10 Questions with ... Rita Houston
April 23, 2012
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Got my start at WVIP in Mount Kisco, NY. Old-fashioned local radio with AM/FM. I did nights on the FM playing AC/Top 40. From there took a summer job (against Al Roker's advice!) at ABC Radio Network as a studio engineer. Union gig. Made a lot of $$ and worked the worst hours ever. Seven years later took the buyout, rented a house in Amagansett and landed a $7-an-hour job at WXPS/Briarcliff Manor, NY, doing weekends and lots of car dealer remotes, but I was lucky enough to host a "free-form" late night show and fell in love with playing the music I loved. Station was sold, format was changed and I became Harley Foxx, the afternoon-drive host for WXPK (X107)/White Plains, NY. Patiently awaited a way out and then charmed my way in to WFUV, first as middays and now Music Director. That was 18 glorious years ago!
1. How did you become interested in radio?
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.
2. How would you describe the music on the station?
WFUV plays an adventurous, non-commercial mix of what we call "Rock and Roots." Our core format mix runs weekdays from 5a-10p. The Alternate Side is on WFUV from 10p-midnight nightly, and we carry the World Cafe at midnight. Weekends, we have a variety of programming that includes Pete Fornatale, Vin Scelsa, classic jazz and mission-based Celtic and university programs.
3. What do you like best about your job?
I love being on the air and sometimes wish I had more time in my daily schedule for that. I also really enjoy interviewing artists. It's a place where I still get nervous and challenge myself.
I also love the excitement and planning of live events and broadcasts. There is a lot of creativity at WFUV and I love the freedom we have to take a good idea and make it happen. For example, we just did this feature for Public Radio Music Month called "The Art of the DJ," interviewing people from other stations. It was an idea I had, and we made it happen.
4. What has been your biggest career highlight?
Last year I was included in the DJ exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside so many of my idols. It's a real thrill to know I'm in there.
I'm very proud of the live events we're producing at WFUV. Holiday Cheer for 'FUV is our annual benefit concert, which we're now doing at the Beacon Theatre, and the WFUV Annual Gala is our big night out each year with the New York philanthropic community.
I'm also proud of the live broadcasts we've been doing. I grew up hearing live concerts on the radio, and 'FUV is doing more of those than ever -- and from the best venues in town, such as The Living Room, Rockwood Music Hall, City Winery, Bowery Ballroom, Radio City Music Hall.
Label budgets may have shrunk, but by developing mutually beneficial partnerships we've been able to make these happen regularly. It's a powerful, important part of our work.
Other highlights ... I'm a sucker for a shout-out from the stage like I've had from John Prine, Citizen Cope, Gomez, Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, The Head and The Heart, Punch Brothers. And getting to interview Leonard Cohen and Bjork in the same week doesn't suck either!
5. Tell about WFUV's involvement with April Is Public Radio Music Month
Public Radio Music Month is a national initiative to highlight the work of public radio outlets dedicated to music. There's plenty of mainstream awareness of the news/talk service of public radio, but the music story needs to be told more. Pub Radio is where you hear Arcade Fire, Wilco, Bob Dylan, Adele, The Black Keys, Bon Iver and more.
6. What cool things are you doing for it?
We've put a few good ideas into play around this. We created a month-long promotion with Everest as the WFUV House Band. They're playing a bunch of events and live broadcasts through the month. Plus, we're documenting the writing of a new song in a video feature we're calling SongWorks, and we're releasing an FUV-exclusive vinyl single with them. This is all in advance of their ATO album coming this summer. I'm betting this will be a win for all of us and we're hoping this is the first of many 'FUV House Band promotions.
The Art of the DJ will celebrate the work of public radio DJs at 'FUV and around the country. DJs are one of our strongest assets in pub radio, and we really need to highlight, develop and take seriously this part of radio. The curatorial role in music radio is so important; it's what sets us apart from our competitors in commercial radio and the digital world of Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, iTunes and so on.
And we're doing a ton of live broadcasts: Rodgrigo y Gabriela from Radio City, Alabama Shakes from The Bowery Ballroom, Norah Jones from Tarrytown Music Hall, Trampled By Turtles from the Ace Hotel and more. (Now, can you see why I've hardly have time to do this interview?!)
7. The station launched an ambitious side channel known as The Alternate Side. How is that doing?
We're working hard to be a strong outlet for indie music with The Alternate Side, both on-air and online. In addition to the website and full-time stream, we're on WNYE weekday mornings from 6a-noon, and on WFUV weeknights from 10p-midnight. We do a lot of studio sessions (at least three a week) and their millions of views on YouTube bring new listeners to us. This will be a growth area for the service and WFUV. Props to Russ Borris for leading the way with this mix.
8. Tell about the interview discs you have been doing.
I really love doing artist interviews and hosting radio documentaries. The best ones are when a great, live conversation really clicks, it's recognized from both sides, and it's expanded and produced for national distribution. Plus I'm proud of the fact that I've become a go-to person as voiceover talent for specials. Most recently I've done them for Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Little Willies, among others.
9. With the station's new tower and repeaters, how has that improved the station's reach?
We have a new signal in Manhattan, and further upstate in Beacon. Both are helping us reach new ears. WFUV's signal in Manhattan and Brooklyn is better than ever. Of course, that said, we have thousands of online listeners who find us that way, from all over the world.
10. What do you view as the most important issue facing noncomm radio today?
Fundraising. We all need to be aggressive and strategic in connecting our listeners to revenue. I like to think it's an easy sell, though.
Last non-industry job:
Waitress. I still DJ weddings and parties, too!
First record ever purchased:
"Build Me Up Buttercup"
Queen at Madison Square Garden
Favorite band of all-time:
The Band, Gomez and Frank Sinatra
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
We love to entertain ... lots of house and dinner parties. Also love to cook and clean and drink wine. And long walks on the beach.