KUVO's Nikki Swarn on Exit of Controversial Exec and Station's Future

KUVO general manager Nikki Swarn (left) will serve as the station's interim program director following the departure of Max Ramirez (right).
KUVO general manager Nikki Swarn (left) will serve as the station's interim program director following the departure of Max Ramirez (right).
KUVO, the public-radio station at 89.3 FM specializing in jazz, has had plenty of ups and downs since its 1985 debut, but last year may have been its most tumultuous. Many listeners were upset and confused by the departure of four longtime hosts — Rodney Franks, Susan Gatschet, Matthew Goldwasser and Janine Santana — and worried that the music mix at the signal, known for championing the work of jazz giants, had been watered down in a revenue-driven quest for a younger audience.

The person most associated with these changes was Max Ramirez, who was hired as KUVO's program director in February 2022. But his tenure proved to be brief. On March 24, general manager Nikki Swarn announced in a letter addressed to "friends and supporters" that Ramirez would be leaving the station. "After April 4, Max plans to relocate out of state, but will continue working remotely with KUVO as a consultant until May 15," she wrote, adding that she would act as interim program director "as we review plans for this position."

Swarn insists that Ramirez's exit didn't come as a result of the controversy he'd stirred.

"Sometimes things just don't work out," she says. "When we were putting together the station, Max wanted some things and we wanted some things, and being able to meet in the middle can sometimes be a challenge. But he's a great programmer with a lot of great opportunities ahead of him."

Meanwhile, the responsibility for moving KUVO into the future rests heavily on Swarn, whose titles just keep multiplying. When she was named KUVO's general manager last November, she was already serving in the same role at The Drop, a KUVO spinoff specializing in hip-hop and urban-alternative music that's won multiple Best of Denver awards, and she continues to do so. Taking on the duties of interim program director at KUVO, too, guarantees her longer days even as it will make her the target for criticism from listeners who either liked or loathed the sonic blend Ramirez instituted.

But if Swarn is feeling overwhelmed, she's hiding her anxiety very well. "Right now, things are really amazing," she says. "It's like a dream come true."

Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Swarn attended grade school and high school in Denver, and became a dedicated listener of KDKO, an urban-music outlet overseen by James "Dr. Daddio" Walker, who was a role model and inspiration. "He was the first African American to be general manager of a Denver radio station, and I'm the first African American woman," she points out. "I never put my feet in the shoes of people like him, but I put my shoes next to them, and he was a big influence on me. My job is to hold the door open just a little wider, as it was held open for me. It's empowering to know there is an opportunity for my voice to be heard at the table and that I can invite people to come into an industry that's not necessarily been friendly to people of color, and especially women of color."
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Janine Santana and Rodney Franks have found new outlets since departing from KUVO.
Her love of radio also made her a fan of KUVO, and she fondly recalls interviewing station co-founder Florence Hernandez-Ramos while she was a student at the University of Colorado Denver. (Hernandez-Ramos is back at the station as a strategy and team-building consultant and emeritus member of the Rocky Mountain Public Media board of directors.) Swarn wasn't hired when she first applied for a job at the station: "It wasn't my season yet," she says. But in 2019, after more than two decades of work in Denver-area radio at stations such as KHIH, KS 107.5, KYGO, ESPN and Alice 105.9, she was invited into the KUVO fold to launch The Drop.

Three years later, Swarn took the helm at KUVO, and in the four months or so since she's been in charge, she's listened closely to the concerns expressed by listeners. "The email we sent out about the change that was happening with Max was my personal email address, and I responded to all the emails I received," she stresses. "A lot of feedback centered on how much they love KUVO and how much it's a part of their daily experience. But they ran the gamut, from saying, 'Hey, is there going to be an opportunity for this and this to happen?' or 'Are you going to bring folks back?'"

Asked about the possibility of Franks, Gatschet, Goldwasser and Santana returning to KUVO, Swarn responds: "I don't have a crystal ball, so it's hard for me to say what's going to happen with talent. But we've got an amazing group of folks, and I'm so excited to see their fresh and new vision. They are invigorated and want to try new things."

The same is true for several of the departed hosts. Although Goldwasser declined comment, Franks is currently working at KPEO, an internet radio station, where he's playing music rooted in jazz from 3 to 6 p.m. weekday afternoons; the service has thousands of listeners nationally and internationally but only a handful in Denver, and he'd love to grow the number locally. The hiring of Swarn as KUVO's general manager strikes him as a good move. "I respect Nikki's abilities and what she brings to the table," Franks emphasizes. As for Ramirez's departure, he says, "Hopefully, it will let the current management make decisions unencumbered by the previous management — questionable decisions made prior to their ascendance to the spot."

Santana and Gatschet have teamed up to create TAVN, an online station they've dubbed "The Arts Validation Network." The project is currently live, and Santana reveals that fundraising is underway for an app to make their work more easily accessible. As for Ramirez, she says, "If he's gone, he's gone — and I'm not surprised. But even though I'm still infuriated by what they did to all of us, I'm also not going to go back there and keep poking an open wound. It's like if you break up with an abusive spouse: The best thing to do is not to look backwards."

Likewise, Swarn wants to move KUVO ahead. "This is a beautiful place to work, and I'm very blessed to have the opportunity," she says. "It's the honor of my life to serve this public-media radio station and this organization in the way I do, and I don't take it lightly. I am invigorated by the possibilities and have so much respect for the history of jazz in this beautiful state of Colorado. I can't even explain the energy and the vigor I get from it. I'm so happy that this is my journey."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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