This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we reflect with someone working in the Canadian audio landscape about what local radio stations, programming and community is like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a Q&A with Kwende Kefentse on the future of community radio.
Kwende Kefentse is the inaugural Executive Director of local community radio station CKCU. He has been working for more than 15 years at the intersection of arts, public policy, urban studies, music and the economy. Kwende played a critical role in developing the City of Ottawa’s Renewed Action Plan for Arts, Heritage and Culture for the period of 2013 to 2018. He also led the development of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition (OMIC), a non-profit organization that works on local music industry development. Recently, Kwende worked on the Ottawa Music Strategy for the period of 2018 to 2020.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: What is the current landscape of community radio in Ottawa?
What’s the word I would use? Underdeveloped, but auspicious. I think that there’s a great potential for this medium and particularly, for this medium in this city in this moment. By saying underdeveloped and auspicious, maybe I’m trying to say that I think that there’s a lot of opportunity there.
I know that you grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, and you did some education in London, U.K. Are these places coming to mind when you’re thinking about what makes Ottawa’s community radio scene underdeveloped? Is it relative to a certain kind of measure that you have in mind?
No, I think it’s just sort of relative to my experience in the city. And that I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really dynamic experiences with a lot of different kinds of people all over Ottawa. And I don’t always see or hear those stories prominently in media. That’s more what I’m talking about. These platforms, that’s sort of a role that they do play now, and could be. I think that there’s an opportunity to rethink the position of these outlets, and sort of the roles that they can play in creating platforms for these stories and people who are leaving these experiences that I’ve been fortunate enough to have.
Would it be fair to say that developing the city’s community radio scene would require more overlap in terms of what stories are told on these platforms with what’s actually happening out in the communities that they’re supposed to serve?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s more what I’m saying. More of a sympathetic dynamic relationship between things that are happening and what’s present on these platforms, and then by virtue of that, I think that extends out also to the way that the city sees itself. I do think that ultimately that’s sort of what success looks like.
Where do you predict community radio is going in Ottawa in 2021?
Both of the big community radio stations (CHUO and CKCU) are going through some very major changes right now. And I think that that’s exciting. Both are in the process of reimagining and trying to rethink both the constitution and impact of these platforms. I think those changes are going to bring us, at least with the case of CKCU, more to collaboration with some of those other platforms. Both campus community radio stations are going to sort of redefine themselves in different kinds of ways, ultimately, and it’ll be in conjunction with all these other community platforms in the field, which didn’t exist [before]. And I think it will have a real impact on the way that Ottawa is able to connect to and digest this moment of change that’s happening in general.
Where in your wildest dreams could community radio go in your lifetime?
I think it can go really far, obviously. I do.
Community media organizations like CKCU could be playing that role, not just for the community or for this country as far as being critical outlets where people learn about what it means to live here in all the different facets of that. From being able to broadcast alternative and grassroots perspectives on the spectrum of life experiences that you can have here. That’s one of our advantages, that we can go anywhere. We can go all the places that commercial media can’t, won’t, never will. And we have to lean into that.
What is the best innovation to take place in community radio since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?
Our whole thing at CKCU was built on intuition and tradition. I think this interruption was good. That was the best innovation, that it interrupted all of that and forced everybody to really rethink our approach to even producing content, which for me is a really important part of the transformation that has to happen with the station. This would have been a very challenging thing to convince people that, ‘Hey, maybe we need to think about content in a different kind of way.’
Who is the future of community radio in Ottawa?
I don’t know. It’s the community, ultimately. It’s the changing face of Ottawa. That’s who it is. That’s who the future of it is.
Tell us something you wish somebody told you before starting your career in community radio.
Man. There’s a lot of things. [Laughs]. I don’t know. I am so mired in administrative mumbo jumbo right now. I wish somebody told me how long it would take me to get to the music part. I haven’t even done anything related to music at the station yet, because it’s just been all this admin. In so many ways it feels a bit like a startup, because we’re bringing administrative systems out of the paper age.
It’s a lot of that right now, just getting infrastructure that will allow us to scale. Obviously, we can get in there and do a bunch of flashy stuff now, be making content, doing stuff that might be attracting more eyes. But none of that is going to prepare us to grow to where we’re going to grow. So we just got to get some of that foundation stuff down right now. I wish somebody told me how long that would take.
Back in 2015, Apartment613 took a look at the future of Ottawa across several different sectors. In 2021, we’re bringing the series back, asking experts, artists, and community leaders to shed some light on their local field or industry, as it stands now and where they think—or dream—it will go over the next few years. Every week we’ll profile a different cultural sector in Ottawa, leaving no niche unexplored—from social justice to theatre, bars to sports, to the future of the municipality and its natural environs. Check out the full series here.