Growing Up in “The Whole Wide World,” A Tribute to Rita Houston

Rita Houston by Gus Philippas
Rita Houston at the Beacon Theatre by Gus Philippas

When I think of the term “radio voice,” there’s always one voice that comes to mind first, with its unmatchable smoothness and subtle rasp. The truth is, when I think DJ, it’s always Rita who I see, whose voice I hear. Rita Houston of WFUV, 90.7 FM, somehow seemed to define “one of a kind.” She was a one of a kind DJ, music lover, friend, and above all, a one of a kind human whose humanity itself was infectious even over the airwaves.

When I was in high school, “The Whole Wide World,” which aired Fridays from 6-9 PM signified that it was the weekend. After what could’ve been the longest and hardest week, Rita’s voice and the opening song of her show made everything feel better. The kitchen of my childhood home was flooded with Rita’s eclectic mix of the best music from any and every decade. Rita wasn’t one to stick to any one genre. Rather, she could start with Earth, Wind and Fire, and somehow end up at Brandi Carlile, sneaking in a Beyonce track along the way. “The Whole Wide World” was just that, an all-encompassing global experience that simply had no boundaries. Rita truly had a gift when it came to curation, and it had everything to do with the fact that her knowledge and experience of music was global.

WFUV writes, 

“The Whole Wide World kicked off in 2001 as a showcase for host Rita Houston’s wide-ranging taste in music. She mixed MIA with Marvin Gaye, The Bird and the Bee with Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald with Mark Ronson. It was never about traditional “world music,” but about searching the globe to bring you sounds from world-class artists, pushing the limits of rock, dance and jazz, mixing the lesser-known with the deservedly classic. Longtime listeners know to expect the unexpected.”

When I left home for college, I missed WFUV’s daily presence more than anything, especially my Friday nights with Rita. Luckily I could stream WFUV from my laptop in my dorm room to make things feel a little more normal, but I wasn’t always able to catch the show. In my very first semester, I ended up at a club fair where I discovered that New Paltz had their own radio station, WFNP. I started as a daytime DJ almost immediately; it took a good deal of practice to not say WFUV instead of WFNP on air accidentally. I can say with confidence that nearly all my inspiration came from Rita. My style of DJ-ing was a product of years of listening to hers. I took subtle cues from her transitions, tried to mimic her smoothness, and sheer coolness, all while knowing it would take years of experience of music alone to even come close to a Rita-level of cool.

I’m lucky enough to have met and spent time with Rita over the past 10 years since my dad Gus started working with WFUV as a photographer. Rita and Dad became close friends quickly, and remained such ever since. Rita changed our lives dramatically, opening door after door of opportunity for Dad, as well as inviting us to shows and festivals where I would be able to fully immerse myself in music and life as I had never done before. And when I snagged that daytime DJ position at WFNP at age 18, Rita was one of the first to hear about it. She even tuned in once or twice with Dad, playing my show live over the speakers in the WFUV studio, making me feel like the real deal. 

That’s what Rita did best. She lifted people up, made them feel like the real deal. She had a gift for spotting talent early. It was on WFUV that I first heard of Adele many years ago. She knew immediately when someone had it. And she lifted them into the spotlight, onto the airwaves.

WFUV notes, 

“Out of the studio, Houston was instrumental in the “Required Listening” series of shows at the Bottom Line in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village (R.I.P.), showcasing new and underappreciated artists for an eager audience. She also served as host of the “In Their Own Words” series there as well, renowned interview-and-performance evenings with influential songwriters talking about their ideas and influences.”

Rita gave credit where credit was due. Artists everywhere, of every genre, credit much of their success to her support. She seemed to have had infinite love to give. And just as she deserved, musicians often gave that love right back to her. Anyone who’s been to a WFUV show knows this to be true. At the “Holiday Cheer” specials hosted by WFUV and The Beacon Theatre each year, I remember words of love for Rita from Iron & Wine, Glen Hansard, Mavis Staples, musicians who became more than just musicians to Rita. They were her friends, seeming even like family at times. And it made sense; Rita had created a family out of the New York City music scene, a feeling of intimacy in a place so big. 

When Rita passed away in December of 2020 after a difficult battle with ovarian cancer, I, alongside the members of that family she’d created, felt heavy. It seemed as though radio could never be the same again, that music in NYC would never be the same again. Yet, as the touching and powerful tribute posts for Rita began filling my Instagram and Facebook feeds from Brandi Carlile to Brittany Howard, Citizen Cope, Mavis Staples, and DJs everywhere, a glimmer of hope rose within me. As is the nature of someone who defines “one of a kind,” Rita’s presence simply isn’t something that can leave this world, this music family that she helped to create, to curate. Rita left behind a legacy that insists that the radio show must go on. That when we can gather again as the city’s music family someday, anywhere from the Beacon to Rockwood or Forest Hills, we will do it for Rita.  

Friday, February 5th, 2021 I hosted my usual show “Off the Record,” on WFNP, but this time in tribute to Rita Houston. I called it “Growing Up in ‘The Whole Wide World,'” as that’s just what I was lucky enough to do. I’ve grown as a person, and as a DJ with the help of Rita. And no, it’s no coincidence that I chose the Friday slot on WFNP from 8-10 PM, the closest I could get to Rita’s 6-9 PM “Whole Wide World.” At a college station, people rarely want the Friday shows; it’s prime-time for partying. But years of listening to Rita taught me that, actually, it’s prime-time for radio.

For Rita, I “spun” everything from the Beatles to Sharon Jones to John Prine and Funkadelic. And I thanked her for inviting me, and all who listened to her, into the music family of not only New York City, but of the whole wide world.

Thank you, Rita Houston 1961-2020.

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