Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are making a meaningful impact in their communities, industries, and around the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Nikki Swarn and I am the general manager and program director and on-air personality for The Drop, which is the people’s station for R&B and Hip Hop. We are the second urban alternative radio station in the country under the umbrella of Rocky Mountain Public Media which also includes Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO Jazz, and The Drop.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I am a radio head. I’ve been in radio for 22 years and have worked for almost every radio station in the Denver market, everything from ESPN to Jammin 101.5, KS 107.5 to Alice 105.9.
My journey here was one that I didn’t even expect, actually, because I was looking to get out of radio. I own a publishing firm and a marketing firm and I was going to go work for myself again. I was a little tired of radio and politics and all the extra that comes along with radio. Mike Henry, who was a dear friend of mine and one of the consultants for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sent me a job notification and said, “Hey, Nikki, I think you’d be really great for the marketing position.” But he also sent this programming position. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a radio station, so I applied only to one position – the programming position. Very quickly, within a month, I was here in public media for the very first programming opportunity of my career, and I have loved every second of it.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My whole vibe is to be a servant leader. I really believe that I serve people, I serve humanity, and I just happen to do it through the window of media, radio, entertainment, records, that kind of thing. I believe that music is a great catalyst. I also think it’s a great equalizer because it doesn’t matter what you look like, everyone on the planet has a musical experience of some sort. It allows people to unify over something that they love, and it doesn’t matter what you look like at all and it provides this great opportunity to bring people together.
I believe in community organizing and support. It’s something that I started participating in as a very young person, like five or six-years-old. I served at soup kitchens at that age, so service to others is a big deal for me.
With The Drop, we have an opportunity to reflect more of our community in the media. We’re able to cover our stories, stories that are about African Americans, stories that are about Latinos, stories that are about the LGBTQIA community in ways that mainstream media just can’t do. They can’t do it with the time, the bandwidth, or the knowledge. We have a great opportunity because that’s our whole focus, to be a community-organized station supported by the people. The station itself, The Drop, was named by the community. We didn’t pick the name of the station. We put it out there and asked the community, “What do you want to call this station? We’re building a station for you where you get old-school style radio, to make requests, and it’s about the vibrancy that we have with our Colorado community, so what would you want to call it?” We put it out on social media and we let the community pick the name and they came back with The Drop.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
I think we’re just starting; we’ve only been in operation for a year. We are just now getting our feet into some sort of uplift in terms of what we’re doing for the community. There is a lot of opportunity for what we can do here in this great state of Colorado. We’ve done things not just in the Denver Metro area, but throughout the state in Grand Junction, and in Colorado Springs. So the sky’s the limit for what the station can do and the sky’s the limit in terms of the partnerships we’re developing across the board, both locally and nationally.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
I think it’s a day-to-day thing. I really believe in the universe giving you what you need. I’m a faithful and spiritual kind of person who believes if you quiet yourself and ground yourself, the answers will be presented to you if you’re paying attention.
I’m inspired daily by my team. I have the greatest team in radio. I can’t tell you how excited I am every day to come in and work with such dynamic human beings who have big ideas and know so many things. I love working with Amanda Mountain. As a leader of public radio, she is doing things that no one else is doing in the country. She’s revolutionary in that sense.
I get inspiration from a lot of people including my friends and family. I lost my mom about five years ago and I believe in the idea that sometimes people who pass away do better for us on the other side. I believe everything that’s happening to me now is because she’s watching out for me on the other side. I believe that the transition of her life was to make my life stronger and better and prepared me to be able to excel.
I’ve never been so supported as I am here at Rocky Mountain Public Media. As a woman, I’m the first female African American GM in the state and that only happens if the community around you believes in you and lifts you up and breathes life into you. I’m in the perfect place at the perfect time, with not only local support but national support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Jack and Kathy Merritt, and all of those folks out there, believe in what we’re doing and how we’re running The Drop, and it gives me the energy to keep pushing when stuff is really hard.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I think it kind of ebbs and flows. Some days I want the best broadcast excellence that we can deliver each and every day. Other days it’s looking at how I can be a change agent for the future of broadcast.
