Voyaging With the Multimedia Literati
In a short decade, the business of publishing CD-ROMs has exploded making inroads into our literary sanctums. CD-ROM best seller lists now appear within the hallowed pages of New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly. Well-funded conglomerates with roots in computers, movies, or mass market publishing -- Microsoft, Time Warner, and Compton's -- dominate market share with shoot-em-ups and painfully compressed encyclopedias. There is, however, an immutable dissident voice: Voyager, the small company which started the whole business. Since 1984, Voyager Company has pioneered the publishing of interactive multimedia, first with video laser discs and then with computer CD-ROMs. Just when it's in vogue to jettison intellect for entertainment, to be dumb and dumber, in its ads Voyager exhorts potential customers to "bring your brain." Voyager co-founder Bob Stein, who leads the company's creative efforts, is himself an unrepentant believer in ideas. He remains an unreconstructed '60s-style leftist, urging his employees to boycott national elections and contribute to efforts to free the jailed guerrilla leader of Peru's Shining Path. His steadfast approach to politics is carried out as well in his company's successful resistance to tides of trivia and fashion washing over the CD-ROM industry. "The ability to have a longer-range vision, to measure things in decades rather than in quarters" is what a background in Maoist-Leninist-Marxist politics has brought to his career, Stein suggests. So while others succumb to gimmick, Voyager proceeds intelligently but without fanfare. Its mission: To end the linear tyranny of printed words and sprocket film, liberating users to follow their own interests and then dig deeper still, selecting interviews with experts and other tiered background materials at the push of a computer assisted button. Along the way, Voyager has broken down the restraints of the television screen, introducing "letterboxing," the blanking out of the top and bottom of the frame so wide-screen movies can appear as they were made. In 1987, with the introduction of Apple Computer's HyperCard software, Stein combined computer-stored words and images synchronized with an audio CD, creating the first commercial multimedia CD-ROM, Beethoven Symphony No. 9 CD Companion. Voyager also can claim credit for release of the first full-length feature film on CD-ROM complete with script and background materials, the Beatles' Hard Day's Night -- still the company's best-selling title. One of the secrets of Voyager's success can be found in its alternative corporate ethos. More akin to a cultural institution than a multimedia conglomerate, Voyager has essentially been a not-for-profit venture. While hardly run as a commune or collective, its profits have always been plowed back into the company; its four partners earn modest compensation by media company standards. Salaries are low, and advances are small for its authors. Still, dozens of CD-ROM projects are in the works and countless resumes keep arriving at 578 Broadway, the company's headquarters in New York's fashionable Soho district. Clearly, this is the multimedia place to be. Voyager also maintains offices 17 miles north of its high profile Soho digs in the peaceful Hudson River town of Irvington, NY. There, in a renovated boiler plant, labor William Becker, who heads the company's Criterion Collection (with close to 200 classic movies on laser disc and growing) and Jonathan Turell, who functions as Voyager's chief operating officer. (Stein's former wife Aleen, another Voyager co-founder, runs the company's international operations out of Paris.) There are obvious contrasts between Stein and Turell, who share responsibility for the day-to-day operations of their venture. Stein, in old clothes and scuffed boots, keeps copies of Revolutionary Worker in his desk; the shiny-shoed Turell flies first class. For all their differences, however, Stein and Turell share an approach to management that has kept their company growing through the technological upheavals of the last ten years. Says Turell: "We come at things from different directions. If Bob is a capitalist Maoist, I can be a Maoist capitalist." He adds: "Voyager is a company that's been built by both its passion and its reason." Originally a niche marketer to high-end video fans, and now to the CD-ROM elite, Voyager has yet to go mass market. "Though I would love to be in all K-mart stores, we're more likely to end up in upscale chain operations like Barnes & Noble bookstores," Turell concludes. As a private partnership, Voyager can ignore the pressures of fulfilling stockholder pressures for bigger profits, concentrating instead on fulfilling Stein's unwavering goal: "To give authors a broader palette. Not having to choose whether to express themselves in words or words and still photographs, but to use motion pictures, sound, animation, and words, and photographs all at once." It was Stein's chance opportunity to buy laser disk rights to 'Citizen Kane' and 'King Kong' that got Voyager going. After an initial investment of $10,000 for rights to the two Hollywood classics, Stein and his collaborators became the first to take advantage of 12-inch laser discs' interactive capabilities and superior image quality for video reproduction. In addition to first-rate transfers of Citizen Kane and King Kong, Voyager's first Criterion Collection offered supplementary materials on disc, including production shots, trailers and film essays and audio commentaries by film historians. Subsequent Criterion releases would feature critique by top directors Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorcese. Soon after starting their film-based enterprise, Voyager launched a line of 12-inch laser discs for documentaries, shorts, music videos, and educational titles. These were to lead to the first consumer five-inch CD-ROMs. Today, browsing through Voyager's catalogue is to savor the kind of classy paper-based publishing practiced over the years by the likes of Bennett Cerf's Random House in the 1930s and Barney Rossett's Grove Press during the 1960s. Voyager publishes some 50 innovative multimedia works, like the First Person CD-ROMs featuring artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky and biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Also available are eclectic multimedia titles Freak Show, by San Francisco rock music legend The Residents, and The Complete Maus, an interactive multimedia archive of artist and writer Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel of the Holocaust. Author-driven, idea-filled, culturally important, this is hardly the stuff of video games, the mainstay of today's West Coast multi-media production. Not that Stein sees himself as a multimedia activist or visionary, but he has become a highly visible proselytizer for the expressive possibilities of interactive discs. "We get asked a lot at Voyager -- because so much of our work is based on existing books or is book-like -- what the future of the book is. I don't think it's a very good question. Humans have an extremely handy way of coming up with new uses for old media, and I expect that books will be with us for a long time. Books are now still the mechanism and the medium by which we express the most important ideas of our culture to each other. What is clear to me is that the locus of important ideas is going to change because the authors themselves are going to insist upon using multimedia." Can it last? Stein ends his talk to a group of 200 professionals with a multimedia call to action. "There's a tremendous struggle going on inside the world of media. It has to do with whether or not everything is going to be dominated by Hollywood and motion pictures...You can't have a serious dialogue by watching a movie; you can start to have a serious dialogue by reading what someone says and is thinking about it. It's very important that we look for different ways to nurture people who are trying to do important intellectual things in these new media, who aren't simply trying to put the latest movie or game onto a CD-ROM." Recent news that the plug has been pulled on Putnam New Media, the CD-ROM division of the famed book publisher, sent shock waves through the multimedia industry. The implication to many is that book-based CD-ROMs simply can't compete with the glitzy video entertainment that tops the medium's bestseller lists. But don't expect Bob Stein and Voyager to stray from their thought-provoking interactive path any time soon.