That Time I Ran a Virtual Literary Festival (and Lived to Tell the Tale)
Four years ago I helped launch (and subsequently run) The Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the brainchild of two Charlestons on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Charleston in Sussex, England, was the country home of Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell (sister to Virginia Woolf) and Duncan Grant, and is home of one of England's premiere literary Festivals. The Charleston Library Society in South Carolina is the second oldest circulating library in America and the oldest cultural organization in the South.
From our first events in 2017 through our most recent in-person festival in 2019, we built something special. Magical. We welcomed bestselling authors, journalists, scientists, playwrights and diplomats to our city each November for four days of on-stage conversations, a vibrant back-stage networking area, and parties that showcased our city's stellar culinary reputation. We wrapped up 2019 having hosted Joyce Carol Oates, Jung Chang, Rebecca Makkai, David Blight, and oh so many more.
We were on a high. Our Artistic Director began lining up speakers; our Development Director raised cash to sustain us through the year. And I, the Festival Director in charge of operations, booked our venues for 2020.
And then...well, you know...2020 am I right?
Like so many festivals, we began the year in hope. Surely the pandemic wouldn't be that bad.
And then...it was worse.
Our sister festival in Sussex was forced at the last minute to cancel their May event. They recorded 10 sessions via Zoom and released them on YouTube, but the compacted timeline made it impossible to create a full-fledged virtual festival. Nor did there seem to be a mandate for it: how could an online event replicate a live one?
As the pandemic worsened, we faced tough decisions. Should we hold out hope for an in-person festival in November, cancel, or attempt the unimaginable: create a virtual festival with all the magic of years past. Could we? Should we?
Why We Went Virtual
It was a tense meeting. Our Board of Directors were split. Most didn't believe we could use virtual platforms to create the buzz of live events; others knew we'd lose donors if we canceled outright. No one on our tiny team had experience producing virtual events.
The Covid numbers were clear. The pandemic wasn't going to disappear. Charleston was somewhat unscathed as compared to larger cities, but we couldn't ask our speakers to travel from near or far. We couldn't ask our patrons to gather indoors. None of it was safe.
However, when you already have speakers who say they're all-in, no matter what, it's difficult to cancel. They wanted to speak. We had patrons emailing us, telling us how much they needed our festival events. They wanted to listen. How could we not do everything in our power to accommodate them?
In the end, we had no choice but to ensure the safety of our speakers, patrons and staff. As a team we reiterated our shared believe in the power of conversation to improve and inspire the world. And we took a leap of faith: we believed that, although we didn't know how to do it yet, we could produce a high-quality virtual festival with an impact on our tiny corner of the globe.
Little did we know our tiny corner of the globe was about to grow.
How We Went Virtual
There's one question I've been asked most often since hitting the End Broadcast button for the final event. It's "How'd you do it?"
It's a question that could be theoretical or practical. I'll address practicality here.
We ran test events for donors early in the summer that showed clearly Zoom Webinars alone weren't robust enough to produce events that felt professional, branded and exciting. Zoom Webinars, while useful (and a huge piece of the technology quilt we stitched together), don't allow enough customization in their look and feel.
Luckily, a number of kind and generous festival directors from the Wisconsin Book Festival, WordPlay, the Bay Area Book Festival and others had already come up with basic playbooks they were willing to share. 2020 showed me festival community is more like a family than a competition.
So now I'm happy to share my playbook with you.
Speakers need their own space to come in and warm up before going live in front of a crowd, similar to a green room at a live festival. They need time to get comfortable, do a sound check, have a quick conversation about who's saying what, in a space where they don't have to worry about accidentally having a hot mic. They also should have a space where the inevitable ugliness of internet commenters won't intrude.
This was where we used Zoom Webinars. Most of our speakers were already comfortable using it, making my life simpler when it came to speaker setup. No one had the link to the webinar but my speakers, my Artistic Director, and me. They had their safe space; no one could interrupt. And they only went live (in real-time or when pre-recording) when they were ready.
This was probably the hardest bit for me to wrap my head around. What did I need production software for? Then I watched the news. You know how CNN has scrolling messages across the bottom? Logos at the top? Graphics they can cut to and from while newscasters talk? This is what the production software can do for you and your festival.
Of course, I'm not a news producer, nor do I ever plan to be one. However, even I could learn to start a countdown clock, play pre-recorded clips, then patch in a Zoom webinar, all while having branded content on screen. These pieces were invaluable to creating a coherent look and feel to all of our festival events.
There are a number of broadcast software platforms, including but not limited to: Wirecast ($$$), ECamm Live ($), and OBS (free). I went with ECamm Live. Wirecast and OBS had more robust functionality, but ECamm Live was far more user-friendly. It wasn't too resource-intensive on my computer, and it had an automatic record feature that came in super-handy.
