NOAH SAMARA: BIOGRAPHY

entrepreneur

Personal Information

Born in 1956 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; son of a financial attache with the Organization of African Unity.
Education: Completed undergraduate studies in Pennsylvania; received J.D. and advanced business degree from Georgetown University; worked toward Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Memberships: Constituency for Africa (board member), Akilu Lemma Foundation.

Career

Regulatory expert for satellite and cellular communications industry for developing countries; employed by the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union as an expert on mobile communications technologies; WorldSpace, Inc., founder, 1990, and chair and chief executive officer, 1990--.

Life's Work

The term "visionary" is a fitting one for Noah Samara. An American with a direct African heritage, a love of science and scholarship, and a savvy business acumen in emerging technologies, Samara has founded a company that will bring a wealth of satellite radio broadcasting to the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of the planet--much in the same way that a home satellite dish can pick up hundreds of television channels. In 1998, his WorldSpace, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based company, will launch its first satellite. The beams will reach millions of Africans who currently are poorly served by conventional radio and television broadcast signals. Samara drew parallels with Greek mythology in an attempt to explain his far-reaching goals before an audience assembled in London at the 1997 New Media and Broadcasting Conference: "In a manner perhaps typical of juvenile enthusiasm, I felt that bringing information to the people who needed and desired it most would be a Promethean endeavor, stealing, as it were, fire from the gods and giving it to men," Samara acknowledged.

Samara is of mixed African descent: his father was Sudanese and his mother was Ethiopian. His father, a former teacher, became a financial attache with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) shortly after his son's birth in 1956, and was sent to the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es- Salaam for the pan-African, anti-colonial coalition. During the 1960s, many African nations had successfully declared independence from their European colonial rulers or were still agitating toward that end, and the city was a hub of intellectual and political power. "There was a great deal of optimism in those days," Samara told African Business's Anver Versi. "It seemed then that Africa had entered a new age and that everything was possible." During these formative years, Samara embarked upon his own political-consciousness quest by reading the literature of African liberation and the Black Power movement in the United States.

For his secondary education, Samara's parents sent him to a small town in England. "I was the only foreigner there," he told Versi. "I plunged into literature as a means of coping with my loneliness." He resolved to read books written by the entire list of authors who had won Nobel Prizes, but also looked elsewhere for inspiration. One particular favorite from these years was Fyodor Dosteoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that deals with issues of faith, hope, and the lack of either or both. "I cannot describe the impact this book had on me," he recalled in the interview with Versi. "I felt as if I had known it even before it had been written. I thought it described my background perfectly."

Moving to the United States for college, Samara spent time in Pennsylvania studying a pre-med and pre-law curriculum and eventually arrived at the University of California at Los Angeles to earn a doctorate in Renaissance studies. In examining the technological advances and philosophies that had led Europe out of 1,000 years of backwardness into the flowering of art and science during the renaissance, Samara felt a parallel lesson existed for Africa. "The renaissance had taught me that our [African] continent had to create a new golden age by setting into motion an irreversible momentum towards growth," he explained to Versi.

In Samara's vision, that momentum would be fueled by communication. By linking Africans to the rest of the world, he planned to spark a reawakening equal to that of medieval Europe's rediscovery of ancient classical texts. Armed with advanced degrees, including a law degree from Georgetown University and another one from its prestigious school of international business, Samara entered the communications industry. Eventually he became an expert on regulatory issues and specialized in the satellite and cellular communications industry for developing countries. For a time he worked for the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union, serving as a consultant on mobile communications technologies.

The African continent, like other areas of the developing world, is fairly saturated with conventional radios, but in many regions broadcasts are poor, full of static, or meager in content--giving listeners only news and music from government-operated radio stations, for instance. Illiteracy remains one of the greater obstacles in keeping citizens politically and culturally aware; access to reliable health information in a land plagued by lack of infrastructure, epidemics, and sometimes abysmal living conditions was also of vital importance. Newspapers and magazines were often too expensive for those who could read, and television sets were out of the price range of all but the wealthiest villager. Furthermore, most television broadcasts failed to provide many Africans with timely or enriching programming.

