Joe Rogan is featured on his website as a “stand-up comedian, mixed martial arts fanatic, psychedelic adventurer, host of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast”. It was the last of these that really made his name, and for many audiences, made the medium of podcasting too much.
An estimated 200 million people download Rogan’s podcast each month, making him the most popular podcaster in the United States.
When Spotify signed a $100 million (A$140 million) deal with Rogan in 2020 for exclusive rights to his podcast, the industry has taken notice. Before that, podcasts were everywhere, and their “platform independent” status was central to their appeal to creators and audiences.
The deal was a gamble, but based on the numbers. As music journalist Ted Gioia Put the in May 2020, “Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world”. The reason? “A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what he pays Joe Rogan for his podcast rights.”
Spotify can justify the spectacular outlay: there’s a ton of advertising dollars to be made in spoken audio, where podcasting eats up what was once the domain of radio. Spotify’s other stellar podcast hosts include Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Why is Joe Rogan so popular?
What’s important about Joe Rogan is also the type of listener he attracts. Multimedia monitors says Rogan’s audience is “71% male and evenly split between high school and post-secondary graduates. Some 57% of its audience say they earn more than $50,000 a year, with 19% earning more than $100,000,” with an average age of 24.
Atlantic places gender at the heart of its appeal, suggesting “[Rogan] understands men in America better than most people. The rest of the country should start paying attention.
Prior to Rogan’s signing to Spotify, podcasting exclusivity was unknown. In 2001, American “media hacker” Dave Winer released RSS, the Really Simple Syndication feed that could automatically “drop” a podcast episode online to a subscriber. Winer made a conscious decision to make RSS free and universal, to preserve a democratic philosophy for podcasting similar to the recently created blogs he loved.
Signing an exclusive deal with Rogan could “make” Spotify a podcasting platform of choice (and an audio empire in general), or it could see Rogan lose fans who might not care to move with it. him. A study of The edge showed that Rogan won fans when he first signed the exclusive podcasting deal.
Part of Rogan’s appeal is its brutality – with episodes regularly lasting two to three hours and with minimal editing (if any). He says what he thinks and feels in the momentharnessing the compelling emotional power of the voice in the same way as great broadcasters of all ages. So what is the problem?
Rogan often makes pernicious claims. An ironic example occurred when Rogan aired a fake ad made by Gruen to portray Australia’s pandemic propaganda – made funnier given that the ad parodied people who relied on Rogan’s advice rather than medical professionals.
He added a correction, albeit minimal, and these types of mistakes have become memes since.
Much more seriously, Rogan peddled blatant conspiracy theories and misinformation.
He amplified disgraced radio host Alex Jones, who had spread a lie that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t happen (apparently causing internal conflict at Spotify last year accordingly).
According to a report by Media Matters, who studied the Joe Rogan experience for a year, Rogan regularly traffics in misinformation and bigotry. The author particularly drew attention to Rogan’s “misinformation and right-wing bigotry”, “anti-trans rhetoric” and “COVID-19 misinformation”.
In response, Spotify eventually released a few “platform rulesbut these are sweeping statements that avoid infringing on the freedom of creators like Rogan.
Most important in all of this is the audience. Rogan maintains that he is just a comedian having long conversations. It sounds great on the surface (and similar to the infamous “not a journalist, but an artistclaims made by Aussie shock jocks John Laws and Alan Jones), but in practice Rogan’s words are heard by far more people than the average gossip comedian.
The Wild West of Podcasting
Podcasting is still the relative Wild West as an industry and medium. With links to both the music and radio industrypodcasting remains mostly unregulated and diverse.
In a podsphere that now boasts around three million titles, multimillion-dollar projects with flawless audio production and smooth scripts coexist alongside amateurs uploading rambling, barely audible discussions. A near-global and cross-platform phenomenon, podcasting often escapes the laws of a single jurisdiction.
Dave Winer’s open origin principle for podcasts has been in play ever since Joe Rogan sold his name to Spotify. The question now is: where does editorial freedom lie? Should podcasters be regulated? And if yes, how ?
In response to the recent Spotify controversy, Rogan says he is “not interested in only talking to people who have only one point of view”. But as a public figure with such a big platform, should he really give equal weight to voices that clearly have patchy evidence to back them up?
Correction: An earlier version of this article may have implied that Joe Rogan agreed that the Sandy Hook school shooting did not take place, the wording has been changed to remove this imputation.