Five Questions For … SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest

Austin—When Hugh Forrest joined SXSW in 1994, fewer than 4,300 attended the little-known music festival. That was the year that two new “events”—Interactive and Film—were introduced to the mix, with the first keynote being given by a tech executive: Richard Garriott, then the founder of Origin Systems, and now known as a video gaming pioneer and aspiring space entrepreneur.

Today, Forrest, who is SXSW’s chief programming officer, helps to play host to the tens of thousands who flock to the Texas capital. The days are long gone of SXSW being under the radar; commercial partners are now the world’s top brands, seeking the attention of the hoards who attend. In 2007, Twitter made its debut here, and last year’s keynote speakers included a double-bill of President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. (This year’s festival starts today.)

“I think as SXSW has grown in recent years, it’s getting more C-suite level people coming to the event,” Forrest says. “They wanted to come because there were so many people not like them at the event.”

In this week’s “Five Questions For … ” we speak to Forrest, who talks about the importance of personal interaction in our increasingly digital age, why words mean so much to him, and how he once thought he would not hold a job for more than four years. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be?

Hugh Forrest: I wrote my thesis in college about John Updike. It was never as good a thesis as I wished it was, but I was always fascinated with his writing. In particular, he had this series of rabbit books, Rabbit, Run. It was about this protagonist who had been a basketball player in his youth. He had lots of happiness but was never quite content with his happiness. He was moving from one thing to another. I’ve thought about that thesis and Updike a lot. I’d love to have a chance to have dinner with him and pick his brain, and ask how he became such a strong and effective writer.

Updike also did a ton of writing, reviews for The New Yorker. I would love to ask him what he did when it was his time to write four paragraphs. How did you do that? What were his inspirations?

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