In the six years since the Washington Center for the Book kicked off the nation's first city-wide reading program in Seattle, hundreds of communities have adopted similar initiatives and the concept has begun to evolve. In the Midwest, arts organizations have joined with print and broadcast media to promote literacy. The latest such collaboration, "Writers on the Record with Victoria Lautman," will launch September 12, in a partnership between Chicagomagazine, independent radio network WFMT-FM and the Lookingglass Theatre Company.
Each month, Chicago will publish a q&a with an author who will later participate in an hour-long interview at the 240-seat Lookingglass Theatre that will be broadcast live on WFMT, one of the region's major media outlets. Authors scheduled to appear on the program this fall include Edward P. Jones , Susan Orlean, Augusten Burroughs and Susanna Clarke. Barbara's Bookstore will handle book sales at the events.
The project grew out of a desire to keep writers at the forefront of the city's cultural programming, according to executive producer Lautman. "After Chicago public radio cut back drastically on author interviews, there was no venue left to interview them. Chicago was becoming flyover country for publishers, and we had to change that," she said. For Chicago magazine editor Richard Babcock, the collaboration represented an important opportunity. "As the proliferation of book clubs and Oprah have shown, there's a lot of interest in high-quality books. It's just a question of how to get a community dialogue going," he said.
"Cross-promoting books using a three-pronged approach is a dynamic way of getting the word out," added Susie Eaton Hopper, the editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune who helped create a similar program, called "Talking Volumes," in Minnesota four year ago. That widely acclaimed program involves a live interview on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning program and a taped interview at St. Paul's 1,000-seat Fitzgerald Theatre that's broadcast throughout the Upper Midwest. In addition, each book is featured in a month-long series of promotions in the newspaper and at 50 independent bookstores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Iowa, and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. It's a powerful combination that has made national bestsellers out of some chosen titles, such as Robert Alexander's debut novel, The Kitchen Boy (Viking, 2003).
Since the Chicago program doesn't have the same kind of retail support, it may not have as significant an impact on book sales at the outset. Still, Hopper finds great promise in the initial roster of authors for "Writers on the Record." "One thing these kinds of programs have to do is have at least one great surprise that makes readers feel that participating is worth their while," she said. "I give my kudos to "Writers on the Record"; they're certainly going to do that with the authors they've lined up this season."