Three years ago, we had this idea — to create a big annual event in the heart of Madison that brings together an eclectic array of thought leaders to attract large and diverse crowds. And along the way, to have fun.
It wasn’t exactly an original concept, but now, after three Idea Fests, we think our execution of it is. In the beginning, we modeled our festival after the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, which describes itself as “one of the nation’s most buzzworthy political gatherings.”
Our version, Idea Fest, also has a heavy political component, but offers sessions on technology, economics, journalism, immigration, literature, urban issues, social justice, theater, trends in food and timely new topics we will figure out going forward. And we ladle fun onto that mix with trivia contests, movie discussions, live music, comedy acts, food and other stuff.
Well, the third Idea Fest ended Saturday night, and it was our biggest and best. But then, my view is admittedly biased. I work on Idea Fest all year — especially on speaker and sponsor acquisition.
This weekend I spent most of my time camped backstage in Shannon Hall, the beautifully remodeled and renamed Wisconsin Union Theater at the University of Wisconsin. My job was to welcome arriving speakers and then introduce them on stage Friday night and Saturday.
Friday night, I nervously tracked the late-arriving flight of keynote speaker Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee. He began his day in Houston, where the Democratic presidential debate took place the night before. His just-in-time arrival added to the, um, excitement.
Cap Times opinion editor Jessie Opoien’s conversation with Perez was a hit, and I got a chance to visit with him backstage. I had noted in preparing his introduction that he was once president of Maryland’s Montgomery County Council, the same county council I covered as a young reporter before his time there. He laughed when I shared the old names.
Then Saturday morning, I welcomed and then introduced former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug and a panel of experts on the political center. His group included two other former congressmen and came from all over the country.
That was followed by the arrival of Judy Faulkner, the Epic founder and CEO who graciously agreed to share her 40-year retrospective on what is arguably the most important company in Dane County.
From those I spoke with and judging by audience reaction, her talk was fabulously received. She seldom speaks publicly in Madison away from the Epic campus. We were grateful to hear Judy say she agreed to appear to support the kind of independent local journalism the Cap Times offers.
The afternoon brought the David Maraniss portion of the program. The author and Washington Post editor invited three terrific Post journalists — Carol Leonnig, Alexandra Petri and Catherine Rampell — to speak seriously but also entertainingly about the Washington political scene.
Backstage, the Post crew was able to briefly meet and exchange small talk with another Idea Fest speaker, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. The senator was on his way to another Memorial Union venue.
I thanked the senator, as I did when he participated two years ago, saying how much we appreciate him appearing in the heart of Madison before a Cap Times crowd — not exactly his political base — to talk issues and exchange ideas. After all, we think Idea Fest is about all ideas, not just progressive ones.
(An aside: I recall a few years ago when the Justified Anger movement, led by prominent local African Americans, was getting started. Johnson surprised many by attending an organizing meeting at Fountain of Life Church in south Madison. Impressive.)
Anyway, by the time the Washington Post panel made its way from the stage the journalists ran into and made small talk with Julian and Joaquin Castro, the Democratic twin brothers and star Democratic politicians whom David had invited.
Earlier, the brothers had taken time for a short but heartwarming visit with a star-struck young woman who had signed on as a field organizer for Julian’s presidential campaign in Sioux City, Iowa.
Finally, when the Castro brothers finished their well-received session, they exited the stage and ran into the next panel. The brothers took time to chat with others on the next panel, which focused on Madison’s urban future: Urban League of Greater Madison President Ruben Anthony, Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation managing director Erik Iverson and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
My Idea Fest vantage point was a fun one, but I was inside a bubble. I will be anxious to learn what others on our team think.
But my request here is to ask your help and advice. In the next week or so, we will be distributing an electronic survey to attendees. If you purchased tickets online and included your email address, you will be receiving the request, but if we don’t already have your email address and you want to let us know your thoughts, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can add you to the list.
We’re eager to know what you thought about everything, from the timing of sessions to the venues, the mix of session formats and the topics. (Spoiler alert: I have already heard about the lack of climate change and water quality sessions this year.)
If you weren’t there, please email us, too. Was there some barrier? Timing, topics, price of tickets?
We choose a September weekend so people are back into fall routines, and it’s no coincidence that it was on a bye weekend for Wisconsin Badger football.
We are eager to explore how we can continue to attract more younger people, students, and people from communities of color.
In sum, Idea Fest 2019 was our biggest and best. Last year, we had only one session — the keynote panel featuring national political celebrity David Axelrod — that justified using large-capacity Shannon Hall.
This year we had seven.
Thanks in advance for your input and we hope to see you next year.