Around the world, a revolution is underway that is changing the way people listen to radio. In the United States, two organizations are using cutting edge digital technology and satellites to deliver crystal clear programming, for a fee. Another company has pioneered free direct satellite broadcasting to small portable radios.
In Washington, D.C., from studios bristling with the latest technology, and from satellites thousands of kilometers out in space, a company called Worldspace is busy changing the world.
For decades, radio relied on transmission of electromagnetic waves through the earth's atmosphere. Mediumwave AM, FM, and shortwave were all subject to interference, fading and limitations of distance. Before the advent of the Internet, international broadcasters were limited to these signal delivery choices.
Now, there is Direct Satellite Broadcasting. In 1990 Noah Samara, an Ethiopian immigrant to the United States, began turning a dream to reality. He wanted to bring the world's people together through a satellite-based radio service, beginning with Africa.
Mr. Samara worked hard through the early 1990's, securing financial backing and eventually approval of satellite broadcast frequencies for what would become Worldspace. The idea was radical. Focus on the developing world - Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East - and provide high-quality crystal clear radio.
Now, more than a decade later, with more than $1 billion in financial support, the dream is a reality and getting bigger by the day. Gene Reich, is spokesman for Worldspace. "Our concept," he said, "is to bring choice and quality to places that have not experienced either, and from our experience so far we seem to be doing very well at that. Our challenge is to increase the scale."
Today, Worldspace carries a number of major broadcast and news outlets - among them the BBC, Radio France, National Public Radio, CNN. Also offered are a collection of independent broadcasters in such places as Morocco, Indonesia and Kenya.
A former broadcaster himself with VOA, Reich says Worldspace has been embraced by some, shunned by others precisely because it is changing the landscape of broadcasting. Mr. Reich said, "We have created a level playing field such that half a dozen motivated individuals in a garage in Penang or Jakarta, or Bangalore would be able to put together the kind of programming that could go toe-to-toe with a BBC, Radio France International or a VOA. To some people I suppose that would be threatening. To me, and I would venture to say to so many of us at Worldspace, it is tremendously exciting."
In December 1901, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi succeeded in transmitting the first radio signals over thousands of kilometers - from England to Canada. Today, Worldspace, with its space-ship-like satellite control room and studios filled with sophisticated equipment, is making history.
Gene Reich says international broadcasting has been changed forever, because there is no longer any reason for people in economically open societies to tolerate the inadequacies of shortwave reception. "You endure those drawbacks in transmission, for the sake of getting a program. It becomes worthwhile for you to do so when you're in a closed society, when you're in a setting like North Korea. But if you're in an economically open market that has limitations on media because of economics, not politics, and so much of the world now fits that description this [satellite radio] becomes a far more compelling medium."
In 2002, Worldspace will launch its third and final satellite - beaming signals to Central and South America. With two other satellites covering Africa and Asia, Worldspace will have a potential listenership of more than five billion, most of the world's population.
Radios capable of receiving Worldspace channels are being produced by electronics companies in Japan and Korea, along with a company in Thailand. The sets are getting smaller and cheaper, and the aim is to have them below $50.
In the United States, meanwhile, the battle has already begun between two satellite radio companies vying for listeners willing to pay a fee for variety in programming and clear reception.