07 March 2013

RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : A Conversation With Austin Chronicle Editor and SXSW Co-Founder Louis Black

Austin Chronicle editor and South by Southwest co-founder Louis Black in the studios of KOOP-FM in Austin, Texas, Friday, March 1, 2013. Photo by Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog.
Rag Radio Podcast:
Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black,
co-founder of South by Southwest
"It used to be that you had to leave Austin to establish yourself politically, as a writer, as a filmmaker, as a musician. And now the world comes to Austin." -- Louis Black
By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / March 7, 2013

Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black -- co-founder of the massive South by Southwest Music, Interactive and Film Festivals and Conferences -- was Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Friday, March 1, 2013.

Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program produced at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, Texas.

Listen to or download our interview with Louis Black here:

Louis Black is the editor of The Austin Chronicle, Austin’s major weekly newspaper, which he co-founded with Nick Barbaro in 1981. In 1987 Black co-founded South by Southwest Music, Interactive and Film Festivals and Conferences, along with Barbaro and Roland Swenson.

SXSW Music is the largest music festival and music industry event in the world; SXSW Interactive is arguably the largest event of its kind in the world; and SXSW Film has become one of the preeminent film festivals in the country. And there's a new educational component (SXSWedu) that "supports innovations in learning for education practitioners, industry leaders and policy maker."

(This year's SXSW takes place between March 8 and March 17, 2013, at the Austin Convention Center and all over Austin, Texas.)

On Rag Radio, Louis Black talked about his personal history growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey. ("I had dyslexia, I had attention issues, all kinds of authority issues. I was a disaster as a student.") So he became a film geek. At about 12 he became best friends with Leonard Maltin -- who would grow up to be one of the nation's most honored film critics -- “and we began to go into New York City after school and all-day Saturdays to watch films -- to museum screenings, we’d go to the film societies... We saw tons of movies."

"We weren’t really auteur freaks or international film fans," he said. "We would see lots of B movies, lots of cartoons... When we were 15, Len and I met Buster Keaton under the Brooklyn Bridge where he was filming the film, Film." Film was written by the legendary Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, who was standing nearby at the time. Black and Maltin were thrilled to meet Keaton but had no idea who Beckett was.

Thanks to Maltin's connections, Black ended up studying film in graduate school at the University of Texas. "I had been watching movies all my live, I had an enormous amount of knowledge," and suddenly he was not only a star student, but he had found his calling. Black received an MFA from UT-Austin, with a concentration in film studies, in 1980. And he would soon find himself at the epicenter of Austin's big-time cultural explosion.

Louis Black was a founding board member of the Austin Film Society, and the board's first president, and, along with then Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith, co-founded the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2001. He executive produced the documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, by Margaret Brown, and was an associate producer on Brown’s documentary, The Order of Myths, which won a Peabody Award in 2009.

Black executive produced the DVD release of the late Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, a 1968 film which had long been thought lost and that Robert Redford cites as inspiration for starting the Sundance Institute.

Louis Black and Thorne Dreyer.
Photo by Tracey Schulz.
Black says that the Austin Chronicle, with a circulation close to 450,000, can no longer legitimately be called an "alternative" publication ("KOOP radio is 'alternative,'" he said), but is a weekly newspaper featuring local news reporting and extensive cultural coverage -- and with a "definite point of view." The Chronicle has played a big role in Austin's evolution as a cultural hub. "Austin’s a unique place and a very special place," Black told the Rag Radio audience, "and certainly we’ve contributed to that, and we’ve benefited enormously from that."

When they started South by Southwest, Black said, they thought they'd have a "nice regional event, a little gathering in Austin for a couple of days, with workshops and panels and hearing some music… and we’d end it with a softball game and a barbeque." Well, "it was regional for the first year or two," he added, "but then it became national and then international. And then, under Roland Swenson's leadership, we added film, we added interactive, and now we’ve added an education component. And it mirrors Austin. The event is just a multiplier for what goes on in Austin all year round. It’s really succeeded."

And has it succeeded! As the UT alumni mag Alcalde put it in its March/April 2011 issue:
From its modest beginnings as a regional music conference in 1987, South by Southwest has ballooned into a multimedia powerhouse. Its music, film, and interactive-media conferences attract tens of thousands, turning Austin into the center of the cultural universe for one week every March.

Whatever you’re doing, South by Southwest is the place to show it off. Johnny Cash launched his big comeback at South by Southwest in 1994. More recently, Norah Jones started building buzz there before she won all her Grammy Awards. Newly launched Twitter saw tweets per day more than triple at the 2007 interactive conference. And Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which won [the 2010] best-picture Oscar, was the talk of the 2009 film festival.
At last year's music festival, Bruce Springsteen provided a memorable keynote address and electrifying showcase performances, heading a stellar cast of artists, from world-renowned to (as yet) little-known, and this year's bill includes Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, and Green Day. There will be more than 20,000 registered participants and many thousands more will come into Austin for the related musical events involving more than 2,000 bands performing at easily a hundred venues. The film festival will offer screenings of more than 150 films.

SXSW Interactive is "probably the biggest event of its kind in the world, and now has hundreds of speakers," Black says. More than 25,000 attended last year's Interactive gathering and a substantial increase is expected this year. "With Interactive you can just feel the energy sizzling," Black says. As The Wall Street Journal wrote, "The brainpower that assembles in Austin is overwhelming. Everywhere you look there are smart people discussing smart ideas."

And the film festival is now "one of the most highly-regarded film festivals in the world." Austin is widely-known as the "live music capital of the world," with thousands of active musicians. But it has also become a major independent film center, home to filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Mike Judge.

According to Black, "There’s more creative people in Austin now. More artists and musicians and filmmakers making a living in Austin or living in Austin and having their work seen around the world. It used to be that you had to leave Austin to establish yourself politically, as a writer, as a filmmaker, as a musician. And now the world comes to Austin."

"And the special thing about the creative scene in Austin," he said, is that it's "a completely culturally-integrated community. When you go to New York, the documentary filmmakers don’t hang out with the theatrical filmmakers who don’t hang out with the animators. In Austin all those filmmakers do, and people with a lot of different political stripes do: poets hang out with filmmakers who hang out with novelists who hang out with artists."

And, host Dreyer added, "everybody hangs out with the musicians."

Rag Radio has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, an all-volunteer cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin, Texas. Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP, and is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.

The show is streamed live on the web by both stations and, after broadcast, all Rag Radio shows are posted as podcasts at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio is produced in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Rag Radio can be contacted at ragradio@koop.org.

Coming up on Rag Radio:
Friday, March 8: Novelist David McCabe, author of Without Sin, based on a true story of a sex trafficking ring exploiting young, undocumented women.
Friday, March 15: Legendary producer Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, and filmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon, This Ain't No Mouse Music!
Friday, March 22: Progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin, Sports Editor at The Nation.

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