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Rick Howlett, veteran broadcast journalist and longtime WFPL host, has died

Portrait of Rick Howlett, stands in alley with brick background.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Rick wore many hats at LPM; most recently he hosted midday newscasts and our talk show, “In Conversation.”

Longtime LPM host Rick Howlett died on Saturday night. He was 62.

If you spend any time listening to 89.3 WFPL, you know his voice. He probably told you about some of the most important things that have happened in our city and state over the past 20 years or so.

Rick came to Louisville Public Media in 2001. But he’d been on the air somewhere in Kentucky since 1984, by his own estimations. Last year for National Radio Day, he made a list of the stations where he’d worked:

  • WBRT/WOKH Bardstown
  • WCKQ/WKXJ Campbellsville
  • WMQQ Springfield/Bardstown/Lebanon
  • Kentucky News Network
  • WHAS-Louisville & WLAP-Lexington
Rick Howlett with the WBRT van at the Kentucky Colonels Barbeque in Bardstown, year unknown
Rick Howlett with the WBRT van at the Kentucky Colonels Barbeque in Bardstown, year unknown

For those of us who were lucky enough to work with him, Rick was a fount of institutional knowledge about our organization and community. He was a reliable mentor who was unfailingly generous with his expertise about broadcast standards, journalism ethics and Kentucky traditions.

Stephen George is LPM’s president now, but he first joined us in 2015 as executive editor, making a big switch from print to radio. Lucky for him, Rick was here.

“Rick was the first person who welcomed me to LPM and made me feel like I belonged,” Stephen said. “He helped me figure out where things were and how things worked, and he counseled me through the first-time jitters of a new job. In the past few weeks, I've learned he did that for so many of us, quietly of course. I love to think about how many people found comfort from Rick.”

I’ve worked with Rick here at LPM since 2004, and our workspaces were almost always adjacent. Over the course of those years, I’ve eavesdropped while reporters, interns and editors at all levels stopped by to ask him questions. Some were very basic and uninformed — including my own.

I shudder to think of how annoying I must have been to a more seasoned pro like Rick when I came aboard knowing nothing about radio, and not much about journalism in general. But he never let on, with me or with anyone. He just shared his wisdom, and maybe chuckled as they walked away.

Another perk of sitting so close to Rick was overhearing his afternoon calls with his beloved son, Sam. Every day, he checked in with Sam when he got home from school. He’d remind him to do his homework and make sure he got a snack. Rick and his wife Janelle put their whole hearts into loving that kid. He was a model dad, endlessly nurturing, and there was something so sweet about hearing his newscaster voice telling Sam how to use the microwave and where to find the Pop Tarts.

The only thing I ever saw him lose patience with was avoidable mistakes. He believed our newsroom was capable of excellence, and it bothered him when we fell short. He held the same high expectations of himself, and inspired others to rise and meet them.

Rick, in conversation

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

One of Rick’s most recent projects was LPM’s weekly talk show, “In Conversation.” He co-created the show and hosted it since its launch in January, 2019.

LPM Associate Producer Michelle Tyrene Johnson has worked on the show since 2020. She shared this memory of her first meeting with Rick:

“When I interviewed for this job as the show’s producer back in 2020, I said that my theory is that you have to know, in individual situations, whether you are the setting or the jewel. I said the job of a producer is to be the setting whose job is to make the jewel shine. Rick said he liked that. Another person in the interview joked that he would, since he was the jewel in this situation. We all laughed. But he was a jewel. A true gem without an ounce of pretentiousness or ego.”

Former WFPL Program Director Jonese Franklin said Rick was one of the first voices she ever heard on public radio, and he seemed like a celebrity. She said getting to work with him was a true gift:

“Rick was the voice you wanted to hear on the air when major news was happening. He could break down even the most complicated stories in a way that everyone could understand. He knew how to walk the line between calm and urgent, a skill that only comes from years of doing it.”

'Please cover'

Full disclosure: Jonese and I are married. And one of the things we’ve talked the most about around the house has been Rick’s sense of humor. It’s one of those things you might only get a hint of from hearing him host the talk show, but Rick was funny, y’all. Dry and quick-witted.

For years we’ve had a running joke where we’d forward each other the most ridiculous press releases and show pitches, with a note saying, “Please cover.” Just searching my inbox now, I see subject lines like, “Key Lime Pie Day!!!!!” “Suzanne Somers’ Romantic Palm Springs Hideaway is for sale” and “Is Irish Dancing the Key to Helping Your Struggling Child?” All with Rick’s note or mine, “Please cover.”

Rick, Janelle and Sam Howlett on vacation, photo by Sam
Rick, Janelle and Sam Howlett on vacation, photo by Sam

Late last year, Rick was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. His treatment wasn’t easy, but it gave him more time with his family, and he went through it all with matter-of-fact optimism. He was very strongly rooted in his Catholic faith, and it showed.

In May, Rick, Janelle and Sam took an epic trip to Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona. It was Sam’s first summer break from college and they were so happy to have him home. Rick came back to work absolutely beaming, and handing out souvenir coasters.

Rick continued working between treatments, hosting the show and newscasts, but he seemed to be slowing down. Earlier this month, he transitioned into palliative care. Text messages came pouring in from loved ones, teammates, former colleagues, listeners and supporters. His family read all of them out loud to Rick, in his hospital bed.

Through his last few weeks, he remained a model of grace and strength as visitors came through to see him, to thank him and to hug Janelle and Sam. Rick handled his changing health news the way he handled all news: with a light touch, but the appropriate gravity. He died surrounded by his family.

When we think about Rick, we’ll hold ourselves to a higher standard. We’ll take more time to nurture younger colleagues, with respect and patience. We will remember to take our work seriously, but not ourselves.

Our airwaves won’t be the same without his steady presence. But we will all be better journalists, and people, for having known him.

News CommunityIn Conversation
Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.

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