RealNetworks CEO donates big bucks to politics
Seattle Times chief political reporter
The Internet had to come before the world, though, as Glaser built his Seattle-based RealNetworks. Now with his company steady and his own great personal wealth, Glaser is becoming a force in this year's presidential election.
So far this year, Glaser has given more than $1 million to the effort to defeat President Bush, making him the top donor in Washington state and one of the most generous givers of any political persuasion in the nation.
But the politics have been there since childhood. His parents were liberal activists in Yonkers, N.Y. At Yale, he wrote "What's Left," a political column in the school paper, and ran an organization called the Campaign Against Militarism and the Draft.
His company had political roots, too. It began as Progressive Networks, a company Glaser founded with a partner to provide liberal-oriented programming for the World Wide Web.
"It's fair to say that our original objective was social revolution," his co-founder, David Halperin, told Wired magazine in 1997.
They wanted to democratize the media and be able to deliver their progressive message over the Internet, bypassing corporate media giants.
That didn't happen. But what Glaser and Halperin started became RealNetworks, which pioneered audio and video on the Web and gave Glaser the money to pursue social revolution through philanthropy.
Through his representatives, Glaser declined to be interviewed for this story. But those who know him well say his giving reflects his goals of transforming mass media, improving health in the Third World and changing America's measures of progress and prosperity.
Glaser was an early supporter of America Coming Together (ACT), one of the biggest of the new independent political groups allying themselves with Democrats this year. Glaser has donated $750,000 to ACT and persuaded friends to give as well. When Bill Clinton visited town to promote his book, he had dinner with Glaser.
Bruce Jacobsen, who has known Glaser since college, says Glaser's bookshelves are crammed with tomes about microeconomics and third-world development. His friends work for the State Department — or did during the Clinton-Gore years — and in the Peace Corps and at homeless shelters.
"Rob's mindset, his interests, have always been worldwide; cosmic," Jacobsen said.
A political incubator?
Peter Goldman, an environmental philanthropist who is also among the state's top political donors, compares Glaser's thinking to that of George Soros, the billionaire financier who has pledged $10 million to defeat Bush. Jacobsen said Glaser met with Soros at his Long Island home to discuss funding America Coming Together.
"There are a lot of folks in this realm who may dabble. But Rob is definitely not dabbling," said Eric Liu, a former RealNetworks vice president.
In recent years, RealNetworks has been a political incubator of sorts.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., worked there between her 1994 loss of a congressional seat and her 2000 Senate victory. She largely financed her campaign using money she made at RealNetworks.
This year, Alex Alben, a former vice president at the company, is running as a Democrat in the 8th Congressional District. He, too, is using RealNetworks wealth to finance his campaign.
And Jacobsen, the company's former president, joins Glaser on the top-10 list of Washington political donors this year.
"I don't subscribe to the theory that there is something in the water at RealNetworks," Alben said. "There really wasn't a specific political climate at Real. Rob was really careful and conscientious never to let his own political philosophy appear to set a tone."
Rather, Alben says, political activity surrounding RealNetworks executives is part of the maturing of the region's high-tech industry: People are of an age, and their bank account at a balance, where they turn their attention to things other than work.
"Left of Che Guevara"
Glaser's politics are often not the mainstream, don't-rock-the-boat type of stands corporate executives usually feel comfortable with.
He has served on the board that oversees Mother Jones, a left-wing muckraking magazine often as hard on Democrats as Republicans. Four years ago, he gave $2,000 to Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign, twice what he gave to Al Gore. Glaser and Nader are friends, Cantwell said.
At Yale, Glaser's politics were "slightly to the left of Che Guevara," joked Jacobsen, who knew Glaser at Yale and at Microsoft before joining him at RealNetworks.
Glaser, who left Yale with two degrees in economics and one in computer science, considered working as an organizer for the farmworkers union but instead went to work for Microsoft, where he stayed for a decade, worked on Windows and Word, and at one point was the company's youngest vice president.
Microsoft to media
In 1993, after what industry media reported was a lost power struggle, Glaser left Microsoft and started his new company, planning to harness the nascent technology of sending music and sound over the Web. The idea was to use the technology to help progressive causes.
Glaser had caught onto streaming audio before nearly everyone, and developed some of the first successful demonstrations. Suddenly it was software, not ideology, that captured attention, venture capital and Glaser's imagination.
Politics and social revolution had to wait until Glaser's personal wealth and his corporation's stability had him looking far beyond RealNetworks' startup offices in Pioneer Square.
In 1995, when Progressive Networks unveiled its Real Audio technology, the progressive part of the company wasn't much more than college intern Jed Lewison, who continued work on developing content for a Web service. That was the same year Cantwell went to work at the company after one term in Congress and service in the state Legislature.
"I wasn't interested in the political stuff," Cantwell said. "I was interested in being part of the bottom line of a company."
Lewison said that many of the employees seemed to share Glaser's view of the world.
"It was a reflection of the way Seattle sees itself as liberal," said Lewison, who now is an aide to Cantwell.
Mike Slade, an early investor in the company and long-time friend of Glaser's, said it wasn't that Glaser was looking for employees who thought like him.
"I think people of like minds attract each other," he said. "So if you went to interview at RealNetworks and you were an NRA right-wing guy, you would get turned off that other people weren't like that."
But that didn't mean the company became a liberal salon. Just like dozens of other startups around the region at the time, it was about developing technology and hoping for a market.
"We felt a little like we were doing something that was the center of the universe. We didn't focus on political stuff all that much," Lewison said.
Gradual involvement in politics
Glaser's political involvement began with little steps.
In 1996, he made $1,500 in donations, $1,000 to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, and $500 to Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver.
In 2000, Glaser began to give more serious money — about $95,000, including $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The $2,000 contribution to Nader in 2000 makes Glaser one of the top donors to a candidacy that many Democrats blame for Gore's defeat.
Today, the Glaser Progress Foundation gives to independent media, animal-protection projects and to the fight against AIDS, other diseases and poverty in the Third World. One project is what the foundation calls "measuring progress" — trying to get the U.S. to adopt new ways to define a successful society.
"How we measure progress reveals our values and shapes our future," the foundation says on its Web site. "The traditional portrait presented by most of our media and political leaders includes the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and stock market. But do such measures really reflect our most cherished values and aspirations?"
Great apes to bowling
Eric Liu, a former RealNetworks vice president who now is an author teaching at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, said Glaser thinks big, with an unusual combination of equally strong strains of idealism and practicality.
Glaser's media donations continue the sort of work he envisioned for Progressive Networks. He has helped fund Democracy Now!, a nationwide left-leaning daily radio news program; a national conference on media reform; and independent media centers around the world.
The animal-advocacy donations focus on great apes and factory-farmed animals, including promotion of vegetarianism.
Glaser also has pursued some fun and games with his money, including owning a small piece of the Seattle Mariners and a lot of the Professional Bowling League.
Those who know him well say while Glaser's original vision of social revolution may not have panned out, he has developed a corporation, a philanthropic foundation and a philosophy of political giving that continue to drive toward the goal.
"Obviously, he's accumulated wealth," Liu said. "But to him the aim of this was not how high could you pile the money, but how do you create platforms that in themselves change the world or enable you in other ways to change the world."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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