul Cavalconte, FCRH ’83, the program manager at Westchester’s WXPS, hired Houston as a DJ. She would go on to make her name as the host of the evening show Starlight Express, where she showcased new artists such as David Gray, Ani DiFranco, and Dar Williams. That nascent adult album alternative format was, Cavalconte recalls, a very early version of today’s Triple A radio format embraced by WFUV and other stations around the country.
Cavalconte, who worked at WFUV as a student, said that he knew immediately that Houston would be a hit.
“Rita’s voice was rough and ready. It wasn’t the sort of pear-shaped, feminine voice that would expect to do ads for perfume. It’s a real-person kind of voice,” he said.
“She was a full package. The voice had an honesty and directness, and she was able to communicate her larger-than-life personality, which was there from the very first moment.”
When WXPS changed ownership in 1993, it was renamed X107, and playlists swung to the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and other “alternative rock” bands. Cavalconte recalled that he was fired early on, but Houston hung on, albeit under the condition that she, along with all the on-air staff, change her name to include an X. Tongue firmly in cheek, she opted for “Harley Foxx.”
A New Home at Fordham
But Houston would soon depart as well, in 1994, for the place she’d call home for the next 26 years.
“I was driving from the East Village to Westchester every day, listening to FUV, and I was like, ‘I want to work there,’” Houston told Arthur.
“I just called the station and was like, ‘Hey, can I work here, please?’ That was 25 years ago. I’ve never really been the kind of person who thought they’d do anything for 25 years, but I love it as much as ever.”
Hired in 1994 to host WFUV’s midday show, Houston was promoted to music director in 1996 and in 2012 she was promoted to program director, a post that she used to introduce listeners to new artists such as Mumford & Sons, Brandi Carlile, Gomez, Yola, Seratones, and Lake Street Dive.
Outside of the studio, she was instrumental in the “Required Listening” series of shows that showcased new and underappreciated artists at the Greenwich Village club The Bottom Line; she also interviewed songwriters for the club’s “In Their Own Words” series.
She took a hiatus from DJing in the late-’90s but returned to the mic in 2001 with her show The Whole Wide World, where she spun everything from M.I.A. and Marvin Gaye to Ella Fitzgerald and Mark Ronson.
A Trusted Friend to Artists and Listeners
In 2013, Houston brought Cavalconte aboard at WFUV, where he now hosts the freewheeling Sunday night show Cavalcade.
Cavalconte said one of his fondest memories of Houston is from the station’s 2018 Holiday Cheer benefit concert, which was headlined by the late John Prine. Houston’s father died that day, but she still attended, knowing how big a deal the show is to the station.
“At one point, Prine looked out and said, ‘This one goes out to my pal Rita. She had a rough day; she lost her daddy today. But she’ll always have him in here.’ He put his hands on his chest, and then he dedicated Hello in There to Rita’s dad,” Calvalconte said.
In a 2019 Fordham News profile that marked her 25th anniversary at WFUV, Houston said she felt a sense of responsibility to her fans when she chose songs.
“When listeners hear something new at WFUV, there’s an inherent trust it has been selected with their general taste in mind,” Houston said. “You develop trust with the audience, with artists, and with record labels. You become a trusted source.”
Guiding WFUV Forward
Singleton noted that like many WFUV personalities, Houston’s public persona benefited greatly from the digital revolution that made it possible for the station’s 400,000 weekly listeners to stream live on their computers, tablets, or mobile phones.
Thanks in part to Houston, WFUV also established a strong relationship with National Public Radio. Houston anchored NPR’s coverage of the Newport Folk Festival for several years and provided input into the organization’s “best of the year” lists. She also appeared on the national program Morning Edition.
Supporting women artists was a passion of Houston’s at WFUV as well. Just this year, she helped spearhead the station’s EQFM initiative, which is geared toward a goal of 50% representation of women and gender minorities in music programming, events, and online features.
“It’s part of our DNA as open-minded music lovers,” she said when EQFM launched in May. “Good songs come from everywhere, across race, age, and gender. Good radio should celebrate that, without bias.”
Houston was an insatiable student of the art of the DJ, going so far as devoting a series of interviews in 2012 to conversations with fellow hosts from FUV and other public radio stations. One of them was Dennis Elsas, who celebrated his 20th anniversary with the station this year, and who said it’s inconceivable to separate WFUV from Houston.
“Her determination to keep FUV as a defining place of music discovery for the audience and the industry was constant and unrelenting,” he said.
“Rita’s skill at booking and creating assorted shows and events for the station was the ‘secret sauce’ that made FUV sparkle.”
