Saturday, March 17, 2012

FDH’s South By Southwest Interactive adventure

By Rick Morris

Ever since we launched The FDH Lounge brand in January 2007 as an all-subjects complement to our fantasy sports advisory service, we’ve been unabashed about doing whatever it takes to get this project to the level where it belongs. Nobody else has the crew to be rockin’ this kind of talk show variety, so I feel the motivation every day as Managing Partner to make sure that the hard work of this ensemble is rewarded in the end.

One of my partners, Senior Producer “The FDH New York Bureau” Steve Cirvello, handles most of our guest booking and contacts with high-level folks at various places in the media world out of NYC. Once in a while, he hits the road to pursue growth opportunities in other places. Having learned a lot about the South By Southwest Interactive media conference (henceforth referred to by its SXSW abbreviation) from a New Media baron who has been kind and supportive of us (the CEO of the Revision3 web TV network, Jim Louderback), we saw it as an opportunity to take steps towards increasing the long-term viability of the show. And while my own schedule generally keeps me from traveling with Steve on his promotional trips, it did not create a conflict this time. So, with me coming in from C-Town and Steve from New York, off to Austin we’d go.

An additional and welcome step along the way manifested itself when our new friend, former NFL player and author Vernon Turner, invited us to spend time with him in Houston as the proverbial sandwich to our time at SXSW. It turns out that Vernon had an interest in attending SXSW himself, so our crew for the trip was complete.

The other two members of the “FDH Entourage” provided excellent support for the mission. I’ll start with Steve. His follow-through and planning leading up to the trip were superb. While there was some unfortunate poor communication that led to last-minute headaches in the week before we left, absolutely none of it came from Steve’s end. And Vernon was an unbelievably gracious host in Houston and wheelman as we headed to and from Austin. It was fun to see SXSW through Vernon’s eyes as a new author and I’m so glad he had a great time.

Vernon picked us up from the airport late Friday night and after a great late dinner in his excellent part of town, we retired and hit the road the next morning. Due to the yucky drizzle that lingered over Texas for the first part of the weekend, I had a pretty severe sinus headache and I dozed off for a good part of the trip up there (missing, I would later find out, Steve and Vernon goofing on my cellphone), but through the power of sleep and medication I was doing OK by dinner. We prefaced our meal with a walk all throughout the parts of downtown Austin that were hosting SXSW-related events. At dinner, drawing upon one piece of motivation common among the three of us, we toasted to our mothers watching us from the great beyond being proud of their baby boys chasing their dreams.

The first night continued with the theme of getting our feet wet, both literally in the drizzle and figuratively, as we had few solid plans and as such, continued to walk through town and take it all in. Through Steve’s planning before the trip, we managed to get into what he referred to as the “Big Four” of New Media events and the first was Saturday evening’s Blip TV party. As Steve chatted with one of the founders, who had provided our invite, I forgot to name-drop to her our good friend Will McMahon, who stars on the Blip sitcom The Baristas! I clearly have a lot to learn about name-dropping from Steve, although our past show guests Bob Barker, Steve Perry, Gilbert Gottfried, George “The Animal” Steele and Tommy Lasorda might perhaps disagree with me about that. :-)

As we were heading back to Vernon’s truck en route to our hotel, we came upon a large, noisy crowd moving together along the sidewalk. Steve guessed at first that it was an offshoot of the Occupy movement, but I said, “Nah, too festive, not grim enough,” and it turns out I was right. When Steve asked a young lady working one of the many bike taxis around town (quite a scene to watch that, by the way, especially on a hill), she told us that it was a flash mob dance party and that those appear fairly often in Austin. I then heard music coming out of a boom box, but I was truly impressed when I heard a PA system manifest itself. That’s one well-organized flash mob!

But it was Sunday that I’ll remember the longest and for being one of the most fun days that I can ever recall. The weather was sunny, but not too warm, absolutely perfect. We got back in downtown in the late morning and walked over to the Convention Center, where many of the panels for the SXSW conference were being held. The atmosphere was very interesting, even if it resembled a casting call for Portlandia. The promotional materials made available by many outlets were fascinating. There is one that stands out in particular: the large social media outlet Mashable put their SXSW preview in the form of an old-school newspaper and had faux newsboys on the sidewalk passing them out yelling “Extra! Extra!” in a cutesy-poo way of spoofing New Media appearing in Old Media form. The next day, back at Vernon’s house, when word broke that CNN was about to buy them for $200 million, I walked into the bedroom Steve was using, holding the newspaper aloft, and shouted “Extra! Extra! We just sold out to Old Media for $200 mil!”

It’s just hard to explain the intrigue of seeing all of these monster brands like Mashable hustling for attention on the Convention Center grounds. As a first-time attendee, it drove home to me that, without a doubt, this was the Ground Zero of the entire New Media world for the entire Interactive period of SXSW (which is always the front end of the conference, with film and music comprising the other parts of the event). Unlike Steve, I don’t live in New York, so it probably felt like an even bigger deal to me.

