Section: Features

Once a struggling journalist, alumnus now a SXSW executive

Once a struggling journalist, alumnus now a SXSW executive

For Hugh Forrest ’84, the most significant part of returning to Kenyon on April 10 to receive his honorary doctor of humane letters was sharing the stage with Professor Emeritus of English Perry Lentz ’64, who presented an award to another alumnus. Lentz was his favorite professor, particularly in his introductory course.

“He was such a commanding teacher,” Forrest said. “Very strict, but also brilliant. You could never predict what he was going to say.”

Now, Forrest is the chief programming officer at South by Southwest (SXSW), both an Austin, Texas-based company seeking to promote music, film and digital media and an annual series of conferences and festivities held every March. But he began his career as an English major.

Before he became involved with SXSW, Forrest worked in journalism, running his own blog and living off of Ramen noodles.

Forrest attributes much of the holistic track of his career to his time at Kenyon, where he participated in various extracurricular activities. He practiced violin, became a brother of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and played basketball.

“Even within the context of Kenyon sports, we were not very good, but I certainly enjoyed the camaraderie and competition,” Forrest said of his basketball career,  which he continued after graduation until he suffered several injuries.

As for violin, Forrest picks up the instrument every now and then. “I probably psych myself out on this,” Forrest said. “The first time I pick it up after three months or five months, I go, ‘Wow, this is really easy. I don’t know why I don’t do it more often.’ And the next day I realize, ‘I suck at this. This is why I don’t play anymore.’”

Forrest believes that the amount he wrote and read at Kenyon strengthened a basic but crucial skill, constructing a good sentence, which has helped him in a variety of pursuits.

Following graduation, Forrest moved back to his hometown of Austin, where he founded his own publication, The Austin Challenger, motivated by his undergraduate publication, The Gambier Journal. Forrest often published under different names to create the sense that he was working with a team of writers. Forrest wrote for a number of other publications, including The Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly newspaper.

Forrest claims that he was invited to work with SXSW in 1989 because he owned a Mac Plus computer and a laser printer. The company launched after a group of people discussed the desire to bring Austin’s creative scene to a larger audience.

In 1994, he helped launch SXSW’s Interactive and Film events, then known as the Film and Multimedia conference. “In reality, I barely understood multimedia at all,” Forrest said. “At that point, most people didn’t know what [the Internet] was. Most people were focused on CD-Roms.” He said that SXSW was “in the right place at the right time” for social media. They presented their coverage of creative content on Friendster and later moved to platforms such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Friendster’s founder and CEO, Jonathan Abrams, was the event’s first well-known guest speaker.

Today, Forrest is focused on developing SXSW’s gaming component and attention to cryptocurrency. In October 2016, the company organized a one-day festival at the White House, “South by the Lawn,” following President Obama’s appearance at SXSW Interactive the March prior.

“That’s something that I never would’ve imagined,” Forrest said, recalling that Obama chose to attend SXSW in person rather than appearing over video. “My involvement with SXSW has certainly opened up some opportunities that I never would’ve anticipated, and that’s been really neat,” he added.

In 2017, Forrest launched “Tech Under Trump,” a series of sessions with a focus on media in today’s political climate.

Now, Forrest is moving a convention previously held in Frankfurt, Germany to Stockholm, Sweden this coming September. He is also updating the music portion of SXSW to appeal to younger audiences, noting that people involved in that realm of the festival take more interest in social events than the panels and workshops attended by those in tech and film. Forrest stresses that although SXSW has reached widespread success, it took 30 years of trial-and-error to reach the point they have today. “It takes a long while to be proficient at anything in life, at least in my experience,” he said.

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