About 20 years ago, Joe Rogan was a reality TV host, fronting NBC’s Fear Factor, in which hapless contestants faced dangerous, scary, or gross stunts.
Today, he is one of the most powerful figures in American media, though often little recognized or actively shunned by the country’s coastal elites. He sometimes leans left but says he hates identity politics and political correctness. He seems committed to some form of social justice, but is sympathetic to conservatives.
The Joe Rogan Experience podcast – the vehicle of his enormous wealth and power – mixes comedy, politics, media criticism, interviews and speeches on topics ranging from cage fighting to psychedelics and quantum mechanics.
Last week, Rogan, a martial arts enthusiast and former Bernie Sanders endorser, collided with rock veteran Neil Young. The 76-year-old Canadian singer has objected to music streaming giant Spotify giving a platform to Rogan, 54, accused of promoting lies about Covid vaccines.
The Joe Rogan Experience, which can last up to three hours, is the #1 podcast on Spotify. After Young issued an ultimatum, Spotify opted to go with Rogan, who received $100 million for the Swedish company’s distribution rights in 2020.
For Spotify, it was an obvious choice. Streaming is very competitive, with low margins. Apple, Google and Amazon are competing for market share. In its latest filing, Spotify reported 172 million paid subscribers, up from 144 million when Rogan signed. When it came to charting a lucrative future in modern media, Young, a cultural legend, just wasn’t competitive.
The fight with Young – joined by Joni Mitchell – wasn’t the only major title created by Rogan this week either. He also interviewed right-wing Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, sparking a deluge of coverage on comments about race and the climate crisis.
Not that Rogan cared. Nor would he bend the arc of his astonishing rise.
Rogan got his start as a magician on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. He moved to Massachusetts, where he competed in taekwondo. He moved on to comedy and was nicknamed “Little Ball of Anger”. He opted for tender flesh, skewering the fable of Noah’s Ark: “Noah was 600 years old and drunk! he was telling the public.
Back on the West Coast, he was cast in the ’90s sitcom NewsRadio, playing a plot-prone dude named Joe. In 1997 he started working for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a commentator. He moved on to reality TV, then in its infancy, as the host of Fear Factor, having contestants perform tests involving worms, flies and snakes.
After 9/11, when commentators feared the culture had changed forever, the NFL invited U2 to play Super Bowl halftime. The names of those who died in the attacks parade behind the group. But in a memorable act of counter-programming, Rogan introduced Fear Factor: Playboy Playmates Edition, replete with a countdown to the second half. Rogan drew 11 million viewers.
Since then, it has only grown in popularity and cultural power, caring little for tastes or perceived notions and gaining a legion of fans sensitized to new media platforms and dismissive of old elites.
“Social media stars know how to tell a story, it’s all about presentation, while journalists employ some of the most boring writing ever. It’s all formula,” cultural critic Bob Lefsetz noted last week. “Young people don’t even bother to read the newspaper and they never will. They are going to be reached in another way.
Rogan’s wealth has increased. He moved from California to a $14 million mansion outside Austin, Texas, a top destination for tech entrepreneurs.
He’s not alone either. A flip side of Rogan — though closer than you might think — is Charlamagne tha God, aka Lenard Larry McKelvey, a hip-hop star and morning radio host. Democratic politicians flock to Charlamagne, often getting burned in the process. He recently asked Vice President Kamala Harris who was “really running the country?
Rogan and Charlamagne are just doing their job, says media professor Robert Thompson at Syracuse University.
“The job description is practically about saying the kinds of things that will almost, but not quite, get you fired. Eventually you cross the line because the line is not very well defined.
Neil Young, says Thompson, might find he has to be careful what he wishes for.
“As noble as Young’s intentions are, Rogan is contained by a subscription wall. Spotify has the distribution rights but Rogan owns his show. Fire him and he could potentially have an even bigger distribution than he has now.
In 2019, a year before Rogan signed on Spotify, his podcast was downloaded around 190 million times in a month. Elon Musk has arrived. The couple smoked a joint. Far-right conspirator Alex Jones has arrived in 2020.
Daniel Ek, managing director and co-founder of Spotify, defended Rogan to the FT: “We want creators to create. It’s what they do best. We’re not trying to play a part in what they should say.
In recent months, Rogan has invited anti-vax guests, including far-right Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who have described the worming drug ivermectin as a viable Covid treatment. .
There are still limits – even for Rogan. On Wednesday, Spotify changed its tone slightly, aware that it could bear some responsibility for Covid-19 misinformation.
“We want all the music and audio content in the world to be available to Spotify users,” he said. “With this comes a great responsibility to balance both the safety of listeners and the freedom of creators. We have detailed content policies in place and have removed over 20,000 Covid-related podcast episodes since the pandemic began.
But does Rogan share such beliefs? Thompson acknowledges that many believe stars like Rogan or Fox News’ Tucker Carlson are performing an act, successfully earning money and influence.
“They stay in character, other people support them and believe them. So I guess at the end of the day, whether it’s an act or not, it’s something that we’ll never know and that doesn’t matter. so it doesn’t really matter.