Interview: Xav Leplae
Xav Leplae is an artist, filmmaker, and activist who has operated out of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood since 1991. His longest running operation, Riverwest Film and Video, has facilitated the space for his most recent project to gain momentum: Riverwest Radio.
Open View: What first inspired you to start Riverwest Radio?
Xav Leplae: I started out in film as an artist and got involved almost immediately with an organization in New York called Paper Tiger TV. I also got involved with Public Access TV in Milwaukee. Those things set me on a path of community media and creating platforms for people to express themselves and be able to get their hands on broadcasting tools.
I do see it [Community Media] as one of the best forms of activism, because politically, almost all social problems stem from misunderstanding. So many problems in the world are about communication and people being able to talk to each other. I’ve definitely done my share of protesting in the streets and that kind of political activism, but especially after the  protests in Madison, I’ve really felt the need to create lines of dialogue.
Riverwest Radio sprung from that [protest] and the Occupy Movement which came along the following year. The sense that our media landscape is becoming this kind of monoculture, is really the equivalent of a food co-op vs large grocery store chains or a small family farm vs a factory farm. I see Riverwest Radio going along those same lines. Because our media is such a monocultural environment, I think we need something that is really grass-roots and homegrown. I feel like art is very much about the self, and activism is more about the people. This format is a good way for me to operate between those two tendencies.
OV: The project has been running for almost 4 years. What has been the most apparent change in its structure and vision since it started?
XL: Switching to FM has been a big game changer for us. Up until then, it was becoming a little questionable as to why we would continue doing this. It kind of gives us street cred, or something like that.
In terms of content, not much has changed. Shows have tightened up a bit. I need to make sure everything is running on time, like clock work. But what happens within those perimeters is not so different. People seem to be taking more pride in their shows. Many have been doing more work with publishing and making sure their work gets seen. It’s about more than just making something and leaving. They’re creating it, publishing it, promoting it and making it something people will be sure to check out.
OV: What kind of effect have you seen the radio station have on the community?
XL: It’s hard to tell sometimes. We have seen a very positive response from the community. It seems like the public is supportive of what we are doing. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what kind of effect you are having on people.
I do see that these shows really matter a lot to the people who are able to participate in them. We run about 50 shows a week, and these shows, to many of the participants, are a pretty important part of their lives. For some people, it's one of the only things they are actively involved in, besides their job. It allows the community a creative outlet. It's gratifying to know that it makes a difference in people's lives, in many different ways.
OV: Why do you find Riverwest the best location for these projects?
XL: If someone were to say ‘start all over again,’ and I didn’t know Milwaukee well, you could probably pick a few other locations that might be just as good, but this is a pretty ideal spot. We are really in the heart of the neighborhood, right next to Fuel Cafe, which is a converging point for many people. Since we depend so much on foot traffic as a storefront radio station and not just a radio station imbedded in a building, it is nice to be in close proximity to so many things.
In my opinion, Riverwest also happens to be the most creative neighborhood. This is an area where many people with different ethnic backgrounds all live. I am sure there are other places that are similar, but this also happens to be a very community conscious neighborhood. The Riverwest 24, the Riverwest Co-op, the Public House, and People’s Books are all great examples of organizations that are about community. So we have that going for us. We have kind of a political alliance that’s happening in this area that is very much about connecting people.
OV: How can artists get involved with Riverwest Radio?
XL: I would like to encourage people to get involved. We are primarily talk radio. 80 percent talk is what we are aiming for. But we also really want radio art. So we would like to encourage projects that experiment with radio as an art form.