Rita Houston, Beloved DJ & Tastemaker at New York Radio Station WFUV, Dead at 59

Rita Houston
Gus Philippas for WFUV

Rita Houston

Houston served as program director and on-air personality at the New York City public radio station for over 25 years.

Rita Houston, longtime program director and DJ at Fordham University’s public radio station WFUV, died on Tuesday (Dec. 15) after a six-year battle with cancer. She was 59.

“It is with great sadness that we at WFUV share news that we have lost Rita Houston, our much-loved program director and iconic DJ to generations of listeners — listeners who regarded her as their radio friend,” said WFUV general manager Chuck Singleton in a statement posted to the station’s website. “Rita left this world this morning, December 15, 2020, in the loving company of her wife and our colleague, Laura Fedele, and her family.”

Houston arrived at WFUV in 1994 from triple-a station WXPS (also known as X107) in her native Westchester, where she had hosted the program Starlight Express. “[She] helped to break some of the artists that she championed from the very beginning,” says Paul Cavalconte, former WXPS program director who hired Houston at the station in the late 1980s. “I think David Gray did his very first live appearance on radio anywhere on [Starlight Express].”

In 2013, Houston coaxed Cavalconte to join her as an on-air personality at WFUV, where he currently hosts his own program on Sundays.

“She truly was a force of nature,” Cavalconte adds. “Being with her was an event. It didn't matter if we were out for drinks and dinner, going to a show, being in the studio with an artist who was visiting to perform...she was the person who dominated the room when she entered it. Being with her was its own moment. It's very hard to imagine a future where that presence in those moments just won't be there anymore.”

Houston started her 26-year stint at WFUV as a DJ in the midday slot before launching her own Friday night program, The Whole Wide World, in 2001. Boasting an eclectic mix of sounds, the series was influential in introducing unheralded artists from across the globe to New York City listeners.

“[It] was like her way of harkening back to freeform radio and just playing whatever you felt like,” says Jack Walsh, the former senior vp, performing arts at BRIC who worked with Houston on the WFUV-sponsored Celebrate Brooklyn festival for over two decades.

As program director, Houston moved the station in a bold and expansive new direction, incorporating a multitude of sounds and genres. “She really did move that station forward...from it being sort of like a folky Americana station to something that had a much broader palette," Walsh adds.

In addition to being a tastemaker in the city and beyond – among the artists she championed early on were Joan Osborne, Adele and Brandi Carlile – Houston is remembered as a genuinely enthusiastic and independent-minded music fan determined to chart a path outside the corporate confines of commercial radio. “There's an engagement factor that’s so much more personal in public radio, and she wanted that,” says Cavalconte. “She didn't want to pull a shift at a big Gotham station...I think that she saw that there was an opportunity to be something beyond that.”

That independent spirit was celebrated in 2019 by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who praised Houston 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" in a letter sent on the occasion of her 25th anniversary with the station.

Multiple prominent figures from the worlds of radio and music have been paying tribute to Houston in the wake of her death. Among them is longtime concert promoter and former Clearwater Festival director Steve Lurie, who wrote on Facebook, “There was no bigger tastemaker, no bigger music fan than Rita. She introduced so many artists to our ears from around the globe. She championed so many artists from those just starting out to stadium headliners.”

One of the artists Houston championed, Brandi Carlile, wrote a heartfelt Instagram tribute to the late program director on Tuesday. “Rita was the very first person to play my music on the radio," she wrote. "The only reason that matters is that it’s so important for a young person to know that someone they look up to believes in them. For me, she was that person.”

Houston is survived by her wife (and WFUV new media director) Laura Fedele; sister Deb; brothers Rich and Rob and their families; and the family of her late brother Bill.

Read more tributes to Houston below.

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