Clockwork meets satellite in a revolution for Third World radio

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The Independent Online
The Bayliss wind-up radio was an elegantly low-tech solution to a tricky Third-World development problem: what is the point of having a radio if you don't have mains electricity and can't afford the batteries to run it?

But that begs an even more basic question. What is the point of having a radio, however it is powered, if there is nothing for it to receive? Nearly three quarters of the developing world receives only minimal radio coverage - just one weak AM signal of the local radio station. Large swathes of the Third World are too far from a transmitter to receive any signal at all.

In October this year an Ariane rocket will blast off from the Eurospace launch pad in Guyana carrying an unfashionably hi-tech answer to this problem - a communications satellite that will give even the most isolated communities a richer choice of radio stations than we have in the UK today. It avoids the need to construct an expensive earthbound network to relay the signals.

The satellite, named Afristar, will be the first of four, one each for Africa, Asia and Latin America plus a spare, which will form the world's first global digital radio broadcast system. Each satellite will beam four separate "footprints" to earth and each footprint will carry 80 separate radio channels.

The scheme is the brainchild of Noah Samara, a charismatic 42-year-old Ethiopian who in 1990 founded Worldspace - the company that owns the satellites. It means that he will join the elite group of men like Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner whose media empires span the planet.

Yet Samara is the very antithesis of what a modern global media mogul should be. He is African. A lawyer by training, he has no business track record and no media experience. He is not motivated by money. And those who know him say he is always kind, unfailingly courteous and modest.

Like Murdoch and Turner, Samara has a vision of pots of gold and limitless political influence - but unlike them it's not for himself. Rather than just make profits, Worldspace has a mission - to use modern information technology to help develop the Third World, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa.

"There is nothing wrong with being rich and Worldspace is a commercial enterprise. But my concern is not how to make it a business, it's how to make it a phenomenon," said Washington-based Samara, speaking in London last week.

While Murdoch and Turner would have targeted the world's most affluent 5 per cent with such a venture, Worldspace is addressing 4.5 billion of the world's poorest people. Samara hopes that as many as 500 million people will eventually tune into its services, but claims it can break even with audiences of 20 to 30 million.

The 80 channels beamed to earth by the Worldspace satellites will include the conventional diet of music news and sport. Worldspace has already leased 23 channels to business information provider Bloomberg. But crucially there will also be a heavy educational content. "We want to aid the integration of women into government and the democratic process, so we are launching a women's channel. We are launching a channel dedicated to children's issues and we are looking for providers of health education, advice for sufferers of disease and a university of the air," said Somara.

The scheme has received guarded approval from development experts. "In principle it is a good idea because information is power and one of the key ways of helping the poor. It could have a major impact. But the agenda behind the information is the real issue," says Tony Burden, economic development policy advisor to Oxfam.

It would be tempting to dismiss talk of satellites saving the Third World as pie in the sky, were it not for one thing: money. Samara has raised $1.1bn in hard cash to fund his venture. His publicity shy backers are said to include individuals from North America, Japan and Korea as well as French telecoms giant Alcatel, which has taken a 10 per cent stake in the company.

Critics say that Samara's venture may stumble on the problem of receivers. No sets currently exist that can receive his digital signals. So Worldspace has signed deals with Japanese electronics giants JVC, Hitachi and Sanyo to develop new radios. And as 75 per cent of Worldspace's potential customers don't even have electricity, Worldspace has taken a 10 per cent share in Baygen, the company that makes the Bayliss wind-up radios.

This still leaves the issue of price. At pounds 140, the radios will cost something like a year's salary in parts of the Third World. To offset this major disadvantage, Worldspace is planning to "seed the clouds" by giving away hundreds of thousands of receivers. Somara hopes that once demand for them picks up, the price will soon drop to something far more affordable.

Samara's vision for Worldspace started off with the idea for a health advisory channel in the Eighties to help stem the spread of Aids. "People were not so much dying of Aids, they were dying of ignorance," he said.

In the end, however, Worldspace is a business and like any other commercial medium, whether it succeeds or not depends on what advertising it can sell.

Confronted by sated markets in the US and Europe, big business is eyeing the Third World as the next arena of growth after China and eastern Europe. It seems positive towards the idea. "Radio is an increasingly interesting medium for big companies and Africa and the Middle East is an increasingly interesting market. I think it has every chance," said Martin Sorrell, chairman of WPP, the world's largest advertising group.

Samara ingenuously claims that Worldspace has "no firm political agenda" other than trying to aid economic development. However, given its commercial nature, it may be almost impossible for it not to promote Western-style consumerism and democracy which comes as part of the package. Which may may or may not be a good thing, depending on your view.