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“Literally, we just started Googling”: Shelley Youngblut on Calgary Wordfest’s new online streaming service, Imagine on Air

WordFest CEO Shelley Youngblut, with books and Clover the dog (Photo: Heather Saitz)
Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut, with Clover and some upcoming content for Wordfest’s new on-demand streaming service (Photo: Heather Saitz)

“I’m a big believer that you should just do things.” That’s how Shelley Youngblut, CEO of Calgary’s Wordfest, explained the impetus behind the literary festival and event series’ latest venture, Imagine on Air. The on-demand streaming service operates like a lit-fest version of Netflix: for $26 per year, a subscriber has access to the vast majority of Wordfest’s online content, including 2020’s 25 at 25 series of author pairings and themed categories like “Indigenous Voices,” “Open Your Mind,” and “Fantastically Interesting Foodies.” The idea for an on-demand subscription streaming service came about largely because Youngblut looked around and couldn’t find anyone else doing anything similar. “Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a small team that are kind of fearless,” she says on the phone from Calgary. “They’re not afraid of just trying stuff.”

In addition to Youngblut, that fearless Wordfest team includes productions and operations director Sandra Grills; audience development and engagement director Everett Wilson; and programming associate Rita Sirignano. While the quartet is quite skilled in running an in-person festival, when COVID-19 restrictions kicked in last year, they had to learn how to produce a year-long series of events online on the fly. “None of us had any broadcast background. Literally, we just started Googling,” Youngblut says. “It’s complete DIY.”

In 2017, Wordfest made the decision to institute year-round programming in addition to the annual fall festival, which had been running since 1996. In 2019, the last year the festival had live programs, they did 185 individual events, sixty-nine during the festival and sixty-seven off-festival events, with the remainder being youth programming. The overall attendance in 2019 was 25,641, with a revenue of $275,000, most of it coming through box office receipts.

Once COVID hit in 2020, Youngblut and her team made the decision to offer online content for free, because they could find no marketplace for what a literary series like theirs should charge. “Our first event was at the end of March 2020,” Youngblut says. “Then we programmed weekly from March to September, then we started programming twice a week.”

Wordfest’s flagship 25 at 25 series, named for the anniversary year the festival was celebrating, was a sequence of paired author conversations that ran online over thirteen consecutive weeks in the fall. Youngblut says they decided to charge for those events to see what the market would bear. Viewers were required to buy a series pass for $100; more than 300 people purchased passes for the entire festival. “I was very surprised,” Youngblut says of the response. “But they also got their money’s worth.”

Imagine on Air’s tag line

What Wordfest got from the last year’s worth of online programming was a ready-made library of content – everything from indie musicians Tegan and Sara talking to Vivek Shraya about the duo’s memoir, High School; to Charlie Kaufmann and Iain Reid chatting about the former’s film adaptation of the latter’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things; to Kate Elizabeth Russell discussing her #MeToo take on Lolita, My Dark Vanessa. “We never saw this as a stopgap measure,” says Youngblut. “If COVID had never happened, we still would have been dreaming about doing online programming that was not a replacement for the live experience, but something different and complementary.”

Part of getting up to speed with Imagine on Air involved a rethinking of the way that Wordfest’s programs are marketed online. “We’ve almost trained ourselves to think like broadcasters,” Youngblut says. “We don’t call them events. We call them shows.”

Another part of the ramp-up to Imagine on Air was applying Wordfest’s almost obsessional statistical tracking to the virtual world. For any live event, the Wordfest team tracks a book’s Calgary library holds and sales across a broad time frame – before they announce an author is appearing, a week before the show, the night of the show, a week after the show, and close to the end of the year. “We can see the lifespan of a book in the consciousness of the public,” Youngblut says.

A similar approach is used to track stats for online shows themselves. “We know how many people RSVP, we know how many people watch live, we know how many people watch on demand, and at what point in the course of the year are they watching.” Those accumulated numbers add up to 45,000 views for Wordfest’s online programming to date. The actual number of viewers may be even higher. “That’s on a screen,” Youngblut says. “We don’t know if two or three people were watching on that screen.”

Jen Gunter and E. Jean Carroll promo photo

For the upcoming event with Jen Gunter in conversation with E. Jean Carroll, which happens on June 10, Youngblut says they already have more than 1,100 RSVPs. Other forthcoming events in June include an evening with Camilla Gibb on June 8; Lisa Taddeo talking about her debut novel, Animal, on June 15; singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile talking about her memoir, Broken Horses, on June 17; and Ivan Coyote on their latest book, the highly anticipated nonfiction collection Care Of, on June 24. All events are free, with the exception of the Carlile event, which is $40 (the price includes a copy of the memoir). Most events will end up on the streaming service a few days after they run live; the Carlile show will debut on Imagine on Air in July.

Wordfest’s evident success – for a 2019 live event with Margaret Atwood they sold out a 700-seat venue in forty-five minutes – is partly due to Youngblut’s experience working in the magazine industry, which taught her the importance of understanding brand and audience, and the imperative of offering something unique. The theatrical experience of the Wordfest live shows and the on-demand streaming service fill a niche that is not served by 45-minute in-store readings and signings in Calgary, Youngblut says. They complement the city’s existing literary landscape rather than competing with it. “Having an ecosystem is more important than owning a market,” she says. With Imagine on Air, that ecosystem has become a little more diversified.

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