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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mike Latronic carving across surf media

By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Mike Latronic — seen here at Sunset Point — became a pro surfer after graduating from Waialua High School, then began producing TV surfing shows. The magazine was an outgrowth of that.

Photo by Kinsan, provided by Manulele Inc.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

"How can you do a magazine about fun in the sun if you don’t have some yourself?"
— Mike Latronic

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Mike Latronic may have been prophetic when he named his business Manulele Inc.

One of the English translations of the Hawaiian word is flying bird.

That's a pretty apt description of Latronic's surfing media business these days. As Manulele approaches its 10th anniversary, Latronic is presiding over what is arguably the state's most successful surf media company.

His FreeSurf magazine, which has a distribution of 20,000 in Hawai'i, averages more than 112 pages each month. The December issue looks like it will have at least 180.

There are two television shows, "Board Stories TV" and "Billabong Surf TV," that are among the most popular with male viewers ages 18 to 34 on Oceanic Time Warner's OC16 cable channel of local programming.

Then there are two Web sites, swimsuit and surf calendars, DVDs, a photo agency, and a Web content service.

Next week, both of his television shows will begin showing as part of the Planet X channel in San Diego, reaching 800,000 homes in Southern California.

Early next year, his first non-surf-related product, a mixed martial arts magazine, will debut. "I work really hard and my crew works really hard and people seem to enjoy it," said Latronic. "It's a viable equation."

Not bad for a North Shore kid who came from a humble background and who skipped out of a chance to attend the University of California-San Diego to become a professional surfer. But Latronic's drive and focus were even evident as he attended classes at Waialua High School.

"He was a good, bright, industrious young man," said Lea Albert, Latronic's high school journalism teacher.

Albert, who went on to become principal of Kahuku High School and is now the state Department of Education's Windward District deputy superintendent, said Latronic's success isn't surprising.

"He knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go. Surfing was a huge part of that," said Albert.

"He also has a strong intellect."

Latronic enjoyed a modest amount of success on the international surfing circuit and had his biggest victories at home, where he was ranked as high as No. 2 in the old Hawaii Pro-Am Circuit. While some surfers might be content with that level of achievement, Latronic kept busy out of the waves.

"I was never a slouch," said Latronic, noting he comes from a poor background, having been raised by a single mother who pursued a career as an artist and poet.

"Everything I got, I worked for."

That meant selling wetsuits and sunscreen when he wasn't surfing, or chaperoning younger surfers for his sponsors. He got his first article published in Tracks magazine, then Australia's leading surf publication. It paid $42 Australian.

"I wanted to do more than just hang around and make a couple of hundred bucks as a pro surfer."

That led him in 1989 to partner with other surfers, including fellow pro Mark Foo, in a media company that produced a ground-breaking local surfing television show, "H30." Foo died surfing California big-wave break Mavericks in 1994, and three years later Latronic parted ways with the company.

He went on to form Manu-lele later that year with some other partners for the purpose of producing "Board Stories TV." Latronic said the magazine was a logical progression and really got a boost from a call from a now-defunct magazine that inquired about using an interview Latronic had shot on video. The magazine didn't want to pay him for a transcribed version.

Latronic remembers thinking, "My god, Hawai'i is the home of surfing and the sport of kings and we don't even have a magazine here that can afford to pay 5 cents a word to anybody."

Latronic's own magazine debuted just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, a time when many businesses experienced a drop in sales and the state's tourism industry hit an air pocket. The first edition was printed on newsprint and was 48 pages with a 15,000 press run.

By the time it came around to publishing the second issue of the then-quarterly publication, Latronic found he had enough advertisers to almost double the page count and switch to a gloss magazine format.

The magazine seemingly has been able to thrive where Hawai'i surf publishers in the past have failed. Today the free magazine is distributed throughout the state, and is sold for $3.99 on the Mainland in Barnes & Noble locations and at select bookstores.

"What we evolved into was a media company," said Latronic, who employs more than a dozen people throughout the state, with another eight to 10 subcontractors doing distribution, sales and graphic design.

The company has amassed thousands of surfing photos and more than 1,000 hours of video at a time when the industry has gone through a big growth spurt, making it a vital source for advertisers and others seeking surf images.

In 2003, "Board Stories" moved from broadcast television showings once a week to six weekly showings on OC 16. Last year, Latronic inked a deal to produce "Billabong Surf TV." Together the shows have a respectable 2.8 percent rating on Oceanic.

"They do pretty well," said Mike Wong, account manager for OC16. What's more, the shows that are streamed on OC16's Web site attract a good audience from Japan, Wong said.

Moreover, Latronic cut a deal with Planet X to have his shows included in the channel's programming block. The initial deal with Planet X may be expanded to cover other national markets.

"He's a premium producer from the Islands," said Don Durban, Planet X executive producer. "His work speaks for itself."

Latronic admits to working 14-hour days to get everything done at times. Yet he said he also strives to balance his life by making time for his children and surfing. That includes getting employees to watch his camera equipment while he takes breaks from shooting stills and video to go surfing.

"How can you do a magazine about fun in the sun if you don't have some yourself?"

FreeSurf is distributed free in Hawai'i, but sells for $3.99 in Mainland bookstores, including Barnes & Noble.

Reach Greg Wiles at gwiles@honoluluadvertiser.com.