If we get into the wayback machine and set it for 1996 we’ll find that it was a time before MP3s, when online video was nearly an oxymoron and broadcast radio was, by-and-large, a healthy and profitable business. Online audio, including live streaming, was a new technology relying on high degrees of compression in order to force the stream over a 56kbps modem connection. If you were listening to online audio back in 1996 it’s most likely you were using RealPlayer to listen to RealAudio.
Although the company behind this platform, RealNetworks, is now considered an also-ran in the world of online media, back in the 90s the company was a pioneer led by CEO Rob Glaser, who suddenly announced his departure from the role this past week.It’s difficult to recall a time when nobody had heard of an MP3. In fact, when the format first bubbled up from the underground in the mid-90s, the poor 100Mhz 486 processor in my Windows 95 PC couldn’t handle the computational horsepower necessary to even play back an MP3 file. Yet it could handle RealAudio files and streams, opening up a new world of online audio to me for the first time.
A lot of commentators are now too young to remember those early days of online media, and to them RealNetworks is remembered more for having an increasingly complex player application that seemed to take over your computer and nag you constantly than for being one of the creators of the online media industry. StreamingMedia.com’s Dan Rayburn takes the youngins to task and gives a bit of an historical tribute to Glaser’s accomplishments.
Another forgotten side to Glaser’s and RealNetwork’s biography is how the company provided an early leg up to get a lot of politically progressive radio programs onto the internet. In fact the company was originally named Progressive Networks with one of its goals being to distribute politically progressive content online. Nationally syndicated community radio programs like Pacifica’s Democracy Now! and FAIR’s Counterspin were made available online by the company, using RealAudio. Glaser himself has served on the board of the progressive muck-raking magazine Mother Jones and contributed funding to Democracy Now!, the National Conferences for Media Reform and Indymedia.
RealNetworks is a very different company now, and it’s fair to argue that it made quite a few strategic mistakes that caused its profile in the online media world to suffer. it and founder Glaser deserve props for giving voice to the internet, a medium that was mostly silent before RealAudio. If Glaser had never introduced RealAudio to the world we’d still be listening to radio online, but who knows how much longer it might have taken. Even then, eighteen months was an eternity in internet time. So the next time you fire up Pandora or your favorite live stream from hundreds of miles away, think of Rob Glaser and the original Progressive Networks.
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