No borders

The Web has none. That’s how the nation’s hippest site for Latino music happens to be in Greensboro.
By Mark Kemp

Troy McConnell emerges from his corner office at Batanga.com in Greensboro like a groundhog from its den. At the close of a midweek workday, the president and chief operating officer of the entertainment Web site looks a bit frazzled after hours on the phone. His anxiety might have as much to do with the question he has been asked several times the past week: Would he reconsider his decision not to sit down with a magazine writer for an interview? He has thought long and hard about this, he says, but can’t bring himself to do it. “I just don’t do interviews,” he mutters.

Director of Content Sarah Atkinson chuckles. It’s true, she says, McConnell is a bit shy.

She and a handful of young staff members have been milling about his door making small talk about a brainstorming session they had earlier. The two rows of cubicles in the bullpen outside McConnell’s lair — where editors have been working on stories and programmers choosing songs for Batanga’s 22 Web radio stations — sit empty just after 5 p.m. Advance copies of CDs and glossy photos of musicians litter the floor. At the back of the room is a wall of shelves filled with CDs filed into categories: tango, flamenco, cubanísimo, mexicana, Brazilian, cumbia, reggaetón, salsa and varieties of rock en español, from classic to alternative.

Wait. Rewind. No rock in English? No country? No R&B? Is this the same city that draws sell-out crowds to the coliseum for country stars such as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn? Is it the same stretch of Elm Street where four black students kick- started the civil-rights movement 47 years ago by refusing to leave the Woolworth’s lunch counter? It’s Greensboro, all right. But Batanga (a made-up name that rhymes with pachanga, Spanish for “party”) serves beneficiaries of a new social movement — the massive influx of Latinos across the U.S. since the early 1990s. The Web site targets what the company refers to as NGLs — new-generation Latinos — young people who may or may not read or speak their native tongue but identify with the culture.

While it’s not exactly accurate that McConnell doesn’t grant interviews — in the company’s fledgling years, he talked to a number of publications — it is true he values his relative anonymity. And for good reason. For starters, he’s not Latino. With his scruffy hair, jeans and button-down shirt, the 45-year-old Florida native resembles Bill Gates more than he does the suave, long-haired, dark-eyed Colombian rock star Juanes. What’s more, none of the staff remaining from the early days is Latino. Chief Technology Officer Jochen Fischer is German; Atkinson and Design Director Jessica Bloch hail, respectively, from Minnesota and Virginia. The only Latino among the original team was Colombia native Luis Brandwayn, who started the company with McConnell and Fischer in 1999. Brandwayn, now living in Lima, Peru, is no longer on the payroll, though he’s still a shareholder and stays in touch.

Things have changed quickly and dramatically for Batanga. It remains the fastest-growing Internet site aimed at Latinos and has expanded to offices in U.S. cities with larger Hispanic populations (New York, Miami and Los Angeles), as well as Caracas, Venezuela. In December 2005, it merged with Coral Gables, Fla.-based broadband-video company Planeta Networks. Little changed for the staffs; they simply began working together as Batanga Inc. to create more media options. Before the merger, McConnell was CEO of Batanga.com, as Rafael Urbina was of Planeta. McConnell is now president and chief operating officer under Urbina, the chairman and chief executive. The transition was relatively painless, Urbina, 35, says. “Troy’s a pretty low-maintenance kind of guy, very smart and very pragmatic. He’s a strong operational guy, instrumental in formulating and executing our strategy. He spends a lot of time in all of our offices. As for myself, I’m more focused on the overall strategy, doing a lot of the fundraising and that sort of thing so we can continue expanding our business.”

In April 2006, the company got $5 million of venture capital from a consortium led by H.I.G. Ventures, which has offices in Miami and Atlanta, primarily to market the Batanga brand. “Online entertainment consumption within the U.S. Hispanic market is growing exponentially, and Batanga has put together a very attractive set of media offerings for this audience,” H.I.G. Managing Director John Kim said in the press release. “Batanga has the right management team in place and a proven sales engine that will make this company a dominant force in online and wireless Hispanic media.”

Last November, it acquired New York-based LatCom Communications, which brought into the Batanga fold two more magazines, Latino University and Latino High School; events marketer iCaramba, which organizes music, comedy and dance tours; and an online social-networking site. Since 2002, Batanga.com has grown from about a million to 5 million unique visitors a month. Its fare has spread from streaming music and videos to channels dealing with topics ranging from movies to sports.

