Some 20 years ago, Joe Rogan was a reality TV host, fronting Fear Factor on NBC, in which hapless contestants faced dangerous, scary or gross stunts.
Now he’s one of the most powerful figures in American media, though often little acknowledged or actively shunned by the country’s coastal elites. He is sometimes left-leaning but says he detests identity politics and political correctness. He appears committed to some forms of social justice but is amenable to conservatives.
The Joe Rogan Experience podcast – the vehicle for his enormous wealth and power – intersperses comedy, politics, criticism of the media, interviews and discourses on topics ranging from cage-fighting to psychedelics and quantum mechanics.
Last week, Rogan, a martial arts enthusiast and one-time Bernie Sanders-endorser, collided with the rock veteran Neil Young. The 76-year-old Canadian singer objected to the music streaming giant Spotify giving a platform to Rogan, 54, who has been accused of promoting falsehoods about Covid vaccines.
Earlier this month, Rogan invited Dr Robert Malone, credited with a role in developing mRNA vaccine technology, on the show. Malone, who has been banned from Twitter for spreading Covid misinformation, claimed “mandates of an experimental vaccine are explicitly illegal” and said the US government was “out of control”.
Both men were criticised for promoting several baseless conspiracy theories, including the false claim that hospitals are financially incentivised to falsely diagnose deaths as having been caused by Covid-19, and Malone’s assertion that world leaders had hypnotised the public into supporting vaccines.
The appearance prompted calls for the White House health adviser Dr Anthony Fauci to debate Malone on the show, and proved to be the trigger for Young to issue his “him or me” ultimatum to Spotify.
Earlier this month, 270 scientists and medical professionals signed a letter urging Spotify to take action against Rogan, accusing him of spreading falsehoods on the podcast.
Rogan has said he used ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that has no proven benefit against Covid-19, against the illness. He says he is not anti-vaccine, though he has questioned the need to give it to young, healthy people. “I’m not an anti-vax person,” Rogan said last year. “I believe they’re safe and encourage many people to take them.”
The Joe Rogan Experience, which can run for up to three hours, is the No 1 podcast on Spotify. After Young issued an ultimatum, Spotify chose to go with Rogan, who received $100m for distribution rights from the Swedish company in 2020.
For Spotify, it was an obvious choice. Streaming is highly competitive, with low margins. Apple, Google and Amazon are competing for market share. In its latest filing, Spotify reported 172 million paying subscribers, up from 144 million when it signed Rogan. When it comes to plotting a lucrative future in modern media, Young, a cultural legend, was simply not competitive.
Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan expressed their concern to Spotify – with which they have a podcast deal – on Sunday. But the fight with Young – joined by Joni Mitchell – was not the only major headline Rogan created this week. He also interviewed the rightwing Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, triggering a deluge of coverage over comments about race and the climate crisis.
Not that Rogan cared. Nor would it 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 switched to comedy and was nicknamed “Little Ball of Anger”. He went for the soft flesh, skewering the fable of Noah’s Ark: “Noah was 600 years old and a drunk!” he would tell audiences.
Back on the west coast he was cast in the 90s sitcom NewsRadio, playing a conspiracy-prone dude named Joe. In 1997, he started working for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a commentator. He moved to reality TV, then in its infancy, as a host of Fear Factor, inviting contestants to engage in tests involving worms, flies and snakes.
After 9/11, as commentators worried that culture had changed forever, the NFL invited U2 to play the Super Bowl half-time show. The names of those who died in the attacks scrolled behind the band. But in a memorable act of counter-programming, Rogan presented Fear Factor: Playboy Playmates Edition, replete with a countdown clock to the second half. Rogan prised away 11 million viewers.
Since then he has only increased in popularity, and accrued cultural power, caring little for taste or perceived notions and winning a legion of fans attuned to new media platforms and dismissive of old elites.
“The social media stars know how to tell a story, it’s all about presentation, whereas journalists employ some of the most boring writing ever. It’s all formula,” noted the cultural critic Bob Lefsetz last week. “Young people don’t even bother to read the paper and they never will. They’re going to be reached another way.”
Rogan’s wealth has grown. He has moved from California to a $14m mansion outside Austin, Texas – destination of choice for tech entrepreneurs.
Nor is he alone. A flipside to Rogan – though closer than either might think – is Charlamagne tha God, AKA Lenard Larry McKelvey, a hip-hop star and morning radio host. Democratic politicians flock to Charlamagne, frequently getting burned in the process. He recently asked Vice-President Kamala Harris who was really running the country?
Both Rogan and Charlamagne are just doing their jobs, says media professor Robert Thompson at Syracuse University.
“The job description is practically to say 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, Thompson says, could find that he needs to be careful what he wishes for.
“However noble Young’s intentions are, Rogan is contained by a subscription wall. Spotify has distribution rights but Rogan owns his show. Fire him and he could potentially have even greater distribution than he’s got now.”
In 2019, a year before Rogan signed to Spotify, his podcast was downloaded about 190m times in a month. Elon Musk came on. The pair smoked a joint. The far-right conspiracist Alex Jones came on in 2020.
Daniel Ek, chief executive and co-founder of Spotify, defended Rogan to the FT: “We want creators to create. It’s what they do best. We’re not looking to play a role in what they should say.”
In recent months, Rogan has engaged with anti-vaxxers including the far-right Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who described the deworming medication ivermectin as a viable Covid treatment.
There are still some limits – even for Rogan. On Wednesday, Spotify slightly changed its tune, mindful that it may bear some responsibility for Covid-19 misinformation.
“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users,” it said. “With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic.”
But does Rogan share such beliefs? Thompson acknowledges that many believe stars like Rogan or Fox News’ Tucker Carlson are performing an act, successfully gaining money and influence.
“They’re staying in character, other people are supporting and believing them. So I guess in the end whether it’s an act or not is something we will never know and therefore doesn’t really matter.”
• This article was amended on 7 February 2022. Rogan has not invited Marjorie Taylor Greene and Aaron Rodgers onto his podcast as an earlier version said.
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