I didn’t know Rita Houston well. I just know she lived her professional life in a way that was quite admirable and pretty cool.
I also know she didn’t live long enough. Rita Houston died Tuesday morning, age 59, after fighting cancer for six years.
Over those years she had continued as program director and on-air host at WFUV (90.7 FM), the public radio station based at Fordham University in the Bronx.
In a radio world that feels most comfortable with sameness, WFUV is different. It plays music that has been squeezed out of most radio playlists, mixing the likes of Low Cut Connie and David Shaw with the likes of Tom Tom Club, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Vampire Weekend, Valley of the Pagans, Emmylou Harris, Haircut One Hundred, Marianne Faithfull, Arcade Fire, Gillian Welch and Yola.
Most radio stations play a few hundred songs. WFUV plays a few thousand. Its on-air tag is “Music Discovery Starts Here” and if you listen, it does.
Chuck Singleton, general manager of WFUV, wrote on the website that Houston was “the North Star” of the WFUV sound. While the WFUV hosts know what they’re doing and have their own good ideas, Houston tied it all together.
That requires an incredible range of musical knowledge and an equal range of music openness.
Houston came to WFUV in 1994. Since then, dozens of music waves have rolled in, many off the commercial and promotional radar. For WFUV to fulfill its mission, Houston had to recognize and assess it all. Where does it fit into American music? Into what WFUV is doing?
Most people eventually draw perimeters around their musical taste. We like to say we listen to “everything,” but we don’t. As we get older, we spend most of our time with the styles we like best, often with music we already know.
It’s too bad, because we miss good things. But that isn’t a condemnation. Many of us, maybe most of us, just run out of time to keep listening to new music. We get jobs and families and other interests and we don’t have the time or social circle for music that we had as teenagers and young adults.
Rita Houston kept her ears open. She had personal favorites, a group that maybe started with John Prine and branched out as widely as Mumford and Sons, Mavis Staples and Frank Sinatra. But not by accident was her weekly show on WFUV, launched in 2001, titled “The Whole Wide World With Rita Houston.”
She conducted hundreds of interviews with artists over an equally free-range spectrum.
Beyond the music itself, there’s also this. Almost everyone who works in public radio makes a sacrifice because public radio, to be awkwardly blunt, rarely pays what commercial radio pays for a good host or programmer.
That holds for both talk and music programming. On a music station like WFUV, the tradeoff is that you get to play more interesting stuff in return for probably never getting rich.
Playing music on WFUV also may feel more like being with a group of friends, the way we listened when we first discovered music.
Rita Houston, who earlier worked for commercial radio, went all-in on the public radio deal. She clearly appreciated the importance of music, and the importance of presenting music. Her own on-air style, back to when she hosted WFUV’s afternoon show, was lively and infectious, radiating endless enthusiasm.
When the late deejay Dan Daniel retired after a long and distinguished career on country and rock radio in New York, I asked him if there was anything he had never had a chance to do.
There was one thing, he said: “I’d have loved to do a couple of hours for one night on WFUV, where I’d just play the music that’s mine.”
Daniel knew that wasn’t the WFUV format. He also knew, from listening, that the station at its best conveys a personal feeling, a sense the music the deejays are playing means something to them.
That describes a job where you’d want to go to work every day, and while you hesitate to overly romanticize someone else’s gig, it sure sounds like Rita Houston had that job.
Good for her. Good for us. We will miss her.
(Several weeks ago Rita Houston recorded a final edition of “The Whole Wide World With Rita Houston,” with a microphone set up at her bedside. She chose “songs that she feels represent the show she created, at its best,” her on-air partner Paul Cavalconte wrote on wfuv.org. He called it “a ‘greatest hits’ journey through the styles, eras, and artists that tell her own story, and ours.” It will air 6–9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, on WFUV and wfuv.org.)