Not Now, Voyager

A report from the wreckage of the multimedia pioneer

By Renee Monrose

Published November 11, 1996 6:40PM (EST)

although its engine had been sputtering for some time, the final crash of multimedia pioneer Voyager on October 30 still came as a shockat least to those on board. Fired employees limped away from the wreckage like the stunned survivors of an unexpected disaster.

That afternoon, Bob Stein, Voyager's radical (and some say visionary) president, had walked quietly through the 11th-floor production offices in Manhattan, asking each employee in turn to come downstairs to an "important" meeting.

More than 20 people gathered in a room where Stein read out their names and announced the layoff of the entire CD-ROM division. "And," he added, "I'm out of here too."

"I know exactly what time it was," said one bewildered employee. "When I got back to my desk, I had closed the document I was working on. It said 2:58 p.m."

Although most employees seemed shaken by the mass layoffs, the turmoil at Voyager had long been apparent both inside the company and out. During the last year, Voyager cut its staff and reduced its production to projects with outside financing. A number of employees had quit, dubious about the direction the company had been taking and harboring questions about Stein's ability as manager.

Last July, Wired Magazine published an article exposing some of the financial problems at Voyagerand the contradictions implicit in having a self-proclaimed Maoist running a capitalist enterprise. Some say the article damaged the relationship between Stein and his partners, Jonathan Turrell and Peter Becker. Others say CD-ROMs just haven't found a market, and suggest that the demise of Voyager is a harbinger of things to come.

Voyager was founded in 1985 in Stein's living room in Santa Monica, California. It began as a joint venture between Stein, his former wife, Aleen; Janus Films, a distributor of foreign titles; Voyager Press; and the German publisher von Holtzbrinck.

In 1988, the company released what is said to be the first consumer CD-ROM, an annotated "companion" to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, at a time when CD-ROM players were rare. The company moved to SoHo in 1993. Among its more popular titles are "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Louvre for Kids." It is also known for provocative productionslike the anti-death penalty title "Live from Death Row," a plea to reopen the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist convicted, after a controversial trial, of killing a policeman in Philadelphia. The company was also responsible for Laurie Anderson's "Puppet Motel" and the up-from-the bottom history title "Who Built America?"

Although the announcement of Voyager's demise shook up an industry that has had a difficult time finding its market niche, Stein himself doesn't think the breakup of Voyager has any wider implications for electronic publishing in general.

"I couldn't be more bullish about the future of CD-ROMs and Internet publishing," said Stein. "This was an internal disagreement between me and my business partners. What happened is, it became very clear it would take a huge investment of capital and the creation of a much bigger company to keep going. My partners are businessmen, not creative types, and they didn't want to give up that kind of control. They don't have the vision. Basically, they fired everyone who could read."

Voyager has long maintained a unique reputation in the industry not only because of the high quality and innovative content of its titles, but also because of the eccentric personality of its president. A vocal defender of Peru's Shining Path, Stein has courted controversy like a bloodhound trailing a scent. While greatly respected for his company's innovative output, he's been criticized for not seeking the money-making ventures that might have underwritten his intellectually challenging, if sometimes, esoteric, publications.

"In many cases, people in the CD-ROM business have given up on it," said Stein, who says he is determined to find a buyer for Voyager or form an entirely new company. "I am not one of them. I have a certain vision about it and am actively talking to a lot of people about putting a new venture together. I'm looking for a seasoned and professional manager and I'd like to put that information out as widely as possible."

Whether other investors come forward or not remains to be seen, but if and when they do, Stein says he would position himself as creative director and try to rehire as many of his former employees as possible.

"They were Voyager," says Stein

Renee Monrose

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