They Put the Rest of the World on the Web

The "tech cowboys" at Webcast Solutions travel to some of the poorest places in the world -- and uncover rich content for the World Wide Web. Have you tuned in to the radio broadcast from Burkina Faso?

Every once in a while, an entrepreneur has an "aha!" moment that's so powerful, it feels like an explosion. For Cory Smith, the CEO of Webcast Solutions Inc., that moment was an explosion. Smith was in Jerusalem, producing a multimedia documentary for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He had just interviewed a Holocaust survivor and was settling in for lunch at a streetside cafe when a bomb went off around the corner. Smith grabbed his digital video camera and ran to the scene. When he realized that he had what was probably the first footage of the explosion, he phoned CNN. Less than an hour later, Smith's footage -- along with Smith himself -- was on the air.

Smith, a lanky, upbeat 34-year-old, had clearly scored a journalistic coup. Yet he felt strangely dissatisfied. "I knew intuitively that TV would reduce the footage to a few images and sound bites," he says. "It was all right there in front of my eyes -- the difference between traditional media, which takes a snippet of something important and then moves on to a story about hair dryers, and the Web, where you can really add context to the content."

Adding context to the content is the driving force behind Webcast Solutions. The young company, incorporated in July 1997, works with huge clients like Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard to deliver live events -- from CEO speeches to product launches -- over the Web. But that's Webcast's business. Its passion involves using the skills and the technology that it's perfected for rich clients to give a Web voice to the poorest people on Earth.

"I've been around the world nine times," says Brad Knop, 34, chief operating officer, whose previous career was in international finance, "and everywhere I go, I see the incredible influence of western media. We're trying to reverse that flow of information -- to show people in the West what other cool stuff is out there." That effort, adds Smith, "is not a huge moneymaker for us. But we all believe that the best use of this medium is to create dialogue between people, to facilitate the exchange of ideas at a global level."

Those are lofty goals for a 12-person outfit based in a warehouse in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. But in its short history, Webcast Solutions has demonstrated that even the world's least-developed countries can contribute to the Web's marketplace of ideas. Consider Burkina Faso, a windswept West African nation on the edge of the Sahara Desert. In economic terms, Burkina Faso is unspeakably poor. Yet in cultural terms -- and especially in musical terms -- the Francophone nation that was formerly known as Upper Volta offers an embarrassment of riches.

Last year, Webcast's Jon Fox arrived in Ouagadougou, the nation's capital, with an assignment to connect a small private radio station to the Web. And not on a one-time basis: Webcast was hoping to use streaming audio to enable the station's content to be broadcast around the world -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That's a tall order in any country, let alone one in which trying to get a dial tone can be an all-day affair. But Fox, 33, is a "Tech Cowboy" -- one of the digitally savvy, street-smart technicians whom Webcast dispatches on such wire-the-world missions. Fox arrived with an armful of inoculations, covering everything from cholera to typhoid; a $1 million kidnap-ransom insurance policy; and 800 pounds of material, including Cisco routers, Aphex compressor/limiters, Mackie mixers, Sun Sparcstations, and UPS surge protectors capable of handling the 2,000-volt power spikes that are a frequent occurrence throughout most of West Africa.

Amazingly, it took only five weeks for Fox to produce the Web feed from Burkina Faso. And because the gear he left behind has its own set of IP addresses, it can be monitored, tested, and remotely controlled from Webcast's offices in San Francisco. Since the Burkina Faso installation, the company has Web-enabled radio stations in Senegal and Kenya, and it has plans to do the same thing in both Lebanon and Turkey later this year.

These radio-station feeds make up just one part of a larger vision. "As people get more and more curious about the world, the question becomes, How can you really find out about various locations?" says Smith. "I can imagine taking a TV or radio feed from a location, broadcasting it via the Web, and then surrounding it with contextual material about art, culture, and business. That's the space we're moving toward -- convergent media."

Webcast has already gone some way toward filling that space through its work on UNESCO's Planetary Dialogues site (www.planetarydialogues.com). So far, it has completed Web documentaries about eight of UNESCO's World Heritage points of interest - from Indonesia's 1,200-year-old Borobudur temple to the pyramids of Egypt (where Tech Cowboys transported their gear on the backs of camels).

Don't get the wrong idea. These globetrotting efforts are not just an expression of good intentions. They're good business too. Webcast's experiences have taught the company how to do world-class work under harsh conditions, making it one of the most battle-tested Web broadcasters around. "In the past four months, we've had four companies inquire if Webcast is for sale," marvels Brad Knop.

Eric Ransdell (ransdell@well.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor based in San Francisco. You can learn more about Webcast Solutions Inc. on the Web (www.webcastsolutions.com).

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