When I saw the news that the king of all podcasting, Joe Rogan, had inked a deal with Spotify for his widely popular show I texted to congratulate him on getting crazy rich. How rich?
“Weirdly richer,” he replied. “Like it doesn’t register. Seems fake.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the deal could amount to more than $100 million, a number that Rogan doesn’t want to discuss. “It feels gross,” he told me Thursday night. “Especially right now, when people can’t work.”
News of Tuesday’s deal, which gave Spotify exclusive rights to “The Joe Rogan Experience,” sent the company’s stock soaring: It added $1.7 billion to its market cap in 23 minutes. The musician and critic Ted Gioia pointed out on Twitter that “a musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they’re paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights.”
OK, so it’s a lot of money. But Spotify reportedly paid almost double for Bill Simmons’s podcasting company, the Ringer, earlier this year. Money is not the only reason this deal matters.
Rogan is a friend of mine, and I’ve been on his show. But I still find the extent of his popularity mind-boggling. Imagine if I had told you, a dozen years ago, that the former host of “The Fear Factor,” an MMA color commentator who loves cool cars and shooting guns and working out, a guy with a raw interview show featuring comedians, athletes and intellectuals, was more influential than the entire slate of hosts on CNN.
You’d think I was nuts. But it’s true. His fans are everywhere — I’ve met them working behind the register and wearing loafers at hedge funds.
Rogan’s deal comes while the mainstream press flounders; the pandemic has cut the legs out from under many publications. Every day it seems another blue check mark with a degree from the right college hangs up her pixelated-shingle, while the rest of us avert our eyes, hoping we won’t be next.
The timing of Rogan’s rise and the Old Guard’s disintegration is not coincidental. His success was made possible, at least in part, by legacy media’s blind spots.
While GQ puts Pharrell gowned in a yellow sleeping bag on the cover of its “new masculinity” issue (introduced by the editor explaining that the men’s magazine “isn’t really trying to be exclusively for or about men at all”), Joe Rogan swings kettlebells and bow-hunts elk. Men are hungry. He’s serving steak, rare. Condé Nast, GQ’s publisher, has laid off some 100 employees since the pandemic began. Meantime, “The Joe Rogan Experience” has 190 million downloads a month.
His success signals a profound shift, or several of them — a shift in what people want to talk about, how they want to hear it, and who they want to hear it from.
Does the man himself buy any of this? I called him to find out.
“All the answers are: I don’t think about it. And P.S. I’m dumb,” he said as a blanket reply to all my questions. I laughed.
This is both an extremely Joe Rogan thing to say and one of his most effective weapons — a rip cord he can pull whenever his show veers into tricky territory, or when he wants to distance himself from some of his interview subjects, like Alex Jones, the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist. I’m just a comic, he’ll say. The joke’s on you if you take anything I say too seriously.
But the topic here is podcasting, an area where Rogan, like Howard Stern in radio, is the undisputed boss. He’s hosted 1,479 episodes, freewheeling conversations with everyone from Mike Tyson to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Members of Rogan Nation have tattooed his face, or that of his Golden Retriever, Marshall, (and I can’t decide which is weirder) onto their bodies.
He is not dumb.
If you want to understand why podcasting is killing, he says, you first need to appreciate the world-changing, brain-rewiring transformation in how we consume information.
Reading or watching the news is no longer immersive, as it was when you sat down with a bunch of papers or in front of a living room TV. Now it is a fragmented experience, usually done on a cellphone.
“The problem,” he told me, “is that the cellphone also has YouTube videos of the craziest things ever — babies landing on cats and animal attacks and naked people.”
Why would you read a 2,000-word story about the collapse of health care in Venezuela when you can zone out with some TikToks?
“Nobody ever thought: We need to gear our entertainment, our media, to people who cook, who jog, who hike, people who drive. Even books on tape can require too much thinking.” But a podcast, he said, “doesn’t require that much thinking at all. You get captivated by the conversation. One of the things about this medium in general is that it’s really easy to listen to while you do other stuff.”
Journalism is one thing that podcasters are competing with: Why read a profile of Elon Musk with staid quotes when you can listen to him get high and riff for two hours in Rogan’s studio? Television is another.
“I would imagine on a show like Seth Meyers there’s a bunch of other opinions involved. Right or wrong, in podcasting you’re getting that very pure, individual perspective,” Rogan said. “On my show, it’s my opinion and the guest’s opinion. That’s it. On network, it’s a focus-group collective idea of what people are going to like or not like. You don’t get anything wild. You don’t get anything that will get you fired.”
“Podcasting is all freeballing,” he added. “It’s the opposite of polished. And because of that, it resonates.”
When you’re on MSNBC for a five-minute hit, you can control your message. When you are sucked into a conversation with Rogan, it can go sideways, fast. And you’re in the hot seat for sometimes three hours. As a guest, no show is more intimidating. But as a listener, it’s why I tune in.
That unpredictability, that willingness to take risks with topics, tone and guests, is one of the reasons podcasting is eating our lunch. The prestige press has become too delicate, worried about backlash on Twitter and thus shying away from an ever-increasing number of perceived third rails.
