THE MUSIC ISSUE
The week of March 15, 2015

Meet the Mexican DJ who created a new media empire

By Dan Gentile

It’s Saturday night at Imperial, a sweaty dance club in Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood. Ears are still ringing from a punk band whose set just ended, but the stage has been reset with a pair of CDJs and a laptop with a sticker that reads SLKTR. The DJ has a lightning bolt tattoo on his arm underneath the letters TCB: taking care of business.

The music jumps from obscure underground house tracks to Disclosure remixes to early aughts bangers like the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers.” “Last Night” by the Strokes makes an appearance, as does a pair of ’90s hip-hop sure-shots, before the groove locks into a string of contemporary cumbias that remind you that you’re blocks away from what might be the best al pastor tacos in the world.

The man at the helm is Alejandro Franco (aka SLKTR), and taking care of business means more than just moving the dance floor. The 35-year-old native of Mexico City is at the helm of a booming digital media company called Sentido Común (Common Sense). Like Franco’s DJ sets, Sentido Común manages to feel informed by hip American music culture yet distinctly Mexican.

The cornerstone of the company is WARP.la, which was founded in 2007 to fill a similar niche in Mexico as Pitchfork does in the U.S., with around-the-clock music news, definitive album reviews, feature interviews, and international festival reporting. Shortly after launching, WARP added a print component that set the brand on a different path than its American role model (at least until recently). Franco’s official title at the magazine is publisher, but he still makes time to file stories: It’s hard to pass up an interview with Pharrell Williams.

“When someone asks me what I do, I always say I’m a music journalist,” Franco says from WARP’s office, located on a side street of the affluent Polanco neighborhood. “The rest of the projects feed from that. I’m a music journalist that happens to also be a publisher, that happens to also be a radio host, and a DJ and a video producer. From my perspective, journalism is the first thing that I do.”

Like Franco’s DJ sets, Sentido Común manages to feel informed by hip American music culture yet distinctly Mexican.

Housing a staff of 30, the headquarters of WARP feel hip, polished, and professional. Rock posters deck the walls, 20-somethings lounge with laptops on modern furniture late into the evening, and there’s a Mad Men liquor cabinet filled with mezcal. It’s similar to how one imagines the offices of Rolling Stone, which is fitting since Franco spent years working out of its Mexico branch as a staff writer before the company cut the number of local features. Franco ballparks Rolling Stone’s circulation at 60,000, whereas WARP’s last bimonthly issue clocked in at 25,000.

“Print is declining all over the world. Mexico still has more than a few magazines, but they’re going more niche,” Franco says. “On a specific target, in a specific editorial language, for a specific audience instead of something very massive. That isn’t working any longer.”

Reaching those broader audiences requires a different medium, but new media alone isn’t the answer. Despite Mexico’s proliferation of mobile Internet use, television and terrestrial radio are still an important part of building a brand. The trick is adapting these old content distribution methods for a younger, hipper audience.

When it comes to legacy media in Mexico, it doesn’t get much more old-guard than W Radio. The station was founded in 1930 and is now owned by Televisa, the largest media company in Latin America. W Radio broadcasts Franco’s two-hour daily music and culture program, Wfm, as well as the shorter weekly Backstage 40 music show on affiliate station Los 40 Principales. Wfm is produced in a small studio at the WARP offices, where they record one long interview per week with a guests ranging from musicians to politicians. It deviates from traditional NPR territory in that the interviews are segmented throughout the week and the interviewees actually pick half of the music programming. The long tail allows the guests to reach a broader audience, and it gives daily listeners a more intimate window into their personality. The serialized concept is like a telenovela approach to public radio, minus the melodrama.

“Radio was the main thing that made me realize that I wanted to do this for a living. That’s my first great passion and love. I think that I’m going to be behind a microphone my whole life,” says Franco.

Mexican listeners tune in on both AM and FM frequencies, but there’s also a big online component. Content is archived for anytime streaming, and interviews are often accompanied by video. The station went all out for this year’s Oscars, livestreaming audio and video in celebration of Birdman’s nomination from a luxe conference room at W Hotel (no relation). It was a special night for all of Mexico, but it held unique significance for W Radio: Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu was a longtime host and station manager before stepping behind the camera. 

“We’re too Latin to be in another type of network and too international to be in Latin networks.”

The parallels between the two Alejandros don’t stop at the microphone: Franco is also a video producer and film director. That’s a lot of hats to wear, but the video arm of his business was a natural evolution to his music-related content. His directorial debut, For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela, chronicles the unlikely path that led a Mexican acoustic guitar duo to international stardom. It premiered at SXSW in 2014 and has screened at several American festivals, exporting a Mexican success story of musical empowerment.

Domestically the video mission isn’t just supporting Mexican artists but fueling the underserved desire for trending American and U.K. music. The lack of touring international acts stems back to the 1971 Festival Rock y Ruedas de Avándaro, a massively popular music fest that the government feared would have a rippling counter-culture effect similar to Woodstock. As a reaction, the government clamped down on local rock bands and closed the borders to touring acts. 

Regulations have long since loosened, but their legacy makes Mexico City an unconventional stop on most tour itineraries and has kept the musical infrastructure from developing at the same pace as in other countries. Franco’s TV program SesioneS aims to create an added value to entice touring acts to town and broaden Mexican audiences’ exposure to new music. It’s basically a Mexican version of PBS’s longstanding Austin City Limits that’s streamed online and broadcast nationally.

Over the course of eight seasons, bands from the likes of Blondie to the XX have stopped by when they’re in town to perform hour-long concerts taped on 5 RED cameras. A team of nearly 100 people works on each episode, but the face of the program is Franco. He serves as host and gives the program a distinctly Mexican feel, although his role has scaled back significantly as the show’s aimed for international distribution.

“When we tried to air the show in the U.S., only Latin networks would be interested because I’m obviously the Latin host, but those channels in the U.S. don’t want to air things like Hot Chip,” Franco says. “We’re too Latin to be in another type of network and too international to be in Latin networks. So we decided, let’s develop an international show made in Mexico, but with our own touches.” 

“From my perspective, journalism is the first thing that I do.”

Existing in that middle ground between Mexican authenticity and international appeal has made Sentido Común a natural choice for companies looking to create branded video content. Its list of clients is a who’s who of innovative marketing: Nike, Sony, Red Bull, and a host of other global corporations ranging from automakers to liquor companies.

The latest video marketing project is a series of 18 short documentaries for Sol beer about Mexicans who followed unconventional paths to success. One-minute versions will be broadcast in movie theaters worldwide, while longer five-minute versions will be hosted on Sol’s website. Franco will direct several of the segments, but a group of guest directors will diversify the visual identity of the campaign. Sentido knows how to speak about Mexican audiences to both Mexican and international audiences, and for a global company like Sol, that skill is invaluable. 

Between the Web, print, audio, and video content, Sentido fervently subscribes to the entrepreneurial maxim of “being everywhere.” And while it’s a gameplan that every media company in the world is striving to follow, it isn’t quite as easy to pull off in Mexico. Franco is a big advocate for his home country, but he admits that working within its confines provides challenges. 

“If you compare us to similar offices in the U.S. or U.K., I think you’re going to find that we’re doing the exact same job, but we’re used to working in different situations socially, politically, and economically,” he says. “We need to work twice as hard to get things done, because as a Latin producer, you need to convince a whole structure and industry that you can develop quality content. We have to work hard, and different.” 

Luckily for Franco, that’s the easy part.

Illustration by Max Fleishman