In the 1990s, when Zach Horowitz was COO of MCA (which would later become Universal Music Group), Universal had no Latin companies and no presence in Latin America whatsoever.
“I was looking at the demographic changes in the country and thought: How do we penetrate what was the fastest growing community at the time when we’re decades behind every other major?” says Horowitz today.
Horowitz, who spent 12 years as president and COO of Universal and later was chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, launched “alternative” lanes, going into rock en español with acclaimed producer Gustavo Santaolalla, launching Latin urban label Machete and helming the acquisition of Fonovisa and Disa, turning Universal into a Latin powerhouse.
Fast forward to 2021, and he’s looking to do it again, but in the podcast space.
Horowitz has partnered with longtime friend and Fonovisa founder and former president Guillermo Santiso, podcast pioneer and Megaphone co-founder Andy Bowers, Latina marketing and advertising expert Diana Mejía-Jones of Campanario Entertainment and former Univision executive Jordi Oliveres to launch Pitaya Entertainment. The new company, named after the succulent fruit indigenous to many Latin countries, is focused on podcasts for and about Latinos, including Spanish and non-Spanish speakers.
Pitaya’s original six series programming slate ranges from Puerto Rican actress and TV host Giselle Blondet’s podcast on motherhood, “Ay, Mamá,” to comedians’ Joanna Hausmann, and Jenny Lorenzo’s Spanglish “Hyphenated.” All have debuted on the Apple charts in the U.S. in their first week of release.
Horowitz, who most recently produced and co-produced the Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison documentary and Latin Grammy-winning album, spoke to Billboard about how he’s applied his Latin music expertise to podcasting.
Billboard: You left Universal Music Publishing Group in 2014. Why did you come back to music and to Latin music specifically?
Horowitz: Throughout my career at Universal I was always passionate about Latin music, and I became immersed in the culture. And when I left, one of the things I did was keep the friendship with Los Tigres del Norte. Getting Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison done was harder than pulling off the Polygram deal. It took us two years. The California Department of Corrections hadn’t allowed a concert since Johnny Cash.
During your Universal days, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the viability of the Latin market, wasn’t there?
It became a major focus for me and I had a lot of resistance along the way. I was called into a few corporate meetings when I was trying to make the Univision deal and I had to explain why this was so culturally important. And ultimately, we sold so much music that it was undeniable. But I was always looking for lanes the other majors weren’t in, because we were decades behind.
And now, you’re going into Latin podcasting, which is just taking off. Why foray there?
Podcasts are exploding in popularity but the Latino side of podcasting is woefully underdeveloped. What has been happening in the podcast word is the business has doubled in the past five years But Latino podcasts are seriously under-represented. If you look at the surveys, again and again they say there’s not enough content that speaks to them; there’s not enough Spanish-language content or enough content that tells stories. There’s the same lack of awareness of podcasts that existed in the Anglo side five to 10 years ago. So 100% of Pitaya’s focus is Latino podcasting.
Your podcasts are all hosted by celebrities. But celebrity is not enough to make a good podcast is it? Why do you think these will work?
We have all sorts of formulas and algorithms we use before we make any decision. The five hosts we launched had over 25 million followers on social media. Before we do a podcast, we do a series of demo recordings to make sure there’s an exciting and compelling program built around what their fans love and are interested in. Their fans live on the Internet. And because podcasts are an Internet phenomena, our goal is, how do you take fans who are passionate about the hosts and convert them to a podcast listener.
What is the business model?
Podcasts are an ad-supported business in the U.S. Many of our hosts are known outside the U.S., but our initial focus is the U.S. because that’s where there’s revenue. If we’re able to generate the listenership, advertisers will come.
Will you have music programming at some point?
We may. What we’re trying to do initially is come up with podcasts that we feel creatively and culturally work. It feels like an extension of what I did at Universal. A lot of my deals were with people who were left of center; they were not Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez. They used to make fun of me at Universal for what they said was my focus on groups with hats and shiny suits. And those groups sold millions and millions of records. They were under represented voices that need marketing, and then, the money flowed. The goal with Pitaya is to give an opportunity to diverse voices and bring a new entertainment media to Latino culture.