Latinismo erupts from the Greensboro internet
Writer Mariela PÃ©rez-Simons gazes intently at her computer screen and consults a notebook full of barely decipherable writing propped against stacks of CDs in the cluttered cubicle she occupies in Batanga.com’s offices, housed in the old Revolution Mills building on Yanceyville Street.
She’s working through a particularly satisfying writer’s problem: how to make her readers care about an obscure Cuban folksinger not well liked by the government of dictator Fidel Castro. She needs just the right lede to draw her audience into the story, which will be seen by more than 40,000 readers of Batanga magazine in June.
PÃ©rez-Simons, who is 31, thinks she might start with something about a battered green automobile climbing the hills of the lush countryside as the narrator, herself, goes in search of her subject, Pedro Luis Ferrer.
The hastily-scribbled notes of her interview with Ferrer are the result of her decision to not take a tape recorder, which she feared might be confiscated by the authorities during her visit to Cuba. She’s just returned to Greensboro, after her first visit back to her home country since 1995, when her family fled the Castro government. She’s already missed her first deadline, and this story has to be in by the end of the day.
It’s the kind of story a writer can fall in love with. She has her subject in her head and in the pages of her notebook, and she has an audience that needs to know about this man’s music. They are primarily second-generation Latinos living in the United States in their twenties and thirties ‘— a demographic exploding in size that is expected to increasingly shape cultural tastes and politics in this country, and one that this Greensboro-based internet, music and media company is well positioned to serve. McDonald’s and Pepsi are a few of the companies that pay for ad space in the magazine and on the website for the privilege of reaching those eyeballs.
PÃ©rez-Simons has the luxury of not having to worry about the numbers or the business strategy. It’s her job to tell the story.
‘“He is being banned in Cuba because he does a lot of social commentary,’” she says of Ferrer. ‘“You would think the [Cuban] exile community in Miami would embrace him, but no. They don’t because they don’t want to support anything produced in Cuba. His music is not listened to in Cuba or outside. He asks: ‘How will I live?””
PÃ©rez-Simons estimates that she writes about 20 features a year for the magazine, in addition to her duties of maintaining the website’s tropical, salsa, merengue, jazz, Cubanismo and bachata radio stations. Among her interview assignments for Batanga’s April issue are Colombian alternative rocker Andrea Echeverri and Spanish actor Miguel BosÃ©, who is the godson of Pablo Picasso and the son of Miss Italy 1947, LucÃa BosÃ©. Echeverri and BosÃ© are huge names across Latin America, but virtually unknown here.
The magazine was launched in the spring of 2002 as an evolution of the internet radio stations. When record labels noticed their artists were getting mileage out of Batanga.com’s rotation they offered to set up interviews. Once the website started featuring written content, PÃ©rez-Simons and the other music programmers decided they should produce a print publication too.
For PÃ©rez-Simons, whose official title is ‘content producer/music programmer,’ getting hired more than four years ago to write for Batanga and pick songs for six of its radio stations married her two dearest loves.
‘“My dream has been to write ever since I was a little girl,’” she says. ‘“I’m writing a memoir about growing up in Cuba.’” She is pursuing a master of fine arts in creative writing, and has studied under the distinguished poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Her literary moorings show through in her lukewarm review of Colombian novelist Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez’s latest book, Memoria de mis putas tristes, in the most recent issue of Batanga.
If her life is any indication, her memoir will probably be an interesting story. At the age of 21 she and her family fled Cuba as political refugees. Her stepfather had been a human rights activist in Cuba and was jailed and persecuted by the Castro government. The family was sponsored by Lutheran Family Services, an organization responsible for resettling Vietnamese, Bosnian and Cuban immigrants in Greensboro.
‘“My other passion is music,’” she says. ‘“You can’t be Cuban and not listen to music. When I was in Cuba, my little nephew is singing and watching TV and banging on pots. You pass people standing around a pickup truck and they’re playing music.’”
Batanga.com was launched in CEO Troy McConnell’s basement in November 1999. Going into its sixth year, the company is in a period of relative innocence when the combined factors of open-ended internet technology, a small, talented staff and the growing market of young Hispanics allows for entrepreneurial creativity.
If PÃ©rez-Simons and one of the other three music programmers like a song, they put it into heavy rotation on one of the website’s 19 stations. With such a wide platform, they’re able to avoid the narrow formatting choices that bedevil broadcast radio. And with 1.3 to 1.5 million listeners logging on according to a March website audit, the formula seems to be working.
McConnell, 42, encourages Batanga.com’s music programmers ‘— three who double as writers for the magazine and one who serves as the publication’s designer ‘— to exercise their own discretion over their play lists and pick their own stories. The company allots $600 per month to purchase new CDs.
‘“We don’t want the record labels to dictate our play lists,’” McConnell says. ‘“I want Mariella and the rest of them to make editorial decisions about what plays.’”
PÃ©rez-Simons relishes the freedom.
‘“I’m so glad I don’t have to think about the business side,’” she says. ‘“My editor doesn’t say ‘do this interview’ or ‘write about this artist.’ Of course, if Shakira comes out with a new album, you must cover it.’”
One reason PÃ©rez-Simons and her colleagues have so much freedom is that in some ways they are the market. The audience, as she describes it, is ‘“second generation Latinos who were born in Latin America or come here when they’re very young, people like me who are bilingual, and still have Latin roots.’”