A Stalwart in the Industry
Daniel Glass, the founder/president of Glassnote Music, called her “the definition of soul,” while City Winery founder and CEO Michael Dorf lamented the fact that a tribute concert in Houston’s honor that was planned for this spring had to be canceled after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For 15 years, Houston had worked as an offstage introducer at the Winery’s annual Carnegie Hall tribute series.
“It was a ritual that cemented a friendship,” Dorf said. “[It felt as if] our roles in the eco-system of independent music and their fans, and the ability to turn them on to something special, made us members of an exclusive limited club. And even if that was a total illusion made up in my head, at least, she made me feel that bond.”
The tribute concert was to have been the latest in a long line of accolades for Houston. She was named non-commercial program director of the year in 2019 and 2020 by FMQB and JBE, was a three-time designate of Gavin’s Music Director of the Year, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Broadcast Excellence.
In April 2019, on the occasion of her 25th anniversary at WFUV, she was officially acknowledged by the City of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio for “bringing joy to listeners throughout the five boroughs, providing a platform for new talent that deserves to be heard, and enriching the cultural vitality of our city.”
Champion of Artists
Artists were no less moved. Her early, loyal support was often a harbinger of a musician or band’s subsequent mega-success—and it was never forgotten by those she championed. When Mumford & Sons won the Steinbeck Award in 2019, the first collective to ever do so, the band asked Rita to deliver their induction speech at Stanford University that September. When Brandi Carlile cast her very personal video for “The Joke,” a single that went on to win two Grammys in 2019, she asked Rita to be in it.
She also remained faithful to artists who experienced a lull in their careers, as David Gray observed on the occasion of Rita’s 20th anniversary at WFUV.
“I will never forget the support you gave me when I needed it most when nothing was really working out,” Gray said. “It was very much me and my acoustic guitar. It’s easy to be someone’s friend when everything’s rosy, but that’s when it mattered and that’s why we’re pals.”
Carlile said that Houston was “the very first person to play my music on the radio,” She recalled that when she met Houston for the first time, she was showing Houston photos of her horse when a shot of her girlfriend popped up on her phone.
“‘Is that your plus one?’ she said to 22-year-old me. ‘It’s ok to talk about it.’ She could immediately tell that I was uneasy with people in the music business knowing I was gay,” Carlile said.
The two became fast friends, she said, calling Houston a “soulful, stabilizing force.”
“She was absolutely packed full of life, up for anything, and the amount of charisma she possessed was just plain criminal. Don’t even get me started on that hair.”
In one of her last public appearances, at Fordham’s annual Women’s Summit in October, Houston reflected on her work, joking that she’d picked up the nickname “The Tank,” since “I go and go and go until I stop going.”
“The tank thing for me is really looking at the things that fill my tank, versus the things that empty my tank, and my job really fills my tank,” she said.
“I’m so lucky to have a job that fills my tank, where working more is almost better for me than working less.”
It was just last week that Houston stepped away from her duties at the station.
In her March podcast conversation with Arthur, she was candid about living with cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 2015.
“When I do put my head on the pillow at night, I do feel some sense of comfort, or maybe satisfaction is the right word. Peace, I guess, that I have lived [a good]life, warts and all, mistakes and all.”
Houston is survived by her wife Laura Fedele, new media director at WFUV; her sister Debra Baglio; and her brothers Richard and Robert Houston. She is predeceased by her older brother Bill Houston and her parents William and Rita Houston. A private funeral ceremony will be held for family.
More Tributes for Rita Houston
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Really sorry to hear of the death of Rita Houston. She was the best kind of DJ, a passionate fan of the music she played. Always enjoyed heading out to the Bronx to talk to her about life, music and politics. A huge loss to American radio. https://t.co/iFkxKMjJ0c
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) December 15, 2020
Rita was a maverick in our world, a true leader, a golden ear, a flair with words, always positive in a cynical ecosphere. Brave beyond words and taught me to carry on and be curious regardless of pain or fear. I will miss her, but will call on her spirit often.
— Indigo Girls (@Indigo_Girls) December 15, 2020
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Thank You for Everything. RIP 💔 Rita Houston, Angel, Friend, Champion. WFUV Public Radio
Posted by Patty Griffin on Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Rita Houston had me on her show for every album I released and always made it feel like an exciting career debut. Wow,…
Posted by Rufus Wainwright on Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Godspeed Rita Houston. Thank you lovely Rita for being such a champion and supporter of independent music through Wfuv…
Posted by Martin Sexton on Tuesday, December 15, 2020