As something of a star in the world of mixed martial arts, Joe Rogan likes a smackdown, and now he’s got what passes for one in the fluid world of social media. Last week he ticked off Canadian septuagenarians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and they have taken him on.
The issue is serious: Rogan’s podcasts on Spotify and YouTube attract huge audiences, and lately he has hosted several high-profile COVID vaccine skeptics and egged them on at length (he does everything at length). In the middle of a deadly COVID surge (62,000 Americans died of it in the past four weeks) against which vaccination is the primary defense, Rogan’s enthusiasm for two credentialed experts who argue against vaccination provoked 270 public health officials to sign a letter to Spotify, Rogan’s exclusive host, asking it to rein him in.
Young and Mitchell joined the fray by asking Spotify to pull their tunes in protest, and since then half-a-dozen other musical artists and three podcasters have done likewise. Joe promised more balance, Spotify promised to issue COVID content warnings if necessary, Jon Stewart and others weighed in to defend Rogan, and that might have been close to the end of it: Rogan has 200 million monthly listeners on Spotify (and a 100-million-dollar contract), Young had 5.9 million, Mitchell 3.7 million. Podcaster Brené Brown has about 6 million. She’s also exclusively contracted to Spotify, and she has only announced a “pause” in adding new podcasts, not a withdrawal. The six other musicians and two other podcasters who joined the crusade have far fewer monthly listeners.
But one of the musicians who joined the complaint, the R&B vocalist India.Arie (1.4 million monthly listeners on Spotify), has subsequently released a compilation of Rogan episodes wherein he used the N-word. Rogan apologized, saying it sounded awful, and he would never do that now (the clips were, apparently, from earlier episodes–he’s been doing this since 2009).
Spotify has taken down about 70 pre-Spotify episodes recently, and over 100 Since Rogan brought over his whole catalog a year ago. He’s up to nearly 1,800 episodes total. Presumably they are pulling episodes with the potential to fuel further complaints. It will be interesting to see if other musicians now ask Spotify to remove their music in response to India.Arie’s post. Streaming has become the single largest source of revenue for musicians since the pandemic collapsed their touring income, so it’s not an easy thing for many of them to do.
Beyond this current controversies, is Joe Rogan important? I think he is. His absurdly long and typically disestablishmentarian conversations with chefs and physicists, martial artists and authors, doctors and hunters, comics and entrepreneurs, and occasional flat-out crazies, are unbelievably popular. His unfiltered, let’s-go-there style and his instinct for “what’s interesting” have made him an unprecedented media phenomenon.
He does roughly three podcasts (with video) on Spotify and YouTube each week, and each one draws around 11 million downloads, making him the biggest draw in Podlandia. Rogan attracts an audience substantially larger than those of Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow combined, and he’s doing it via meandering marathon podcasts from an antler-bedecked mancave in Texas.
What’s important about Joe Rogan, though, isn’t simply his supersized audience numbers, it’s his potential for positive impact on our national Trump problem and the threat to democracy it represents. Rogan’s audience includes a very sizeable and strategically significant group of Americans—the ones (more male than female) who often feel dissed and abused by the credentialed cognitive elites but are too intellectually curious to be lumpenMAGA.
They may be the real swing voters, both culturally and politically: they could be the tipping point group that chooses the next president, and they love Joe Rogan because he reduces their fear that the world is making less sense every day. He channels them into extended conversations with famously smart people who are willing to give them hours of attention. Through him, they feel like the world is a little bit less incomprehensible and their lives are a little bit less uncontrollable.
At times, he abets the dissemination of conspiracy theories, but not in a cynical or systematic way. To some extent, an audience that wants to feel that the world is a less random place is asking for theories that simplify everything and name villains and heroes. Rogan entertains more of that than a “straight” news organization would, but is not as bad, by far, as many right-wing talk-show hosts.
