There are a number of reasons to marvel over Alisha Sweeney. At 22, she's just graduated from the journalism department at the University of Colorado at Boulder with her second bachelor's degree in five years. She's an artist preparing for her first gallery show: "[Sm]art Projects" will be on display at 60 South, a nightclub at 60 South Broadway, next week. She's getting ready to move to London, a city she's never set foot in, to take a job with BBC Radio. And, perhaps most miraculous, for the past two years she's reported to the basement-level studio of Radio 1190/KVCU-AM at the crack of dawn, five days a week.
Local radio listeners who crave music and personality in the morning -- rather than dick jokes and market updates -- have gotten to know Sweeney as the producer and host of Radio 1190's morning show, which airs from 7 to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday. Unlike many college-age kids who savor every possible moment in their beds before stumbling puffy-eyed and messy-haired into morning classes, Sweeney has willingly adapted to a somnambulistic life: She typically sleeps about four hours a night. For this, her 30,000 daily listeners should be grateful.
When Sweeney took over the morning shift in April 2000, following the departure of longtime jock DJ Loki, she quickly established herself as an affable on-air talent with a prodigal, almost precocious, knowledge of a wide range of music, much of which was recorded years, even decades, before she was even an apple in her music-hungry father's eye. (Sweeney makes many on-air references to her parents' love of music -- and often pulls curious tracks from their collection to play during her show.) Since then, she's become the station's most popular personality (and the winner of a Westword Best of Denver award for Best DJ in 2001). Maybe it's the exactitude and earnestness she displays while introducing listeners to new sounds as part of her "Artist of the Week" segments that endear her to us. Maybe it's that down-to-earth timbre of her voice, or the fact that she often sounds as if she's got a little cold. Or maybe it's the fact that Alisha, who's never assumed a zany on-air handle, has always been just Alisha -- a real, smart and dedicated voice on the dial.
Whatever it is, fans need it to soak it up while they can. On August 16, Sweeney signs off for good and takes the leap across the pond. Milkman Dan, current co-host of Saturday's Hangover Brunch program, will assume the morning duties (and the erratic sleep patterns). But those who need an Alisha fix will be able to access her Web site, djalisha.com, where she's already begun posting interviews as well as a personal journal. ("My boss thanks you, since I come in to work with a smile sometimes," reads a typical farewell message from a fan who's signed her guest book.) 60 South will dedicate its August 8 "Lipgloss" event as a going-away party and one-night-only artist's reception for Sweeney, who's says she's in denial about her pending split from the radio station -- and audience -- that has partly defined her over the course of roughly 500 shows.
Backwash: Did you ever have any trepidation about committing yourself to the morning show?
Alicia Sweeney: No, I never hesitated. When they offered it to me, I was just so excited, the time element wasn't even a consideration at all. But I've never been the typical college student. I've always put my passions before sleep. In high school I was the student body president, and I would go to school at 7 a.m. and make sure that the announcements were all in order. I'd talk to the teachers and be sure everything was set. I've always been very driven and disciplined in that way.
So you did your high school announcements. Was that your first experience with broadcasting?
Actually, when I was in ninth grade, my friends and I went to this haunted house in Fort Collins, and they were all really scared. I was just laughing, because that was my way of dealing with being frightened. When we came out, this radio station was there, and I went on the air talking about the haunted house and embellishing some stuff and saying my friends' names. It just felt very natural and easy for me to talk on the radio, live on the air. And it was really good for my popularity at school.
One of your degrees is in journalism. Why did you decide to go into radio, as opposed to other mediums?
The focus of my journalism degree is Media Studies, because I've always wanted to think analytically about the things going on in the media and how our culture is being formed -- like, why we are who we are. My heart is really in wholesome media, community stations like Radio 1190 that aren't driven by corporate ratings or some man sitting in an office hundreds of miles away from the station itself. I never wanted to be a voice or a personality. I chose to be a DJ because I wanted to be myself on the air.
Your "Artist of the Week" segments are really informative without being condescending to the listener. How do you prepare them?
The listeners choose the artists. So once I know who I'm covering, I'll get online, just start doing a lot of research. I think of myself as a music sleuth -- looking up my favorite music sites, reading all the liner notes on CD or vinyl and then actually listening to the music.... I have a good ear for music, and I want to be able to offer that to people. My approach is, 'I just want to show you this.' I want them to be aware of some stuff, without forcing it on anyone.
You have more listeners than any other show on Radio 1190. What's your interaction with listeners?
I have suitors and stalkers and then people who really respect me. I've found that I'm more popular among male listeners than female. I guess guys like listening to my voice. They describe it as "cute," which I guess is okay with me. Cute is cute, you know.
A lot of people turn to you to get tipped to new music. Who do you turn to?
The first person is my brother, Seth, who is two years older. When we were growing up in Fort Collins, he worked in the hippest record store. He'd bring stuff home, and we'd sit in the basement just listening to records, and then we'd both spread the word about that stuff to our friends. So he's been a big influence. The listeners are also a good source. I'll play something, and they'll call up and tell me about some artist that's related in some way, and it just goes on from there. And the other DJs here are really good about teaching me about stuff, especially Uncle Jeff, who does the Route 78 West show. He's taught me a lot about country.
I always wonder how you manage to sound so perky at such ungodly hours.
I realized I'm not a person who needs a lot of sleep to be happy. In two years, I have a pretty good batting average: I've only been late five times. I hope people appreciate that. I've been here on Christmas, on Thanksgiving. One morning I had just broken up with my boyfriend, and I was down here before the show, just bawling. I decided I had to pull it together and go on the air -- and I did. [When I arrive in the morning], it's really quiet, which is nice to have that quiet studio time, but it can also be hard to find the drive and the motivation to actually get the show on the air, because there's no one there to cheer you on. I'm also the guinea pig, because if the equipment isn't working, I'm the one who'll find out -- be panicked on air and trying to find the engineer so he can get his butt down here.
People are pretty cynical about the state of music today. But you seem so optimistic in your belief that there's good stuff still being made.
I think a lot of people go with what other people tell them to. They get their music information from TV, and there are only like five bands being played on TV. People get frustrated. That's why they turn to an '80s station or classic rock and whatnot. I want people to realize that there is an alternative out there, and a lot of people making music for music's sake.
Tell me a little bit about the art that will be on display at 60 South.
Well, I don't claim to be a professional artist. But I like putting things together -- like, putting together a composition the same way you'd put together music. It's not the best stuff in the world -- I'm definitely lo-fi with my art. It's pretty kitschy. And I always give it away. I've never tried to sell it before, so this will be interesting.
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Is the sale to help facilitate your move to England?
Yeah, I've got this whole Alisha Fund thing going. I had to sell my car; I sold my skateboard and thought about selling my computer. My parents are having a rummage sale for me, and I've been selling a lot of my old records on eBay. That's one thing about radio that I've learned: It doesn't pay.
Nervous at all about moving to a foreign country?
Well, I'm going there cold turkey, which is exciting. And I have no idea what I'll be doing in my job. I'm kind of a big dork this way, but I've always believed that if you put your dreams out there on the air, things are gonna happen. I'm pretty sure that good things are in store for me.