Comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan is caught in a spiral of controversy.
It all started when “The Joe Rogan Experience” hosted COVID-19 vaccine skeptic Robert Malone and a number of musicians have removed their music from Spotify in protest. It continued with Rogan apologize for using racial slurs in recent yearsprompting the streaming service to remove dozens of its older episodes from the streaming platform.
Considering the thousands of hours of content produced by Rogan, the review is unlikely to end there. As we argue in our next bookRogan’s podcast has long promoted right-wing comedy and libertarian political voices, including some that trade quite happily in racism and misogyny.
However, what makes Rogan’s rise particularly significant is that it goes beyond the standard partisan political fights Americans have grown accustomed to on social and broadcast media.
Rogan is not just a purveyor of right-wing ideologies. He is also someone who has built an empire presenting these ideas – and a wide range of others – to listeners from all political backgrounds. His truly unique talent is to tap into this spectrum a massive, young and mostly male audience that advertisers strongly covet.
When the Federal Communications Commission presented the doctrine of fairness in 1949, radio and television broadcasters were required to present controversial ideas in a way that reflected multiple perspectives. However, the combination of cable TV, niche consumer targeting, and President Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory FCC managed to overturn the mandate.
In 1987, conservative radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh has taken totally partisan approaches to content creation and audience accumulation. Ignoring their political opponents as potential listeners, they veered further and further to the right, gathering an increasingly homogeneous audience that advertisers could easily target.
Later, as Fox News’ popularity and reach grew, it took a similar approach, promoting conservative media figures such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Greg Gutfeld preach to the right choir.
Today, some conservative voices like Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder go further in this technological logic, embrace the silo effects of social media algorithms to connect with users most likely to interact with and distribute their content. While such figures certainly shock those who disagree with them, their place in the media sphere is well established and mostly ignored by naysayers.
Rogan, on the other hand, is subject to the ideological whiplash.
Initially, he backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2020. Then he switched to Donald Trump. He interviews and poses open-ended questions to figures ranging from decidedly leftist voices such as Cornel West and Michael Pollan to right-wing charlatans including Stefan Molyneux and Alex Jones.
There is no political common ground between these people. But there is a demographic link. On the one hand, they are all men, like the vast majority of guests on “The Joe Rogan Experience”.
They are also provocative guests who seduce young people and especially young men, a notoriously difficult group to aggregate, often has disposable income and tends believing that mainstream political ideas do not reflect their own.
While Fox News sells politics to viewers, Rogan sells a bold sense of authenticity to podcast listeners. His mix of comedy and controversy certainly has political implications, but from his perspective, it’s not politics. It’s demographics.
Spotify’s main attraction
Rogan is, for better or worse, a true outlier in the world of contemporary spoken media. Most political podcasts and many comedy podcasts use the business model of finding ideological space, connecting through cross-promotion and guest selection with similar shows, and allowing social media algorithms to drive traffic as they please.
“The Joe Rogan Experience” takes that idea and pulls it in multiple, conflicting directions. Media personalities left and right have – until now, at least – coveted opportunities to appear on the show. Once a comedian or podcaster has saturated their own political space, Rogan offers a chance to win new converts and, in principle, have a discussion that breaks free from partisan constraints. For many Rogan fans, this breadth of discussion and freedom from standards is central to the series.
Rogan, however, is far from a neutral host of a new public sphere. His feigned naivety is too often a cover to promote edgy, offensive and irresponsible theories that appeal to his audience. so-called distrust of authority.
He pushes the boundaries of political discourse by ‘just asking questions’, but then hides behind his past as a simple comedian to distance themselves from any undesirable repercussions.
Spotify, like other streaming services, relies primarily on a wide array of content creators, each of which attracts a small dedicated audience, but none of which is, on its own, particularly powerful.
Rogan is the closest thing to a mass cultural product you can find in the world of podcasting. He’s also one of the only names in podcasting big enough to make headlines, good or bad. For a company like Spotify trying to grow subscriptions, it’s very hard to resist Rogan’s cross-party, youthful, and mass appeal.
Rogan’s recent apology, however, proves he’s not immune to the pressure. We suspect Spotify is trying to thread the needle: covering up Rogan’s penchant for misinformation and offensive provocation just enough to meet the minimum standard of acceptable corporate citizenship without tarnishing the comedian’s brand and demographic appeal. .[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]