Noah Samara wants to serve the information have-nots

Noah Samara is the name. Radio is his game. Never heard of him? You will. This international man of mystery is about to launch a hugely ambitious, $850 million digital radio venture that's the talk of the telecommunications industry.

Samara is chief executive of Washington-based WorldSpace Inc. His privately held company has a mission: to use a novel satellite-broadcasting setup to bring ''information affluence'' to burgeoning markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. To this end, WorldSpace has raised financing to launch three satellites by 1999. Each bird will be able to broadcast to an entire continent. ''The dream is ultimately to create a that these regions can hear themselves speak and sing,'' Samara says.

CREATIVE BACKING. That idealistic vision is Samara's long-term goal. To get his business off the ground, however, he's now focusing on middle-class city dwellers who can afford $100 digital radios and are eager to receive Western and regional news and entertainment. WorldSpace hopes to make its money by selling time on the satellites to various content providers. British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America, and Bloomberg News acknowledge that they have had discussions with WorldSpace, and Samara says he has had exploratory talks with both Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, as well as other artists, about entertainment content. Jackson and Jones wouldn't comment.

Samara, a soft-spoken Ethiopian-born lawyer, turns secretive when it comes to his backers. He will say only that they include investors from most of the major geographical areas to be served, as well as several wealthy individuals in the U.S. But Middle Eastern investment bankers say that the Bin Mahfouz family, which handles the Saudi royal family's finances, has invested in WorldSpace. In 1995, Samara shocked his colleagues when he canceled a meeting with Morgan Stanley & Co. to catch a plane for London, where he met with gulf investors. He returned with $10 million that enabled WorldSpace to begin negotiating with vendors and potential customers.

In June, the company announced agreements for Hitachi, JVC, Matsushita Electric Industrial, and Sanyo Technosound to make the custom radios for WorldSpace. France's Alcatel Alsthom and SGS-Thomson are developing satellites and microprocessors, respectively. ''We have been captured by the spirit and vision of Mr. Samara,'' says SGS-Thomson Vice-President Sergio Garue.

Samara's enterprise has attracted high-powered executives as well. President John Cusick formerly headed PrimeStar Partners, a satellite-TV venture. McAdory Lipscomb, WorldSpace's senior vice-president for sales, marketing, and content, came from Showtime. And Pierre Madon, WorldSpace's senior vice-president for engineering and operations, is from Intelsat. Founder Martine (nee Martin) Rothblatt is a well-known Washington telecom impresario.

Samara, meanwhile, remains a relative unknown. But he has shown his ability to play with the big boys. In 1992, he won L-band satellite-spectrum space at an international conference by brokering a deal to get developing nations behind a U.S. plan to award spectrum for Iridium and Globalstar satellite systems. If WorldSpace launches its ambitious system, Samara may no longer be a man of mystery. He could become a household name from Lagos to La Paz: the Rupert Murdoch of the Southern hemisphere.

By Catherine Yang in Washington, with Marsha Johnston in Paris


Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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