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The folks at The Drop were feeling it. It was the morning after Valentine’s Day, the first official day of the station being on its FM signal, 104.7. Why not swoon a little?
The people for whom the station had been created have been showing their love for “The People’s Station for R&B and Hip Hop” since it began streaming in June 2019. Now, The Drop’s brew of commercial-free cuts and community-loving content had an FM home. And, yes, even in a world of digitized fare and streaming options, it felt different.
“Make sure you do your part,” on-air personality Amerykah Jones said into the mic at the studio on the second floor of Rocky Mountain Public Media’s handsome Buell Center. “This is a people thing. This is for the state of Colorado. We love you.”
“Amerykah Jones” is the on-air persona of Nikki Swarn, the station’s general manager, program director and creative force. Jones’ show is called the Hot Mess Express for a reason: She’s vivid. But Swarn’s biz vision, honed by more than two decades in local radio, is proving sharp.
The Drop is one of four stations in the nation created under the rubric “Urban Alt.” (The others are in Chicago, Norfolk and Houston.) It’s a format that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been growing in order to reach younger audiences, to engage with Black and brown listeners. (And if others tune in, cool.) Three more stations are on the way.
“This is a long game for (CPB),” said Mike Henry, a player in shaping the Urban Alternative format and founder and CEO of Paragon Media Strategies in Lakewood. “I started talking to Rocky Mountain Public Media as soon as CPB announced its second round of grants. (KUVO’s) Tina Cartagena was the original inspiration to latch on to it. Once she got Amanda Mountain’s ear, Amanda really grabbed onto it. Got the grant. Hired Nikki, and the rest is history.”
“It’s just so obviously the right thing, and we can tell by the way the community is taking hold,” said Mountain, CEO and president of Rocky Mountain Media, which owns jazz juggernaut KUVO in addition to a slew of public television stations in the state. “In order to address fundamental challenges in traditional media outlets, this is the only path forward. To shape our organizations with, not for, the communities we serve.”
After all, Swarn knows the intimate feedback loop of listener and programming. “I’m confident — I’m rarely this confident — that Nikki’s vision for public media is the vision for the future,” Mountain said. “It’s not just an arms-length attempt to reflect the community but rather inviting people in to do this together. It’s revolutionary, and it’s rooted in a legacy that’s hard to articulate.”
When Swarn was growing up in Denver, she recalled climbing into her father’s ’72 Charger SE. “His one mantra was, ‘You will, when you get in the car with me, listen to Black radio and support Black businesses.’ ” At the time, Denver’s legendary Jim “Dr. Daddio” Walker owned KDKO, an R&B-Soul station at 1510 AM. It made an indelible impression.
“I wanted it to be part of Black History Month because we hadn’t seen anything like this since KDKO days,” Swarn said a few days before the signal launch of The Drop. “We pick the music our community is telling us it wants to hear. If you give them something that’s sustainable and feeds them — and that’s culturally relevant — that’s the other part.”
The summer’s Black Lives Matter protests added urgency to that mission. “When I built this station, I wanted African-American men, their voices, to be heard, (for hosts) to get on the radio and say, ‘Y’all, I see you,’ ” said Swarn. “Nothing was more poignant than when everything was going on with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and my male jocks were on the front lines.”
You can tell the mojo of a leader by the energy of her team. While The Drop has added a couple more hosts recently (sustainability gadfly DJ Cavem and Gospel Jamz DJ PK, as in “preacher’s kid”), these are the weekday people behind the People’s Station.
Dif’s got a sly, ready smile. And though he’s well aware of this trait, The Drop’s morning host has a way with humility, too. (The pandemic might have something to do with that.) Dif’s DJ work took a COVID-19 wallop, putting on pause regular gigs at clubs in Los Angeles, Dallas and Denver. Good thing Swarn had reached out when she was plotting her pitch for the station. “She had something she wanted me to listen to,” he recalled. He offered some ideas. Then Swarn encouraged him to apply for a job. Now, the “Minneapolis, Minne-snow-ta” transplant (that successful graft happened when he arrived at Aurora Central High sophomore year) is music director and on-air host.
“The opportunity was bigger than me and nothing like this has been done in years,” he said of the station. As for the juice of the new FM signal: “(It) adds fuel, it adds voice, it adds empowerment to the community.” One of the things that empowerment looks like is a dedication to local artists. Some of those who’ve gotten play — once an hour during the week or on the weekend’s Local Love show — include Old Man Saxon, Adiel Mitchell, Mandy Groves and Such.
“Monday here felt like a swish-just-hit.” Assistant program director and on-air host Shanton “Unique” Henderson is talking about the Drop’s first day on FM. “You could see that the people were there, and they were waiting for it.” Then the 35-year-old commercial radio vet admitted, “It was something I hadn’t experienced.”
Radio love is a real thing, and much like Swarn, Unique wants the station to tap that old-school sense of place even as it lays town new tracks to listeners. But making claims on community is more than a playlist proposition. Last summer, he went to Civic Center to join in — and bear witness to — the Black Lives Matter protests. Video of him being pepper-sprayed by the police has upwards of 100,000 views. “We say we want to help, but your actions speak louder. I didn’t want to go down there to say, ‘I was here,’ to broadcast, it wasn’t that at all. I just wanted to experience it. I’d never done anything like that in my life. ” Of the people, for the people.
DJ Bella Scratch
“I always wanted to come back to Denver,” said DJ Bella Scratch, who grew up in Park Hill. “When I thought about home, I thought about diversity.” During 1993’s “Summer of Violence,” her mom, Loretta Syrus, moved the future DJ and her two younger siblings to Wellston, Okla., where Syrus’ mother owned 15 acres. “It was a one-pony town when we moved there,” she said.
She returned to the Mile High City in 2007. “I’ve been grinding for this for my whole life … OK, it feels like my whole life,” she said. “To find myself, finally, on an FM signal where I’m one of the weekday hosts is major.” For her show, Powerful Movement Radio, she designed a series called “Following Your Passion, Securing Your Bag.”
“The goal this week was to inspire people the way I feel inspired to have this opportunity,” she said of her entrepreneur-fostering fare. “If you can work hard for other people, you can work hard for yourself. Listen, you do not have to go poop-scoop for a living. There’s so much more out there. If you don’t like your job, can’t stand your boss, don’t like what you’re doing, then decide to change.”
If listeners have an itch to learn self-care, mindfulness and financial literacy, Scratch has their back.
“My youngest,” Swarn calls on-air personality Maleman, 28. Maleman hosts the Midnight Snack, from midnight to 3 a.m. “You wake up in the middle of the night, want you something to eat?” he said, sitting in the second-floor open-space, music wafting over the speakers. “Heat up those leftovers, turn on the radio and be vibing out to 3 a.m.”
A graduate of Metro State University’s broadcast and radio program, Timmale “Maleman” Dotson spent a year as a volunteer and was hired in September. Still, it’s not Metro State that rates a special kind of shout out, but Montbello High School (now called Denver School for International Studies-Montbello). “Montbello, born and raised,” he boasted sweetly. In addition to his late-night show, Maleman’s involved in nurturing a couple of podcasts from that burg: “Know Justice. Know Peace” and “Voices of Montbello’.’
“There was no question of, ‘You all doing anything with Montbello High School?’ Whatever, however I can help, I will,” he told Swarn. “That’s me giving back to the place that directly brought me here.”