McConnell, who grew up in Florida, studied math in Atlanta during his graduate school years and ended up in Greensboro in the 1990s when he joined a start-up software company.
He studied the Census in the late ’90s and realized the Hispanic youth market would continue to grow and that no one was trying to reach it.
McConnell had a friend, Luis Brandwayn, who had worked for BMG in Madrid, Spain. Brandwayne’s industry expertise turned out to be critical for McConnell’s understanding of how to deliver a new product. Brandwayne, who has since moved to Lima, Peru for personal reasons, sits on Batanga.com’s board of directors.
‘“He knew that a label has a lot of artists signed, but it’s difficult for a label to get their artists played because there’s a limited number of spots on the [broadcast] play lists,’” McConnell says. ‘“In 2000 and 2001 the idea of listening to music on the internet was very new, but it was clear that it would be a way to distribute music. The US Hispanic audience ‘— they’re younger and they tend to be more receptive to receiving music and entertainment through alternative forms and more open to listening to music that’s not necessarily mainstream. That made it an attractive market for us to pursue.’”
For a media organization that ably covers the international Latin music scene from Madrid to Miami and Los Angeles to Lima and reaches more than a million people, Batanga.com’s offices are surprisingly small. PÃ©rez-Simons and the other three music programmers share a room in the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, the Greensboro business incubator, while the technology staff works in a room next door.
With such a small staff, employees often end up modeling for advertisements. And the magazine fills 50 to60 percent of its pages with content written by freelancers in New York and Miami, designer Jessica Bloch says.
‘“You want to have a wide variety of writers or it will get boring,’” she says. ‘“In Greensboro, it’s kind of hard to have your finger on the pulse.’”
Because major Latin music acts infrequently perform in the Carolinas, much of the reporting is done over the phone or occasionally, as in the case of PÃ©rez-Simon’s trip to Cuba, through travel.
Despite North Carolina’s status as one of the places with the fastest growing Hispanic populations, McConnell says Batanga.com is not pegging its marketing to the state or even the South as a region.
‘“Our audience is primarily urban,’” he says. ‘“The initial immigration came into the Southwest, into California, Texas, Florida and New York. The second generation is still in those same places. The second wave of immigration is hitting the mid-Atlantic. That’s not where our listeners are.’”
If one person on Batanga.com’s staff is paying attention to how Latino culture is changing North Carolina it’s probably Nahum Madrid, a 24-year old Appalachian State graduate who majored in broadcast communications and grew up in Johnston County. He writes for the magazine and chooses songs for the website’s regional Mexican, hip hop, reggaeton and dance radio stations.
In contrast to the largely urban audience targeted by Batanga.com, Madrid shares the rural agricultural background of many Latinos who have settled in North Carolina. He was born in Victoria, Texas and moved to Florida with his family before they ended up in North Carolina, where tobacco was the main job available to migrant workers.
‘“I started doing it when I was in middle school and high school,’” Madrid says. ‘“It makes you nauseous. I remember having to take Dramamine because it was such hard work. It was a big driving point for me to go to college.’”
He imagined he would probably end up working for an FM or AM radio station after graduation.
‘“Working here turned out to be better,’” he says. ‘“It gives me a lot more control, and more contact with the artists than at a radio station.’”
It’s heady stuff.
A campaign to land an interview with Los Tigres del Norte has paid off, and he plans to talk to the band he describes as ‘“the Beatles or Rolling Stones of norteÃ±o’” sometime in the following week.
One of his goals is to preserve the next generation’s interest in the traditional Mexican music and its mariachi-related variants.
‘“I want to make it cool again,’” he says. ‘“Although in a way, it is cool. If you ask anybody my age, they’ll tell you they’ll listen to a norteÃ±o album and a hip hop album at the same party.’”
North Carolina has its share of local Mexican-American bands that play local clubs and coming-of-age parties, but none with a distinctive enough sound to garner national or international attention, Madrid says.
‘“I don’t know if anybody’s ready to put North Carolina on the map,’” he says. ‘“Not yet, but probably very soon.’”
He adds: ‘“You’ll have someone rent out an armory for a quinciÃ±era and have a baile. Local bands may play for five hundred to a thousand people there. If they ever capitalize on that’… I don’t know if they will, but they should.’”
A genre with more immediate prospects for mass appeal is reggaeton, a Spanish-language variation of hip hop with heavy dancehall influences that originated in Panama.
‘“Miami and New York are big for reggaeton,’” Madrid says. ‘“It’s spreading across the country. It’s being played on both American hip hop stations and regional Mexican stations.’”
McConnell, Batanga.com’s CEO, is also watching reggaeton closely, as are the record labels.
‘“Reggaeton and Latin rap ‘— there’s a lot of belief that those two genres will produce the next platinum seller among Latinos and young people in general,’” he says.
Asked what Batanga.com’s next step will be as these new genres of music rapidly evolve, McConnell doesn’t hesitate to divulge his plan.
‘“Sell music downloads,’” he says. ‘“We will be a music retailer ‘— except it will be online. We will sell retail music and pay the labels a wholesale fee.’”
McConnell says Batanga.com ultimately plans to sell music downloads from all four major labels and from hundreds of independents.
‘“We’re working out the details right now,’” he says. ‘“We think we’ll have it launched sometime in the third quarter.’”
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