SXSW’s Chief Programming Officer Shares What It Takes To Put On The Big Show

Published on November 18, 2019

For Austin, Texas, the month of March is the most wonderful time of the year. March is when South by Southwest (SXSW) takes over much of the city. Dedicated to helping creative people achieve their goals, SXSW has emerged as one of the world’s most influential conference and festivals, celebrating the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries — and almost everything in between. 

An essential destination for global professionals, the event features 1500+ conference sessions, band showcases, film screenings, exhibitions, brand activations and (literally) hundreds of networking opportunities.

While SXSW now draws experts from dozens and dozens of different industries from more than 100 countries across the globe, the event was entirely focused on music when it launched in 1987.

Fortunately, I was able to meet and speak with the festival’s Chief Programming Officer, Hugh Forrest, whose been involved with the event since 1989. In his role, Forrest manages day-time conference content, i.e. panels, presentations, sessions, and keynotes, while also overseeing the SXSW Music Festival and SXSW Film Festival. Talk about involvement.

Ironically, Forrest and I both were raised in Texas and pursued part of our education out in Ohio. In our conversation, we spoke about how the event has evolved over the years and what goes into making SXSW a reality from the months of December – March.

Getting To Know the SXSW CPO

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer SXSW

Grit Daily: Why did you initially join SXSW?

Hugh Forrest: I first got involved 30 years ago because of the magic of hardware. In other words, I had a computer and the SXSW folks didn’t. So, the main reason that I was hired was so the then-tiny staff of SXSW could put their data onto my brand new Mac Plus. 

GD: Did you know what you wanted to achieve from your involvement with them at that point in time?

HF: Not really. I went to a small liberal arts college called Kenyon in Ohio. While there, I had helped my roommate to launch a newspaper and we had moderate success in that endeavor. So, when I graduated from Kenyon I decided to return to my hometown of Austin and try to start a monthly newspaper here. That endeavor proved to be a lot harder than I expected. The opportunity to join the very young SXSW organization was intriguing because it provided a little more stability than I was experiencing with the newspaper. 

The Evolution of SXSW

When Forrest first came on board in 1989, he had “no idea, conception, or vision that the event could ever grow to the scale it has today.”

I’m still surprised that it’s grown to the massive and incredible scale that it has today,” he added.

A lot has changed in 30 years. But, the commonality between then and now, according to Forrest, is that SXSW is still all about creativity.

We were all about creativity when we started, and we are still about that now,” he told me. “As much as the event has grown, transitioned, and morphed, creativity is still our underlying focus.

GD: So, what’s changed for you and the team over the years?

HF: Definitely the scale of the event has multiplied numerous times in comparison to where we were when we started. Back then it was just Music. In 1994, we added Film and Multimedia. Today, it has become an international event that covers the most cutting-edge developments in all kinds of fields and industries—ranging from startups and corporate leaders, to musicians and filmmakers, to government officials and agencies. This growth means that the event has becomes increasingly more complex to manage. Our expertise has also grown over the years — we’ve transitioned from two or three person staff when I joined to about 200 employees in Austin and around the world. 

Leading Up to the Event, It’s All Rise and Grind

Hugh Forrest Speaks at Kenyon College after receiving an honorary doctorate | Source: Hugh Forrest

Last year, SXSW ran from March 8-17, attracting hundreds of thousands of attendees.

Dates for SXSW 2020 are Friday March 13 through Sunday, March 22. More of the tech and film content occurs at the beginning of the event, while more of the music content occurs at the end of the event. Although, SXSW is now doing a lot more mixing of all these industries as a way to create unique and new connections.

For instance, a new “Space” track has been to the 2020 event. Scheduled March 18-20, the three days of panels and presentations in this track will celebrate the possibilities of the next wave of inter-galactic travel, as well as cover how new space-related technologies will propel tomorrow’s most innovative ecosystems here on earth.

If you are thinking of making the trip to Austin next March, then know that SXSW is a non-stop whirlwind of learning and networking and engaging. For Forrest and the team that organizes the event, putting together all these activities means a year-long hustle to ensure everything goes according to plan.

At this point in our evolution, we are starting to plan for next year’s event in earnest, in mid-May, so there’s not much of an off-season,” the CPO explained. 

The Principle of ‘Tapering’

During the season there is the “on-site” and “off-site” routine that Forrest implements with his staff. Beginning late summer, Forrest follows a routine where he wakes up early every morning to answer emails. This routine tends to get more intense as the event gets closer. 

GD: How are you managing your time up and until the event?

HF: In November and December and January, I’m probably waking up at 5:00 am to try to manage my workload. But, come February, I usually push that an hour earlier to 4:00 am. I follow that routine five days a week, which allows me to accomplish three hours of emails in before I start meetings. That is definitely the most intense time of the year in keeping up with incoming queries and issues. 

While those very early mornings mean that February is a blur, I try to transition back to normal hours in early March. On-site during the event, people often say to me, ‘wow you must be tired and exhausted.’ But at that point, the planning is either done or it’s not. So, on-site, I’m much more rested than I am at other times of the year. Which is good, because I need as much energy as possible on-site to deal with whatever challenges arise then. 

Forrest referenced a skill and principle that the legendary Kenyon College swimming coach Jim Steen (who has long since retired), implemented with his many champtionship team—tapering:

“I was a basketball player at Kenyon, not a swimmer. But Coach Steen was still very influential to my mindset post-college. His approach, concept, and skill of tapering is something I implement with my staff each season. You work really hard most of the year, and as you begin to draw closer to the event, you reduce your work load a bit, so come time to produce at the event, you are most energetic. With my staff, as we get closer to the event, I tell them, ‘hey guys, we have one more week of really hard work, then we taper,’ because we all need that energy on-site.”

GD: For you, why is it important to maintain that high-energy on-site come the event?

HF: If you look and feel exhausted on-site, and if you aren’t able to address or handle issues that may arise, that’s going to rub off on attendees pretty quickly. So, on-site, our goal is to be as rested as possible — and project the kind of positive energy that our community expects at SXSW.

Another Year Down, Onto 2020

As another year has come to an end, it’s time for Forrest and the team to look to planning out the next event in 2020, which runs March 13-22.

The first steps of the planning process for 2020 is pouring through attendee feedback from 2019,” Forrest told me. 

Until we have as accurate and complete a picture of what went right at this year’s event (and what needs improvement), it’s hard to know what steps to take to build an even better event for next year.”

You can find complete information on SXSW 2020 at

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

Read more

More GD News