Now you've got the conversation between the speakers and the production software to make it look fancy. How do you share it with your viewers?
For us the solution was Crowdcast, a creator-friendly broadcast solution that was a pleasure to work with. And I don't say that lightly. I'm very picky about software. I also had everyone and their mother suggesting platforms to me ("Hey Leah, this random company used this random software for their virtual event and it was pretty!"), but from the get-go I liked Crowdcast. I took a chance.
It was...nice. Events were easy to set up. Logos and images were simple to upload. The software tracked email addresses and other attendee data, let me email attendees updates and automatic reminders, provided a real-time chat room, and offered a modest suite of analytics. It also had an automatic record feature which came in super handy. I could download our videos then pop them out on our YouTube channel to keep the conversation going.
All three of these software platforms play together quite nicely; there are plenty of YouTube tutorials that show you how.
-Video Editing Software
We knew it was important to have a series of short introductions for each session, including a trailer, a festival introduction, donation appeal, and then a speaker-specific intro. To do this, we hired professionals. Real film and audio can't be faked.
I received dozens of clips which I then needed to merge into complete packages. I also, in some cases, had to edit full-length pre-recorded interviews to add photos, remove bloopers, and highlight certain speakers at certain times and...
...my head almost exploded. I'm not a video editor!
For once, Apple had my back. As it turned out, learning the basics of iMovie only took a video tutorial or two. Suddenly I was splicing and dicing video like a pro...or at least like a novice on a deadline.
Of course, it wasn't all super-easy. Putting things in is way easier than taking them out. I had to put a moratorium on the phrase, "Oh, don't worry, Leah can edit that out." Content editing isn't really my thing, but for our purposes, I was able to create full video packages, and was able to translate them into a cohesive festival experience. Score.
So How Did the Virtual Festival Go?
It went...about as well as it possibly could have, all things considered. The weeks leading up to the festival were full of recording conversations, editing video, downloading video, uploading video, etc. etc. etc. until finally my little MacBook Air got tired and refused to charge. It died (but has since been reincarnated) an ugly, untimely death. Which leads me to...
Tip #1: You're going to need a better computer than you think you need
I wound up borrowing a massive iMac from my brother. You also need a hard line internet connection. This is no time to trust a wireless router, no matter how reliable you think it is. Anything that can go wrong likely will, so be prepared. Which leads me to...
Tip #2: Build in redundancy
Right before a session, I couldn't get Crowdcast to launch. The countdown clock neared zero, and I started panic-clicking buttons. Any button. Every button. Crowdcast had a nifty little Reset Session button, so I clicked it. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong event, and I deleted a session recording that I hadn't had time to download.
Crowdcast couldn't help—it was fully removed from their system—and I spent a night feeling like an absolute moron. I'd deleted a great session! I might have shed a tear or two (hey, it was an emotionally charged week). Luckily, the light of day and a return to sanity reminded me of this: ECamm Live recorded sessions too! I had a backup!
Make sure you build redundancy into your plan. Leah-proof yourself! Like I said, anything that can go wrong likely will, so remember my most important tip...
Tip #3: Don't panic
Our first session launched without any speaker audio but guess what? My own mic was live. I took a deep breath, managed not to swear like a sailor, googled the issue, and found a fix. It delayed the session by 10 minutes, but it was a single setting and I never had to worry about it again.
When something happens, do your best to channel Douglas Adams, don't panic, and remember Google will probably provide the answer you need.
With all that being said, our inaugural virtual festival was kind of...amazing. At the start of each session I'd ask in the chat where people were coming from. By the end of the ten days, we'd had viewers from Saudia Arabia and Israel, Spain and New Zealand. We hit six of the seven continents, and since I don't think there are too many literate penguins in Antarctica, I don't feel bad about missing that one.
Throughout the week, I saw the same names over and over in the chat, same as I'd see the same faces over and over at in-person events. So did the attendees; by the end they were carrying on side-conversations, people from opposite sides of the world.
Our speakers were grateful we kept things simple for them. Almost anyone can use Zoom these days, and that's all they ever had to see. There were issues like there are always issues with a festival—some people didn't like what some of our speakers had to say, but that happens every year, regardless of venue.
And the funny thing is, now that we know how to do it, how to bring people together for conversations from across the world, we don't plan to stop. Why would we? We think that no matter what, in future years, we'll always have some sort of digital component to our festival, to keep the conversation going.
So now it's over to you. I've given you my playbook and you're free to take from it whatever helps you out. Now go forth. Do great festival-y things!
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