McConnell may be uncomfortable in his role as the face of Batanga.com, but he realizes the company’s rise from unlikely roots in a midsize Southern city is compelling. “I know, I know — it’s a great story,” he says, glancing up at the ceiling and then down at the floor before finally making brief eye contact. “I certainly would read it.”

Oddly enough, this story of Latino new media begins in a venture steeped in Bible Belt evangelical Christianity. In 1995, McConnell and Fischer were programmers for Image Technology Inc., an early e-commerce and digital-imaging company started by Greensboro entrepreneur W. Douglas Young. By the time RealNetworks rolled out its streaming-media technology in 1998, Young had ventured into online religion with OnePlace. com. McConnell and Fischer found themselves creating the technology to stream Jesus into every personal computer connected to the Internet.

As Atkinson tells it, this wasn’t what McConnell, an avid surfer and music fan who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., was cut out for. He had a master’s in math from Georgia Tech and had started work on an MBA at Wake Forest, but when an instructor in a entrepreneurship class noted that anyone taking such a course wasn’t really an entrepreneur, he dropped out. He and Fischer decided it was time to start a business. “It was wild back in the late ’90s — it was an exciting time to be doing what we were doing,” Fischer recalls. “Troy and I started meeting once a week and just brainstorming different scenarios. We almost went into the Internet telephone business — you know, a Vonage-type thing — but we’d done all this work with streaming, so we knew the technology, and we knew it would continue to develop.”

McConnell had a hunch that young Hispanic music fans would be a good Internet market. The Latino population in the U.S. was exploding, soaring nearly 60% during the ’90s, with much of the growth in the Southeast. Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas saw their Hispanic populations more than triple. According to the U.S. Census, North Carolina experienced the biggest growth — 394% — from 76,726 to 379,000 by the decade’s end.

In the summer of 1999, McConnell contacted an old friend he had known while working in Atlanta in the 1980s. Brandwayn, who had gone on to study at Harvard and had worked at BMG Music in Spain, was living in Peru. McConnell invited him to come to North Carolina for a meeting. By November, the three founders had set up shop in the basement of McConnell’s house in Greensboro. Within a month, the trio realized they had an untapped online market. Almost immediately, Batanga.com attracted 5,000 unique visitors; McConnell and his team were armed with the numbers to lure financial backers, including the Triangle-based Atlantis and Tri-State investment groups. In 2001, Batanga’s revenue grew 800%, and by March of the following year, more cash was coming in than flowing out.

McConnell told WRAL’s LocalTechWire.com in 2002 that Batanga was pulling in a million listeners a month, 90,000 from North Carolina. The company was generating $2 million in revenue and had expanded to 12 employees, including Chris Sawin, formerly of Chapel Hill-based indie-rock label Mammoth Records, as vice president of sales. Batanga had worked out advertising deals with a string of big companies including Ford, GM, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, AT&T Wireless, the Army and Air Force, not to mention the Latin departments of major record labels.

With an office filling with young music fans, many of whom were Latinos, new ideas had begun to flow like Tecate beer at a Tejano nightclub. “It was really experimental at that time. We would come up with an idea and we would go with it, and if it didn’t work we would stop it,” Atkinson recalls. “Troy has always been — and still is — open to experimentation, but he has this ability to shift gears immediately if something’s not working and move on to something else.” One experiment she suggested was the launch of a print product, and in March 2002, the first issue of Batanga magazine hit the shelves in 7,000 locations across the country.

The following month, McConnell revealed to LocalTechWire.com the sales pitch Batanga had been using to lure its investors and advertisers: “We offer to customers the largest consolidated audience of young Hispanics found anywhere,” he said, adding that Batanga.com’s audience of Hispanics between ages 12 and 34 had $500 billion in disposable income — and predicting advertisers would spend $3 billion a year trying to reach them.

The company’s primary revenue stream is advertising. Throughout the Web site and on its radio and video players appear colorful ads. Batanga also offers audio and video ads and creates packages for about $100,000 that include custom “mini-sites” such as its Jose Cuervo-sponsored “Latin Underground” section. Through partnerships that blur the line between advertising and journalism, Batanga has even helped propel a few music careers, including the rise of Peruvian psychedelic folk-rock band Libido and the crossover success of Mexican alternative-rock singer/songwriter Ely Guerra.