Radio has done a really poor job in terms of cultivating talent. We don’t spend the time that we should in terms of investing in the future. That’s a big priority for me. I have a really young, on-air personality named Maleman who we are just pouring into, giving him every opportunity to experience radio at its highest caliber and highest level.
I believe that we should also be doing that in news and media. We have our first fellow as part of a new program we developed here at The Drop that allows us to have someone do news from the African American perspective in our market on the radio. That isn’t anything that anyone else is doing. iHeartRadio had their news channel kind of going down this path, but this is something that you need for public media by way of this new fellowship catalyst program we put together.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Right now some of our challenges are technical. It’s hard to live on stream, or a stream-only station, but we believe that’s going to be changing in the future. It takes a lot longer for people to be indoctrinated into a stream environment. Although everyone is using cell phones, people still want the ability to hop in their car, push the button, and have the radio station come on. That’s a challenge that we have, but we’re hoping that’ll change here in the immediate future.
The other challenge for me is that sometimes being a leader at this level can be very isolating. You don’t necessarily have someone that you can turn to who’s experiencing what you’re experiencing because there’s nobody else that’s doing what you’re doing. I’m lucky because I have a great group of women around me and a great mentor who helps me make really tough decisions. I have a great father, my dad is with me all the time. He was an instrumental leader in banking, one of the first African American CIOs in the state of Colorado, so he can explain to me what I’m facing as I continue to take steps forward being “the first.”
Some of the challenges we are facing are financial. We are a new station. Marketing, acquiring new technology, etc. costs money. We are trying to identify our audience and understand who they are and having research to support it. I believe in the power of Rocky Mountain Public Media and that they’re there to support us. When we ask for something, they hear us, and they support us 100%. It may not be right at the second that we’re asking, but it does happen. That is a true commitment and the spirit of things we’re doing here at The Drop.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
That it’s for the people, period. Everything we do is through the lens of asking how does this affect our community? How are we a great community partner? How are we engaging with the people who listen to us as well as those who aren’t listening? How can we introduce ourselves to them? How can we attract them to public media? If we are doing the job that we should do, which is to serve our community, that in itself is just brilliant. It’s an opportunity that we can’t pass up and it’s an opportunity that we also have to be very cognizant about. We’re very conscious here because my entire staff right now is African American so we’re very cognizant about tokenization, we’re cognizant of the work that’s going around with DEI and making sure that the voices of people in Colorado, Indigenous voices included, are heard continuously. We want to do that, we want to play that music, we want to have those conversations.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
No, I don’t necessarily have a favorite quote, but I will say that. I believe in humanity’s greatness. I believe that we have a responsibility to serve each other and we have a great opportunity to answer the call when called upon. How we answer the call depends on how we see ourselves and how we see that we can contribute to our greater community.
I heard a really great quote today from Lee Bowman, “Vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” I think that is a really great quote for what it is that we’re doing. We are very strategic in the messaging and the work that we’re doing behind the station. I say nothing is an accident. We’re risk-takers, but it’s calculated risk and the world is open to us at this time. But we still have to have a strategy behind what we’re doing. Otherwise, our success will be elusive to us.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
The biggest call to action is to join our movement. That’s what we call what we do, it’s a movement. Engaging in public media is no different than any other rallying cry that you would hear, starting with the right to vote. This is a place where your voice matters. We hear you and we see you.
We have a simple campaign that we put behind our membership because we’re public media and we’re a membership-oriented organization. Ours is no different than KUBO Jazz, or Rocky Mountain PBS, we too are a part of that same membership movement. For us, it’s just $5. That’s it, $5 makes you part of our movement and you become a member of our radio station. There are so many great benefits to being a member of The Drop, so many cool things – incentive items and access in ways that before. Even if you don’t have $5, you still can be a part of this movement – spread the word and tell your friends and your family what we’re doing to make Colorado a place that is seen and heard.
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