“There are a lot of holes that have been left by mainstream media,” Rogan said.
Think of Tara Reade. Anyone with eyes could see that her accusation against Joe Biden was treated differently by the press than the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. Reade’s claim was largely ignored for more than two weeks. Julie Swetnick’s accusation of gang rape was printed the day it was made.
You can rely on Rogan to talk about that double standard. Indeed, you can rely on Rogan to talk about just about anything at all.
Take the minefield of gender identity. When he talks about the sensitive topic — one that has become nearly untouchable inside the institutional world — there is none of the throat-clearing I’ve become used to.
“There is no balanced perspective to say: Be free! Change your pronouns, change your name, be whoever you want,” Rogan said. “On the Fox News side they want to say ‘This is left-wing lunacy and everyone’s losing their mind.’”
At the same time, on the left, “there’s an aggressive, progressive doctrine that has to be followed, and followed with full compliance and no room for debate,” he said. “When it comes to competition, especially combat sports, with transwomen fighting biological women, people are so progressive they let that slide, to the point that biological women are getting pushed over.”
“Nobody wants to touch it because nobody wants the blowback.”
Why is he willing to? Especially when he knows that a bad joke or an ill-advised comment can generate a week’s worth of bad press?
“I’m interested in things that make me scared, that make me nervous,” he said.
Of course another reason is that this sort of thing is exactly what makes him popular with his audience.
But there is also a very practical reason Rogan can say whatever he thinks: He is an individual and not an organization. Eric Weinstein, another podcaster and a friend of Rogan, told me, “It’s the same reason that a contractor can wear a MAGA hat on a job and an employee inside Facebook headquarters cannot: There is no HR department at ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’.”
“When you have something that can’t get canceled, you can be free,” said Rogan.
The ability to be free of censorship is perhaps the thing Rogan prizes most — and he’s very concerned about censorship, especially inside the tech companies that control the most powerful forms of mass communication the world has ever seen.
He points to YouTube’s decision last month to take down a video of Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, two doctors in Bakersfield, Calif., who the company accused of spreading misinformation. “The doctors in Bakersfield were talking about statistics, but their video kept getting taken down. Why?”
YouTube said that the video violated its policies by disputing public health guidance. The American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine said the doctors’ claims were “reckless and untested” and “inconsistent with current science and epidemiology.”
YouTube is a private company and thus not bound by the First Amendment; legally, it can decide what it wants to put on its site and what it doesn’t. Rogan gets that. His show, until now, has streamed on the platform. He still thinks it’s wrong.
“What Twitter is and what YouTube is are way bigger than a social media company. There is a real good argument that they should be like public utilities,” he said.
“What has made society better today than it was hundreds of years ago is not just our prosperity. It’s the evolution of ideas. Anything that wants to limit discussion is dangerous to the evolution of ideas.”
I don’t know what to think about the Erickson video, but I tend to support keeping the Overton window as wide as possible. And I’m allergic to the faddish idea of intellectual contamination — the notion that you can somehow get skunk-sprayed by talking to another person, even a reprehensible one. If I believed that, I’d be in the wrong profession.
Yet I am deeply uncomfortable when I see Rogan laughing with Jones. I think that’s because of the show’s vibe: Rogan is laddish and generous with everyone he sits across from — and their proximity to him gives them his imprimatur, especially in the eyes of Rogan’s fiercely loyal fans.
Owning just how influential he is is something that Joe Rogan does not want to do. He says he doesn’t want to lose his bearings, and makes a bunch of self-deprecating jokes.
But perhaps the best tell of Rogan’ influence is what happened when I asked him, offhandedly, a few months back, who he was going to vote for in the Democratic primary. He said “probably” Bernie. “Him as a human being, when I was hanging out with him, I believe in him. I like him — I like him a lot,” he said. Within 48 hours, the Sanders campaign had cut that clip into an ad.
He thought that was crazy: “I gave the most lukewarm endorsement of Bernie Sanders ever. And then they took it and ran with it.” Immediately the press dove deep into his back catalog, grabbing bits from his comedy set featuring jokes about strap-ons and quoting them as if they were serious quotes. I stopped counting the number of op-eds and tweets from Bernie voters beseeching the campaign to turn his support away.
It was a moment that showed that if he wanted to, Rogan could move elections. But politics are not his bag.
“I think there’s so much manipulation and so much bullshit when it comes to politics, I’m not interested in it,” he said. He said he turned down requests from Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden to come on the show. (Though he interviewed Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders.)
But whether he wants to or not, Rogan doesn’t need to play politics to influence it. His whole ethos — curious; not particularly ideological; biased toward things that work; baffled by the state of both parties — is where so many Americans are right now. And that’s his power. He’s a mirror, when so many publications are broken glass, capable of reflecting only a shard.
The right has always insisted that the elite left controls the culture. But Rogan’s popularity shows that perhaps that’s no longer true.
The real question for Rogan Nation is whether their man will be changed by a Spotify contract.
“Why would I sell out now? You sell out to get what you want.”