July 01, 2021

Article at theyyscene.com

Online Reading: Wordfest finds a worldwide Imagine On Air On Demand Streaming Audience

As the needle edges ever closer to "normal" and our lives steadily begin to resemble those of the beforetimes, many individuals, businesses and organizations have found some of the urgent and necessary pivots made in the last 16 months remain valuable and have been adopted as core parts of their very existence.

For Wordfest, Calgary's pre-eminent literary festival, the shift away from in-person events and into the world of online programming has led to the launch of Imagine On Air On Demand, the world's first literary streaming channel, in June of 2021.

The transition allowed the organization to present a calibre of authors that rarely, if ever, do the rounds of the Canadian literary circuit, and has tripled Wordfest's audience - expanding their viewership around the world.

"What was astonishing about it for us was we realized that no one knew what they were doing. Everyone from Saturday Night Live, to Wordfest in Calgary; the playing field had been completely levelled," says Shelley Youngblut, Wordfest's CEO and creative ringleader.

Going into the fall of 2020, through countless hours of Google and YouTube tutorials, the Wordfest team now knew how to be "professional broadcasters" says Youngblut. Instead of their annual festival held each October, Wordfest presented an online series called 25@25 from September to December that paired some of Canada's top writers of fiction in conversation.

Some of the highlights of the series included Margaret Atwood and poet Ian Williams, father-son authors Will and Genki Ferguson, The Inconvenient Indian author Thomas King with CBC's The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers, and notoriously enigmatic screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman discussing his latest collaboration with author lain Reid.

"These are people we would've never have had live at our festival. And what we've always done is look at online as an opportunity to do things we can't do live. So, it's not a replacement, it's a complement," Youngblut says.

All told, over 45,000 viewers have tuned in to Wordfest's livestreaming events over the past 16 months, so the decision to create an on-demand streaming service was a no-brainer. For a yearly subscription fee of $26, viewers can tune in any time they want to exclusive content on Imagine On Air On Demand.

"There is no one else putting this kind of intelligent, big idea-driven, generous, empathetic, change-the-world content out there on a streaming service. And so why not us?" she asks.

"What we come out with is so much more satisfying, and substantial, and meaningful. We truly want to showcase things that ultimately are going to change the world. And I know that's a huge, hyperbolic statement, but the world is full of such slush right now. And things that don't matter. And things that aren't worth your time. We're trying to parallel the experience of a good book."

With Imagine On Air's latest live-streaming series, "Big Generous Brains," guests have included Annihilation series author Jeff VanderMeer, three-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner, self-proclaimed "Twitter's resident gynecologist" and GOOP whistle-blower Dr. Jennifer Gunter, and Lisa Taddeo, author of the ground-breaking Three Women.

August will see non-binary trans author, activist and spoken-word performer Ivan Coyote join this already incredible lineup, with Generation X author and artist Douglas Coupland, and Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and The Library Book, confirmed for fall 2021.

Imagine on Air's livestream programming offers viewers access to authors and their work at an unparalleled level. Where a normal literary event might include an author giving a short reading and answering audience questions afterwards, Imagine On Air takes a deep dive into the lives, the work and the everyday musings of authors across the spectrum.

Imagine On Air On Demand subscribers are further able to "graze" on exclusive online content like "Big Ideas in Three Minutes or Less" or intricately explore the works of each guest author - without the need for spoiler alerts.

The spectrum of guests is wide-ranging enough that there is something for every viewer - regardless of whether they are a big reader or not. This is not some stuffy literary festival. Storytellers, musicians, magicians, big thinkers and many more make guest appearances.

Whether you're a foodie, a potboiler-lover or deeply invested in progressive and provocative topics like gender identity and sexuality, the opioid crisis, menopause or mental health, the livestreaming events and on-demand shows offer open, engaging and diverse views.

And despite its expansive offerings, Wordfest and Imagine On Air haven't lost their ties to Calgary's thriving literary community. Having partnered with independent bookstores like Shelf Life and Owl's Nest, as well as the Calgary Public Library, viewers can support local small businesses with embedded links to purchase or borrow the works of each guest author directly.

Youngblut likens the option to borrow or buy a book as no different than wanting to buy a concert T-shirt. It's all part of the experience.

As Wordfest has opted once again to forego their live festival this October, readers won't be able to catch some of their favourite rock star writers in person.

Instead, Live On Air will be presentingeven more exclusive appearances from acclaimed authors such as Miriam Toews in conversation with a top secret special guest, astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, and National Book Award-winning author and Oprah's Book Club-antagonist Jonathan Franzen in his only Canadian appearance.

Now in her sixth year at Wordfest's helm, Youngblut was recently awarded the City of Calgary Community Achievement in Arts Award - an accolade she says she shares entirely with her team.

"I was always terrified that I would never have the opportunity to do anything meaningful. Isn't that funny that the thing that scared me my whole career is just that I wouldn't have the opportunity? And having had opportunity, you realize how important it is to share it."

Perhaps even more funny - and fitting - is that it took a worldwide pandemic to create an opportunity for growth in the literary community; one of the hardest hit arts industries in pre-pandemicyears.

"We've always known that there was an opportunity to present international authors - big name authors - in an online environment. So we were able to jumpstart this opportunity. We certainly would have preferred not to have had to, but we saw the opportunity, we saw the window opening and we jumped through it."