Rogan believes his listeners are up for arcane discussions of astrophysics and neuroscience. He gives them hour upon hour of free-wheeling, could-be-happening-in-your-kitchen conversations with everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Bernie Sanders to Roger Penrose to Elon Musk, as well as many unfamiliar people who can speak compellingly about what they do: a kid named Boylan Slat, for example, who is out to clean up the oceans and seems to be making progress.
What Rogan gives his audience is a lot meatier than MAGA red meat. He has a chance to reengage them with their fellow non-MAGA citizens to some extent, in part by empowering them against the monolithic elite which haunts their dreams. Rogan is very drawn to what might be called credentialed outsiders: people who have insider-like resumes but have turned their fire on the conventional wisdom in their fields.
The two vaccine troublemakers, Dr. Robert Malone and Dr. Peter McCullough, are fairly extreme examples of that, but if they’d been outliers on a less loaded topic than vaccination during a pandemic, they would have simply been interesting intellectual grist. Rogan’s guest list on first inspection is exceedingly diverse and goes wherever his attention takes it: lots of physics and astronomy, for example, because he’s fascinated by that stuff. To scratch that itch, he gets Nobel laureate Roger Penrose to come talk to him, and Brian Greene, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (3 times), Sean Carroll (3 times), Brian Cox (twice), and more.
It’s not eggheads all the way down though. He dropped out of college to launch himself doing standup comedy, so lots of his guests are comics. As such, they are born outsiders. Rogan himself, with his standup history, is capable of saying things that would get him chased off most respectable campuses with torches and pitchforks, as his history with the N-word demonstrates. On at least one occasion, he crossed the streams, and carried on an extended astronomy conversation with a comic because why not?
He’s also into the swagger-building topics that used to sell Esquire and Field & Stream—hunting, boxing, and other manly stuff, though many of his guests in those fields of endeavor are women. On January 27, he spent over two and a half hours in conversation with Spokane native Julianna Peña (#venezuelanvixen), the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Women’s Bantamweight Champion. The day before, he spent a similar period of time with Valentine Thomas, a woman who describes herself as “a former attorney and financier turned spear-fisher, free-diver, chef, and author.”
That kind of personal narrative really lights Joe up: it’s got extreme physical performance, blood sport, cooking, individual independence and well-developed communications skills. The day before Valentine Thomas, his guest, for 4 hours 13 minutes, was Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and guru to many young men. Peterson grates on progressives, but he’s an advocate of finding better ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and he’s going to reach a lot more of the people who need to overcome their hesitancy spending 4 hours with Joe Rogan than he would by getting a few minutes with Rachel Maddow or a half-hour with Terry Gross.
Rogan’s views of the master caste which distresses his audience were formed at close range. He’s a graduate of Newton South High School, a school close to the heart of the elite credentials factory that is greater Boston. NSHS is ranked by US News in the top 5% of high schools nationally; nearly two-thirds of its seniors take at least one AP test; 98% graduate and 97% are accepted to college; its 33-acre campus is organized into four “houses” just like Hogwarts, which is good practice for the organizational structures of Yale and Princeton.
No need to go that far though: Within a six-mile radius of NSHS sit the campuses of Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Wellesley, Brandeis, and many more. Joe slummed by attending UMass Boston (almost 8 miles away!), where he reports that he spent three years as a freshman before realizing he could make money doing standup.
I imagine he takes quiet satisfaction in the fact that he could now buy and sell many times over his bright-penny high school classmates who busted their asses to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and captains of industry while he was climbing the ladder at Comedy Central and Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Rogan says he books all his own guests and goes wherever his interests take him. That feels organic and authentic to his audience, as does just about everything about him. His remarks about college are typical—he went to college because it was socially necessary from his high school, but once he realized his mistake, he left. Many a Newton parent would rather die than hear their kid talk like that, but to many a Roganaut, it’s a natural and familiar thought process.
One thing that separates the elites from the rest is a certain linearity—adept at deferred gratification and impulse control, and well-equipped with literacy and numeracy, they get on the up escalator early and ride it all the way to upscale assisted living 50 or 60 years later. Lots of people just aren’t wired that way—their personal history is more modeled on Brownian motion, with unpredictable zigs and zags. They duct tape the pieces together and keep going.
