Radio website is tuned in to Latin market
It seemed like the wrong idea at the wrong time, and initially there were few believers. But after four years, Batanga.com has become a force in Latin music.
BY JORDAN LEVIN
When Colombian-born Luis Brandwyn and his American buddy, Troy McConnell, started Batanga.com, their online Latin music radio station, all the conventional wisdom pointed toward failure.
They launched in 2000, just as the dot-com bubble burst and the Latin music market began its plunge.
Their philosophy of ''rock, not Ricky'' ran counter to commercial radio's custom of playing only the most popular music. Internet radio was an unproven medium, and before the 2000 Census showed Hispanics to be the largest U.S. minority, Batanga's target audience of young Latinos wasn't the hot market that it is today.
But the risk has paid off.
Almost five years later, Batanga.com has grown from 5,000 listeners a month to 1.5 million. Advertisers include McDonald's, Ford, BellSouth, Nokia, Kraft Foods and Wal-Mart.
Brandwyn says they had faith in their medium and their audience -- the thousands of U.S. Latino kids who flocked to concerts by Latin rock bands who weren't on commercial radio.
''We felt we had a very traditional business model, which was the idea of selling advertisers a very desirable audience,'' Brandwyn said from Batanga's offices in Greensboro, N.C.
``We felt we were sitting on an audience of young Hispanics . . . that was about to explode.''
Batanga and the audience grew together. Those who visit today get 20 different channels of Latin music that range from alternative rock, flamenco, hip-hop and tango to Mexican corridos, jazz, boleros and, yes, even Latin pop. (''We realized people wanted to listen to Ricky Martin,'' Brandwyn said.)
Brandwyn's claim that Batanga is unique among websites for U.S. Hispanics in the breadth of its programming, ease of use and number of listeners seems justified. Other major websites featuring Latin music require users to pay a fee, are not in Spanish or lack navigational ease.
''I like it very much,'' said Guillermo Figari, 26, of Key Biscayne. ``It's user-friendly, has a cool design, and you can request whatever song you want to hear.
''It has a lot of sponsorships, but you're not bombarded like other sites,'' the mortgage broker said.
Batanga's advertising has grown by 80 percent a year. Batanga's 3-year-old magazine has a new distributor that Brandwyn says will raise its monthly circulation to 120,000.
Batanga's listeners, mostly 18- to 34-year-old Hispanics, provide a constant stream of feedback that works as both musical and market research, helping the station fine-tune programming and draw advertisers.
Three programmers research new music, and listen to bands who send in material. Listeners can vote on songs, which they do six million times a month. Programmers use that information to increase or decrease a song's rotation. Fans also send in 200 e-mails a day on everything from their favorite groups to ads they dislike.
Some fans, like Figari, are drawn not only by the sounds found on Batanga, but the sound of the site itself.
''The name is catchy, it sounds like partying in Spanish, like rumba,'' he said.
Batanga, which has no meaning in English or Spanish, is a boon for bands like Peruvian rock group Libido, which landed a deal with Sony Mexico after becoming a Batanga hit, and Miami pop singer/songwriter Jorge Moreno, who won a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2002 but got almost no radio airplay.
Veronica González, a publicist with Pasadena-based Elemental Media, said, ``If there were enough [online radio stations] doing what Batanga does . . . it would give radio real competition.''
Brandwyn's lower costs and limitless Internet airspace allow him to take risks that on-air radio avoids.
''As a business model [radio] works very well,'' Brandwyn said. ``But from a content and cultural point of view, I think they should be more adventuresome in trying to reach the new marketplace.''
A FERTILE MARKET
There are indications the Latino internet market is a fertile one. Brandwyn says they send 200,000 listeners a month to Amazon.com, 10 percent of whom end up buying albums.
This spring a survey by AOL and the marketing firm RoperASW found that 54 percent of Hispanic Internet-users listen to music online, versus 30 percent of the general population of computer-users.
Independent bands and labels flocked to the station from the beginning. More recently major labels, who had been leery of the Internet and what they saw as an audience of downloaders, have begun making use of it.
EMI Latin did a promotion campaign with Kraft last year, and Univision Music advertises on the site.
''Labels are beginning to recognize the Internet is the next distribution method,'' Brandwyn said. ``But it's surprising they don't embrace the technology more.''
Advertisers, however, are happy to embrace it.
This year Jeep began a new band contest where the winner will get 10 hours of studio time with Grammy-winning Miami producer Sebastian Krys.
Batanga's constantly clicking, interactive listeners were a big draw for Garnier Fructis, a hair-care line owned by Maybelline/L'Oreal, which ran a contest and ad campaign on Batanga this spring. The company picked them over much larger Spanish-language sites Univision.com and AOL Latino, and were pleased by the results, says David Quevedo, media director for Hispanic ad agency Bromley Communications.
''Sign ups with Batanga were higher than at any other site,'' Quevedo said. ``Their audience is very tech savvy.''
Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization that registers young voters, also turned to Batanga for its first Latino campaign. Only 22 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 30 are registered to vote, versus 48 percent of blacks and 52 percent of white non-Hispanics. A link on Batanga's home page sends visitors to voter registration forms and information in Spanish, as well as messages from bands like Molotov and Yerba Buena.
Five years after launching his quixotic venture, Brandwyn is working out of his home in Greensboro, raising his children comfortably.
''I love music and new technology and reaching kids,'' he said. ``Besides the business opportunity, it's a fun business to be in.''
Herald staff writer Ginelle G. Torres contributed to this report.