How did Joe Rogan, Spotify’s $100 million podcast man, become so controversial?

The streaming service's number one podcaster has defended Covid-19 misinformation claims against him, saying he is only having 'conversations'

From construction worker to $100 million Spotify podcaster, Joe Rogan's 'everyman' appeal has gained him a vocal, largely male, fanbase. Getty Images
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Former UFC commentator-turned-influential podcaster Joe Rogan made global headlines recently after Neil Young pulled his music from streaming service Spotify in protest at the “misinformation” he said Rogan was perpetuating on his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience.

“Spotify represents 60 per cent of the streaming of my music to listeners around the world,” Young said, on his website, about his decision. “Yet my record label stood with me, recognising the threat the Covid misinformation on Spotify posed to the world – particularly for our young people who think everything they hear on Spotify is true. Unfortunately, it is not.”

Young was later joined by musicians Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, and popular lifestyle podcaster and author Brene Brown in leaving the platform.

Spotify warnings and Rogan’s 'apology'

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has made many appearances on 'The Joe Rogan Experience' podcast, and has defended Rogan's stance on Twitter. Photo: The Joe Rogan Experience

Spotify, who are said to have paid $100 million in 2019 for exclusive streaming rights to Rogan’s podcast, announced they would be taking measures to warn listeners about Covid-19 misinformation.

“We are working to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about Covid-19,” chief executive Daniel Ek said last Sunday. “This advisory will direct listeners to our dedicated Covid-19 Hub, a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics, and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources.”

In a video posted to his Instagram account, Rogan called his podcasts “just conversations” and apologised to Spotify saying: “I’m very sorry this is happening to them.”

Referring to Young and Mitchell removing their music catalogues from the streaming service, Rogan said: “I’m very sorry that they feel that way. I’m not trying to promote misinformation. I’m not trying to be controversial.”

Is Joe Rogan an anti-vaxxer?

Although he claims not to be against Covid-19 vaccines, during an episode of his podcast on April 23, 2021, Rogan declared: “If you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I’ll go, ‘no’.”

Seven days later, he insisted on his podcast: “I'm not an anti-vax person. I believe they’re safe and encourage many people to take them.”

Whether the “many people” Rogan says should get the vaccine include himself remains unclear, although he spoke publicly last year about not getting the vaccine when offered, because he felt "nervous". He said he believed people who had been vaccinated lied about how they felt afterwards. He also revealed in September 2021 that he had contracted the virus.

“I got fevers and sweats, I knew what was going on,” he said in a video. Controversially, he said: “We immediately threw the kitchen sink at it. All kinds of meds. Monoclonal antibodies, Ivermectin, Z-Pak, Prednisone.”

Ivermectin is the horse deworming drug healthcare experts in the US have warned against taking.

Following Rogan's comments about young people and the vaccine, White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci told NBC News' Today that it was “incorrect” to advise those in their twenties not to get vaccinated.

"If you want to only worry about yourself and not society, then that’s okay,” Fauci said. “But if you’re saying to yourself, even if I get infected, I could do damage to somebody else even if I have no symptoms at all, and that’s the reason why you’ve got to be careful and get vaccinated.”

Rogan later clashed with CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr Sanjay Gupta, during a three-hour sit down in October last year, over vaccinations for medically vulnerable people and children.

Citing extremely rare cases of certain vaccines causing myocarditis and pericarditis in teenagers as a case for not vaccinating young people, Rogan insisted: "I had Covid, I'm fine."

Joe Rogan’s early career

Joe Rogan mined his early years and experiences for his stand-up comedy, which he leveraged into an acting career. He then did commentary for UFC games, before finding fame as a podcaster. Getty Images

The New Jersey-born podcaster held many jobs on his way to becoming the host of the most listened-to podcast on Spotify. Stints as a limo driver, newspaper deliveryman and working on a construction site predated his forays into stand-up comedy, which is how he made his name.

Citing comedy legends such as Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor as influences, Rogan’s stand-up career, which began in comedy clubs in Boston and New York, led to him signing a deal with Disney to act in several TV shows, including recurring roles in Hardball and NewsRadio. He also made appearances in sitcoms Just Shoot Me! and Silicon Valley.

“I really never had any ambitions to be a stand-up comic,” he told sheckymagazine.com. “I was talked into it by guys that I used to work out with. I was always cracking them up in the locker room doing impressions of our friends, or talking about a girl I was dating that was a huge feminist.”

UFC and reality TV host

Joe Rogan interviews Conor McGregor during the UFC 205 weigh-in at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2016, in New York. Getty Images

Rogan turned his personal interest in martial arts – aged 19, he won the US Open Championship Taekwondo Championships in the lightweight category – into a career, when UFC president Dana White persuaded him to become an MMA commentator.

His popularity in this male-skewing field led to his signing a three-album deal with Warner Bros Records to produce comedy albums, and in 2001 he began hosting the US reality TV show, Fear Factor, which ran until 2006, and was revived for a 2011-2012 season.

During this period, Rogan leveraged his newfound network platform into hosting gigs on Comedy Central, bit-parts in US TV shows, a web series and comedy specials, including 2007’s Shiny Happy Jihad. He also launched a blog on his website joerogan.net, which he used to discuss topics he incorporated into his stand-up routines.

How did Joe Rogan become so famous?

“Few men in America are as popular among American men as Joe Rogan,” wrote Devin Gordon in The Atlantic. “It’s a massive group congregating in plain sight, and it’s made up of people you know from high school, guys who work three cubicles down, who are still paying off student loans, who forward jealous-girlfriend memes, who spot you at the gym.

“Single guys. Married guys. White guys, black guys, Dominican guys. Two South Asian friends of mine swear by him. My college roommate. My little brother. Normal guys. American guys.”

Rogan launched his podcast for free on UStream (now IBM Cloud Video) in 2009. Renamed The Joe Rogan Experience, in August 2010 it entered iTunes’ Top 100 podcasts, and the following year was bought by US broadcasting behemoth, SiriusXM Satellite Radio.

Rogan announced his move to Spotify in May 2020 in a $100 million deal which became one of the biggest in podcasting.

Data from Media Monitors showed that in 2021, 70 per cent of Rogan’s audience for The Joe Rogan Experience were male, and when crediting his popularity, journalists and commentators often point to his stance against “politically correctness” as well as giving voice to modern man’s “anxieties and concerns”.

The podcaster has hosted an array of experts, and public and polarising figures on his show, including ultra-right wing Sandy Hook school massacre-denier Alex Jones. He has also hosted former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, while his interviews with Elon Musk have garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube.

Updated: February 01, 2022, 10:34 AM
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