If McConnell, Fischer and Brandwayn ever considered moving to Miami, they quickly realized they could just as easily stay where they were without the dogma imposed by the music and journalism industries interfering with their instincts. “Luis knew the music well, and he had all the important music-industry contacts,” Fischer says. “And Troy knows business. There was no reason for us to leave North Carolina.” That’s just as true today as it was then. The 74-person staff is spread among offices in Greensboro (16), Coral Gables (19), New York (eight), Los Angeles (two), Caracas (18), Madrid, Spain (five), and a few other U.S. locations (six).

But with the company’s headquarters now in Florida and Batanga magazine scheduled to join the other print products in New York, speculation has been rife that the Greensboro base for the Web site might disappear. When posed this question, McConnell’s e-mail reply is emphatic: “No, we are not moving operations out of NC.”

It’s mid-March in Austin, Texas, and Jessica Bloch, from Batanga’s Greensboro office, is rocking out under the stars with Fabiana Kulick, a marketing executive from the company’s New York office. They are at a rooftop venue hosting a Batanga-sponsored showcase of Spanish-language bands during the annual South by Southwest Music Conference, the largest and most influential music-industry powwow in the country. Music in Spanish — from artists such as accordionist Flaco Jimenez and the late singer Freddy Fender — has always been part of the local scene. But until recently, the Spanish-language music at SXSW has been mostly Mexican, mostly traditional and included as regional flavoring — like barbecue sauce on nouveau Americana cuisine — rather than bankable music in high-profile genres such as pop, rock or hip-hop.

In 1999, the alternative weekly Austin Chronicle ran a story under the headline “Rock en Español: The Next Wave.” It looked back on the previous year’s spate of little-known Spanish-language bands at SXSW. Their number has risen each year. Those on Batanga’s bill range from the Beatlesque Mexican group Zoé to crossover singer/songwriter Chetes, formerly of the Mexican alternative rock band Zurdok.

Bloch and Kulick are watching a Miami-based band of Colombians called The Monas, who are cranking out a mix of heavy blues riffs not unlike those of Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd three decades ago. They sing in Spanish and English, and Bloch knows all of the lyrics in both languages. “I gave them a good review in Batanga,” she says as the lead singer, who sports a ’70s-style Afro and wardrobe, thanks the audience and scoots off the stage to make way for the next band. “They remind me a lot of Jet,” she adds, referring to a young British band.

The mix of fans includes young Anglo, African-American and Latino hipsters. They, according to Batanga marketing guru Rick Marroquin, compose the music industry’s target market of the future. “From a marketer’s standpoint, it would be very difficult for me to allocate funds to market to people outside the Latino demographic. But I will say this: If you’re open to the message, you’ll receive it at Batanga.com.

“Let me put it another way,” Marroquin, 35, adds. “Chetes ... is a great musician who happens to sing in Spanish. And I saw a couple of acts at SXSW who were all-Latino but who sang in English. At this point, separating Latino music solely by language has become antiquated, and I think kids of all cultural backgrounds are acutely aware of this.”

Part of his job is to help make potential advertisers aware of it. In January, he was lured away from McDonald’s, where he was director of Hispanic marketing. His new mission: positioning Batanga.com as the online MTV for young Latinos. “To date, Batanga hasn’t done much marketing of the brand,” he says, “but it’s offered an unbelievable product that kids have responded to. Moving forward, we hope to get our fair share and then some by going out and telling consumers who we are and what we do.”

And what might that be? “We’re a cross-media platform that goes to the heart of the Latino experience,” he says. “What we say to these kids — these new-generation Latinos — is this: Whether you speak English or Spanish, if you love Latin music and you feel connected to your culture, Batanga is the place to be.”

Some music-industry executives already get this. “Batanga has become an essential go-to outlet for our Latin bands of all genres,” says John Reilly, a New York-based vice president of high-powered publicists Rogers & Cowan. Two of the acts he pushes are the popular Mexican regional band Los Tigres del Norte and the younger, hipper reggaetón duo Calle 13. “The reach of Batanga’s Web site has consistently grown since its launch, and the print magazine is one of the only publications of its kind out there that covers so many genres.”

While many members of his staff mix business and fun in Texas, McConnell lays low back home, working the phones and planning his next trip to the other offices. Atkinson, too, has opted to skip the festival. She keeps trying to get her boss to talk to the magazine writer, but to no avail. “Troy,” her e-mail reports, “is still saying no way.”

Feedback + Comments

First Name :
Last Name :
Company Name :
E-mail address :
Title of Article :
Comment on this article :