Radio, Samara knew, was the medium for bringing Africa further into the international community. With this in mind, he launched AfriSpace in the late 1980s. Once off the ground, AfriSpace, would provide digital audio broadcasting (DAB) to the African continent. Owners of a digital radio could receive dozens of channels with clear reception. The radios would be offered at an affordable price, and, by signing major news and entertainment giants on as content providers, listeners might receive hourly reports from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and 24-hour hip-hop music from New York City. Looking even further ahead, Samara turned AfriSpace into a subsidiary of WorldSpace, Inc., which he launched in 1990, with little assets or capital besides a formal business plan.

Satellite Communications magazine asked Samara about the greatest obstacle he faced in starting up his company, and Samara replied, "I only know one thing--to make a business like this happen, you have to be blind to the frustrations." Those frustrations were many. First, he had to obtain legal licensing to broadcast from a satellite to a personal radio receiver device--though neither the radio nor satellites were built yet. AfriSpace received an experimental satellite broadcasting license in 1991, from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Next, financing was obtained with the clout of New York City investment banking firm Morgan Stanley, who helped find several private investors to ante up a $650 million-dollar package. WorldSpace then contracted with French company Alcatel Espace to build three satellites and run the ground operations for the DAB service, and several other European firms to manufacture the actual receivers. Finally, Samara and his company began working with news and entertainment networks as well as governments to finalize the content of the programming. It would become the most ambitious radio communications project in history.

In 1996 WorldSpace had demonstrated that its $100 radio, called "Starman," could pick up satellite signals via its antenna. In essence, the Starman is a 21st century version of the television-top home satellite dish. "Over five years, we hope to get the price of a radio closer to $50 retail," Samara told Versi in African Business in 1996. "In a marketplace which already has more than 1 billion radio sets, a $50 satellite-linked digital radio will be nothing short of revolutionary." By late 1996 Samara's company had finalized contracts to build two million radios.

WorldSpace had also made inroads into developing a diverse array of news and entertainment providers, at the cost to the networks of $50 an hour. Those who had leased broadcast signal space included the Voice of America, Radio Netherlands, and the governments of Kenya, Ghana, and Zimbabwe; it was hoped that the World Health Organization (WHO) would also commit. As of early 1997, WorldSpace's new vice president of content was Samuel C. O. Holt, a veteran of the communications industry and cofounder of both National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States.

WorldSpace's African satellite, AfriStar One--scheduled to be launched on a French Ariane rocket in June of 1998 over Zaire--would bring listeners 288 digital channels of international sports events, popular and classical music, talk radio, crop and weather information, local news, medical and health-awareness information and education. WorldSpace was also set to launch two other satellites to serve other parts of the planet: the CaribStar would sit over the Galapagos Islands and provide service to Latin America and the island nations of the Caribbean, and AsiaStar, orbiting over Singapore, would serve a range of culturally diverse nations.

Samara most looked forward to the launch of AfriStar, however. "The reach will be enormous," Samara told Versi in African Business. "If you have, say, a channel devoted to story-telling--which is fundamental to all African societies--you connect not only different strata of societies nationally, [but] you [can] connect one nation with another. For the first time, people in the developing world will be able to easily and cheaply exchange information and ideas. This could sow the seeds of a new Golden age."

Samara hoped to expand the satellite technology into fax and cellular service as well as into a portable Internet-access device. "By New Year's eve of 1999, we plan to be ready to broadcast a message of peace and good will to 4.6 billion people, thereby ushering our world into the 21st century," Samara said in the London speech. His company, he asserted in conclusion, "is a thing of the present and the immediate future ... like Columbus's three ships, braving the sea on an odyssey to a new world, glorybound."

Further Reading

Periodicals

  • African Business, March 1996, p. 8.
  • Via Satellite, February 1997, p. 22.
  • Vibe, September 1996, p. 192.

Other

  • Additional information for this profile was provided by WorldSpace, Inc. public relations materials.

— Carol Brennan

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