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A visit to the Sugar Shop
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Lolly Obeda, host of the Sugar Shop has been a presenter on KFAI for close to twenty years. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Twenty five years ago this month, a group of left-leaning activists in Minneapolis threw the switch to power up radio station KFAI. The eclectic patchwork of music, news and alternative viewpoints started in the bell tower of a south Minneapolis church. Now the station broadcasts from gleaming, recently refurbished, studios near the University of Minnesota. But the on-air mission is pretty much the same. The station has dozens of shows driven by the whims, quirks, intelligence and tastes of whoever's hosting. Some shows challenge even the most adventurous radio listeners. Others are legendary.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The KFAI radio transmitter has slightly more power than it takes to light a desk lamp. But it's beaming a sunny voice from a Minneapolis office manager that can break through the tedium of any Friday afternoon Twin Cities traffic jam.

"That's Aretha Franklin, of course," host Lolly Obeda breathes into the microphone. "You're listening to the Sugar Shop. We come to you every Friday afternoon here on KFAI..."

Obeda spins 60s Motown hits alongside hard-driving southern blues and melodic soul. In between, fans say, her instantly recognizable voice and style elevate her show to three hours of delightful radio.

Obeda has had an on-air presence on KFAI for nearly 20 years--the majority of that time hosting the "Sugar Shop" on Fridays. And like the more than one hundred other on-air show hosts she's never earned a dime doing it.

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Image Taking a call

"There's something about the....audience, something about being in the studio that is so natural and comfortable and feels so good" Obeda said. "Even if I'm having a bad day, by the time I walk in there, the phone starts ringing, I start speaking to the community, I feel like I'm the queen of the world."

In an industry in which corporate executive committees dictate playlists and on-air personalities substitute attitude for ability, Obeda's is in a shrinking minority. Her passion for her craft and knowledge of her subject are the result of a lifelong interest.

She has thousands of records stored in the basement of her southeast Minneapolis home--the very house she's lived in her entire life. She calls herself more of a music listener than a record collector.

"My dad and I used to listen to 78's when I was a kid," Obeda says. "We had all kinds of Bing Crosby kind of stuff. Popular music of the 30s and 40s. 'Only a shanty in old shanty town' and 'BIB' and 'Been to College' was one of the ones I liked when I was a kid. 'The Wabash Cannonball', a whole variety of things."

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Image At home

Growing up in the 60s, her preference for Howlin' Wolf instead of the Beatles was an early indicator of Obeda's musical DNA.

"The first 45 I bought was by a woman named Barbara Acklin," Obeda says. "The song is called 'Love makes a woman', and I still believe it today."

Most days, Obeda is an office manager for a Minneapolis mental health clinic. She answers phones and does accounting and scheduling. She's home in time to pick up her six year old daughter, Miss Lilly, from the same elementary school she attended 40 years ago.

Obeda's love for radio started soon after she filled in for a friend who had a morning show on KFAI. She says she'd never considered it before that. In fact she was more than a little self-conscious about her voice.

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Image Choosing a track

"It's obviously unique in some sense," Obeda said. "People hear me talking and immediately know it's me. So I had some sense of embarrassment about that. When I got to KFAI and found out my voice wasn't embarrassing, that I could use that voice in such a big way, to reach so many people, it gave me a huge sense of self esteem and feel good about who I am and what I do.

Who she is, and what she does, has gained her a lot of fans. Mark Wheat is program coach at 770 Radio K at the University of Minnesota and one-time host of KFAI's "Local Sound Department" show. He still helps the station with training. He says Obeda has that abstract on-air quality that can only be described as "soul".

"Just from the sound of her voice you can hear the dedication she has to the music she plays," Wheat says. "And after 20 years of doing a program like that you can hear still the dedication to supporting the community not just of blues musicians and blues lovers, but the idea of a community radio station that enables her to have a show like that."

KFAI director Janis Lane-Ewart finds herself wandering into the studio during Obeda's show to nod her head along with the beat. She envisions thousands of people within reach of the station's determined 125-watt signal doing the same thing. She says Obeda has a naturally inviting persona.

"It's reassuring, it feels like an old family member in your house that's just spinning records just for you," Lane-Ewart said. "It's comfortable, it's relaxing. It feels like you're just at home having a party with one of your friends."

During her show, Obeda refers to the studio as her living room. People stream in and out and the phone rings constantly. She juggles compact discs and vinyl records, looking for the next selection. She said she never envisioned she'd be on the radio this long, but now she'd have to be dragged off the air.

"Radio is one of the things I think is magic," Obeda says. "Just like electricity and love and gravity. They're all lumped into the same area in my head. They're plain out magic. And maybe it's that magic that makes me feel that way when I go into the studio, I don't know, but it certainly has been a lot of fun."

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