We wandered over to find our friend Mr. Louderback and that led us to the second part of the “Big Four” events, the one hosted by Foursquare. Here too, Steve chatted up one of the founders and introduced Vernon and me and we made our way over to Jim and his friend Chaim Haas, Senior VP at Kaplow PR. From there, we got to see Chaim conduct a videoblog interview with Jim on a streetcorner (situated perfectly with plenty of colorful action behind Jim; I can’t wait to view this online) about his impressions of SXSW 2012. Essentially, Jim and Chaim are at the level where people interview you for your impressions of the conference, so it’s pretty aspirational to see that with your own two eyes.

We were about to part ways with Chaim and head to lunch with Jim before making an impromptu stop at an event that Chaim helped to organize (and I have to tell you, in doing this, I learned exactly how cool this guy is!). The new social media site GroupMe had a promotional event that would lead to a world record for grilled cheese sandwiches consumed in one minute. After a brief “eat-off” to determine who would furnish the challenge to the pro, into the “arena” charged … KOBAYASHI (it was very funny to see Jim decipher from the look of awe on the faces of Steve and I that Kobayashi was a big deal)! And the dude brushed my arm as he was making his way through the crowd! Didn’t expect to cross that item off my bucket list at SXSW! He wolfed down 13 in one minute to set the new world’s record. And trust me, the look of disgust on the face of Vernon, a personal trainer and model of fitness who still runs a sub-4.5 40 at age 45 – freaking hysterical!

We resumed our trek towards lunch, settling on a nice little Spanish restaurant with a patio located at the corner of a block. As Jim and Vernon were introducing themselves to each other, we had the most unforeseen moment of the weekend. We made a new friend when longtime Dallas sportscaster-turned-social media titan Chris Yates caught wind of our conversation from the next table and came over and introduced himself. The next thing you know, he and his crew (who were filming interviews for their website all over town during SXSW) were doing interviews with Jim and then Vernon. It was quite a whirlwind moment, that’s for sure, with Chris’s lively personality – exemplified by Vernon paging through a copy of his book and showing Chris the picture of Steve Tasker lighting him up on a punt return. Chris blurted out, “Damn, he kicked your ass!” Really glad I hadn’t taken a drink just prior to that moment, because it would have been most embarrassing …

After lunch, Jim was kind enough to serve as a SXSW tour guide for our crew, which was unbelievably down-to-earth and kind of him. We checked out a few spots on the way, including an entire residential street just off of downtown that was rented out by Google to promote various aspects of their business. Before long, we were at the third of the “Big Four” parties on Steve’s list, this one thrown by the good folks at Boxee. Their event, in the same residential area as the Google street, was as cool as their device that streams web video to your TV set: a BBQ/keg party in a large backyard area! Jim’s description of SXSW as “spring break for geeks” finally had the “spring break element.” Yeah! Plus, they had the sweetest of any of the promotional T-shirts we were picking up all weekend. There was nothing not to like about this affair, I assure you. Vernon and I even got the belly laugh of Steve piggishly loading up on BBQ right after our lunch!

We walked back to the spot where Jim chained his bike (heading to a place he rented outside of town, taking care of the fitness/environment Daily Double by that form of riding) and after saying goodbye, headed over to one of the true historic landmarks in town, the Driskill Hotel. Our good pal Colin Delany from, a frequent political guest on the program, was headed over there, but alas, our schedules did not align. I did get the swank picture taken above there, though, in the media room as we were mingling.

One of Steve’s childhood friends then met us outside and gave us a ride to the last of the parties we were attending, the one thrown by Funny or Die. Held at a charming little bar in the University of Texas off-campus area, we enjoyed talking to a few of the company execs and I feasted on one of the best chicken sandwiches I’ve had in a long time. Inside, clips of Will Ferrell and many of the other top comedy stars associated with the website were running on a loop and they were outstanding.

With nightfall hitting pretty squarely and facing a long ride back to greater H-Town, we looked for a cab back to downtown, because we were facing quite a hike. We couldn’t find one, so we kept walking … and walking … and walking … and the next thing we knew, we hit the highway overpass that bordered that particular stretch of downtown. Even from there, it was quite a hike, walking briskly and encountering at one point a street party as part of SXSW. It was a wistful feeling, taking it all in, the sense of not wanting to leave – but in a positive, motivational sense, looking forward to next year and being back with another 365 days available until then to devote to growing the biz. All that walking in my dress shoes, though … not so pleasant; I commented about how by the end of the day, the footwear felt like my Chuck Taylors in terms of support, or lack thereof. The ride back yielded one Texas phenomenon I did not know about until we reached the final stages before Houston – thick fog that often comes out of nowhere.

Monday was a quiet, relaxing day around Houston, although it yielded the second of the crew’s catchphrases on the trip as “there’s the nose-picker” joined “second knuckle” as the inside jokes that would always generate some laughs. Steve and I both flew back on Tuesday and immediately began to process everything we had seen and heard and how to follow up with some of the people we had met along the way.

I mentioned the word “aspirational” earlier in the story and since I got back to town, I’ve told a few members of the crew that in the years to come, we will be broadcasting from SXSW and that I intend for our group on the scene to be a much larger one at that point. In so doing, it will symbolize everything that South By Southwest represents: great fun with great friends and a tangible representation of having achieved that spot on the media food chain that the small, self-made folks like ourselves desire – and will attain. See you next year, Austin!

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