In modern times, however, they pay too high a price for their random-walk lives, and everything about the Joe Rogan Experience makes sense to them. Rogan himself feels like them. His guests are often people with an outside perspective—Michael Pollan talking about psychedelic drugs, Amanda Knox talking about criminal justice, Edward Snowdon talking about national security.
Rogan’s formula also includes an uncanny ability to listen in a way that gets his guests to venture out of their canned comfort zones. The sheer length of some of his conversations with just one person—they go until he’s finished, typically at least a few hours—is a radical break with conventional wisdom, which requires hosts to keep a show careening from guest to guest at a rapid pace. Unlike typical talk show hosts, Rogan himself isn’t a bloviator. He creates all kinds of space for his guests. He also panders shamelessly, because it works, even though it makes journalists cringe. It also gets him into trouble when he panders to people saying things Not To Be Said, because he may well say them too.
These conversational marathons also serve to blunt criticisms, however. By listening to his Robert Malone conversation, I came away with a much better feel for who Malone is and what makes him tick than I’d ever get from seeing or hearing him in sound bites. In some ways, Rogan gave him plenty of rope and encouragement to practice his knots.
In his three hours, Malone was able to make his case against vaccination, but in doing so exposed some of the holes in his data and logic. He also revealed himself to be more concerned with whether or not he was sufficiently respected by his peers than with whether or not COVID was killing millions of people. In some ways, his smooth persona and impressive resume melted as the hours wore on. Rogan didn’t attack him—instead he made a lot of positive, encouraging noises, but the result was that Malone more fully—and less impressively—revealed himself. If I were a Rogan regular, I’d be more willing to doubt Malone’s recommendations on vaccines after hearing him ramble on with Joe like this. Meanwhile, Rogan gains credibility with his skeptical base for giving Malone all the time and encouragement in the world.
Because Rogan has that credibility, he can also spring a Steven Pinker or a Bernie Sanders on his audience and get them to listen. You can’t be a regular Rogan listener and be simply hard right or totally anti-science. Rogan loads up on scientists because he likes talking to them. Because he is an avatar in the room for his listeners, they enjoy it too. Many of his listeners probably weren’t science majors, but now they can hear extended conversations with some really good ones, which if nothing else de-demonizes the scientists, and gives listeners confidence in their own ability to contribute to public conversations about important issues in a slightly more nuanced way.
I expect Rogan will be a little more careful now, but hopefully not enough to lose his bond with his audience. He has the potential to pull thinking outsiders away from the raw fury of the MAGA camp, pull in some old libertarians, and give collective self-awareness and self-confidence to a big group of people who know in their bones that the people running the world aren’t doing a good enough job of it, and are serving themselves too well. He’s arming them to take on “the man,” mostly free of the dog whistle and hot button issues that have bedeviled the right. He’s blurring left and right and creating more of a donut-shaped siege army. It’s messy as hell and driven by instinct over agenda, but Saul Alinsky would be impressed.
In the first two podcasts since Young’s complaint, Rogan has hosted two prototypical guests: on February 3rd Andy Stumpf, retired Navy SEAL, record-setting wingsuit pilot, BASE jumper, public speaker, and podcast host; on February 5th Randall Carlson, a builder, architect, scholar, and teacher whose podcast “Investigates the catastrophic history of the world and evidence for advanced knowledge in earlier cultures.” Rogan knows what will hook his audience. If he can keep bringing on guests who are outsiders from all directions, not just the right, he’ll do the country a service.
I wonder which of the people who have pulled their music or paused their podcasts to protest Rogan will be the first to be a guest on his show? Mary Trump because she’s also an instinctive outsider? Brené Brown because she’s a healer and needs to find a way to resume her own Spotify-only podcasting? Neil Young himself because he and Joe have pretty similar let-it-fly personalities? Rogan would be smart to invite them, and they’d be foolish to turn down a chance to speak directly (and at length!) to his much-bigger-than-theirs audience. Stay tuned.