Rita Houston, a steady presence on New York radio — and an important musical tastemaker in her role as program director of Fordham University’s WFUV — died Tuesday after a battle with cancer, the station said in a statement Tuesday. She was 59 years old.
“Rita was the north star of WFUV’s sound and its public service, guiding the station’s musical direction for decades,” said Chuck Singleton, WFUV’s general manager, in a statement. “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.” Her voice, husky and enthusiastic, typically waxed enthusiastic over a new sound, artist or release being featured in the station’s lineup.
WFUV said earlier this month that Houston was stepping away to tend to health issues and her family. She had been battling cancer for six years.
As program director, Houston presided over WFUV’s long march from a station that initially focused largely on folk and Americana artists ranging from Dar Williams and John Gorka to Steve Earle and Michelle Shocked, and then evolved to encompass modern sounds from Moby, David Byrne, Lake Street Dive and The Head and The Heart. The task has been something of a balancing act over the years, thanks to a devoted fan base that initially tuned in for rock and country sounds they could not get on other New York outlets like the former WXRK or the former WNEW.
Houston was known for a voracious appetite for all things music, often attending live concerts many days each week, and appearing at WFUV sponsored concerts around New York.
“I’ve always been an obsessive music fan, and growing up in New York with great DJs like Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele and Frankie Crocker really made an impact on me. I’ve always believed in what happened on the radio,” she told AllAccess.com in 2012.
Houston joined WFUV in 1994 after logging a stint at WXPS, a station in New York’s Westchester County that at the time operated a progressive music format. Houston presided over “Starlight Express,” a program with an eclectic playlist. At first, she served as a midday DJ at WFUV, and then focused on a Friday-night program, “The Whole Wide World,” which allowed for musical entries from around the globe. WFUV said Delphine Blue, another longtime area DJ, would take over the program.
Houston is survived by her wife, Laura Fedele, as well as a sister, two brothers and the family of a brother who predeceased her.