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Rita Houston: 20 Years at WFUV

20 Years On, Rita Still Rocks. Catch the broadcast celebration on The Whole Wide World tonight from 7-10pm, live from City Winery.

Rita Houston, back in the day

A little after 10 a.m. on April 5, 1994, Rita Houston opened the microphone for the first time at WFUV.

That happened to be the day Kurt Cobain died (maybe not the most auspicious debut). She'd left X107 in Westchester, where she was the evening jock, to play music she loved, not just what was formatted.

But at that moment Rita couldn't possibly envision what the next 20 years would bring at WFUV.

Within a couple of years of hosting WFUV's midday shift, Rita added Music Director duties and quickly earned a reputation as a tastemaker, with a slew of national awards to prove it. She sees WFUV as a "point of entry" for artists, whether that's Joss Stone, Jamie Cullum, Mumford & Sons, or Emeli Sande, from Europe and the U.K., or New York area talent, such as Norah Jones, Nicole Atkins, The Lone Bellow, and Lake Street Dive. With her natural people skills, she's able to give them a "soft landing" on the radio, but she's quick to credit FUV listeners for having "the appetite to pick out the great ones."

The longtime architect of WFUV's music mix, Rita helped launch The Alternate Side and fostered partnerships with NPR and music festivals that have given FUV prominence at Newport, South by Southwest, and Wilco's Solid Sound - and given FUV listeners an abundance of stellar programming moments. Named Program Director a little over a year ago, Rita has overseen the refinement of FUV's weekday music mix, with an emphasis on "music discovery."

"I love being involved in helping FUV grow," Rita says, "but being on the air is what I love most." The Whole Wide World, the 7-10 p.m. Friday evening program created when Rita stepped down from her midday shift in 2001, is the main outlet for that passion and her wide-ranging taste. You might hear a soul classic, a brand new indie artist, or a standard by Sinatra. And it's not just what she plays, but how she fits it together. "I'm still trying to do the perfect segue," she claims.

Rita credits Vin Scelsa (a hero from his days at WNEW-FM, and now a WFUV colleague, hosting Idiot's Delight on Saturdays from 8-10 p.m.) with inspiring her to "go beneath the surface of telling someone's story." Her comfort level with artists, coupled with careful preparation, has made for many memorable interviews. Among her favorites - Tony Bennett with k.d. lang, Bjork (in Bjork's Brooklyn apartment), and Leonard Cohen ("like a mountain climber finally getting to the top of Mt. Everest").

For all her clout in the music business, at heart Rita remains very much the fan. "Every time I hear Emily or Amy of Indigo Girls say my name from the stage, I just can't believe it," she confesses. "I honor the business relationships I have, but I still have the enthusiasm and energy to go out and see live music. That's why you'll find me seeing St. Vincent at Terminal 5 at 11:30 on a busy weeknight. I show up."

Some of those gigs are ones Rita arranges for FUV Live broadcasts from venues like City Winery and Rockwood Music Hall, with artists ranging from Nick Lowe and World Party to Dawes and The Hold Steady - the kind of listening experience Rita remembers from WNEW-FM in its heyday. She also loves to DJ in person for a crowd. "I'm honored that I've been asked to spin for weddings and parties," she says. That's Rita Houston, truly a woman for all occasions.