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31 Jan, 2022 13:27

Free speech, drugs, COVID controversies: Why Joe Rogan remains the world’s most popular podcaster

‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast and its host are hated by many, but loved by many more – and both have grown way beyond anyone’s ability to cancel
Free speech, drugs, COVID controversies: Why Joe Rogan remains the world’s most popular podcaster

Love him or hate him, Joe Rogan is both the most popular podcaster in the world and one of the most controversial, but there’s no doubt about his influence and his millions-strong listener base, which eclipses even those of the corporate media outlets. With a small team, a couple of microphones, and a room, the 54-year-old New Jersey native has created ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ – an audio and video podcast that’s extremely listenable, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.

Broadcast exclusively on Spotify, it has fast become the most listened-to podcast on the platform, having been overtaken in the number-one spot only briefly and locally a few times in 2021. Its numbers far surpass those of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and exceed even those of primetime king Tucker Carlson.

Humble beginnings

The son of a former cop and the product of a broken home, Rogan comes from humble stock, but he’s not one to complain or even talk much about his childhood. His family moved around the country before settling near Boston, Massachusetts, where he took up mixed martial arts (MMA) as a teenager because he was “terrified of being a loser.” His enthusiasm for taekwondo blossomed into a career after he won the US Open Championship and became an instructor.

In a 1999 interview with the Boston Herald, Rogan said he’d always dreamed of becoming a professional kickboxer, but had also wanted to try his hand at comedy. He took the time to practice his delivery and eventually performed a routine at an open-mic night. It was a success. From there, he moved to New York City to work full time as a comedian, and later to Los Angeles, where, in 1994, he landed his first TV role on the sitcom ‘Hardball’. The rest is history. 

Rogan was already well established as a media personality before he took to the internet. Fans of mixed martial arts knew him as an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) color commentator, and he hosted hundreds of fights from the early 2000s onwards. Fans of comedy knew him from even further back, in the media-themed sitcom ‘NewsRadio’, in which he starred alongside Dave Foley, Stephen Root, Andy Dick, and Phil Hartman from 1995 to 1999. 

Outside of his work as an actor and a host of UFC fights, Rogan is best known as the one-time host of the long-running reality show ‘Fear Factor’, in which teams of competitors partake in dangerous and often disgusting challenges. It was the next best thing to ‘The Apprentice’. 

But how exactly did Rogan, an erstwhile MMA commentator, stand-up, and TV-show host, become as popular as he is today? 

The podcast’s evolution

Rogan’s rise to prominence began in 2009, when he became one of the first mainstream personalities to launch a podcast. ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ wasn’t anything out of the ordinary – everyone was doing the same, including nerd icon Wil Wheaton, ‘Lord of the Rings’ actor Elijah Wood, and ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham. But whereas their podcasts lasted only a few episodes, maybe a few seasons, or failed to take off at all, Rogan’s prolific output and array of interesting guests has kept him at the forefront of culture. 

“The podcast was totally organic,” he explained in a Dread Central interview“It started out with me and Brian Redban [a self-taught video editor who later became the show’s producer] sitting in front of laptops bulls***ting. It’s kind of beautiful, in that respect. It’s almost a year old now and, in that year, you can see the full evolution from sitting in front of a laptop to professional microphones and a mixer and a soundboard.”

A large part of Rogan’s appeal is the combination of the guests he has on each show and the extent to which his audience can get to know them. Watching the podcast has become a routine for many listeners, who tune in four days a week to digest his content alongside their morning coffee or on their commute to work.

Crucially, what it thrives on is its authenticity. Rogan’s recent guests have included academics such as James Lindsay and Dr. Robert Epstein; film director Oliver Stone; personal trainer Ben Patrick; comedians Ari Shaffir, Scott Thompson a.k.a. Carrot Top, and Jim Gaffigan; psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson; and, early in January, Dr. Robert Malone, a leading figure in the anti-mandate movement. 

Covering topics ranging from politics and the pandemic to technology and the so-called ‘culture wars’ – which every American has been invested in ever since Trump’s announcement to run for president back in 2015 – Rogan’s show has its finger on society’s pulse and features luminaries from every field of interest. Whatever one’s views of his guests, it’s undeniable that the names who grace his show offer something to any listener.

Rogan’s rise was undoubtedly helped by his 2018 interview with Elon Musk, in which the two got high on weed during the show. While that may have negatively impacted Tesla’s stock, it only served to grow its founder’s reputation as a populist figure. Rogan’s was also the first mainstream podcast to interview Alex Jones in the midst of his being canceled by YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms, lending the popular right-wing radio host a platform to reach the wider audience from which he was otherwise barred.

Free speech, drugs, COVID controversies: Why Joe Rogan remains the world’s most popular podcaster

Propelled by controversy

While ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ has enough content to drive itself, much of the public curiosity about the show has been fanned by the hatred the corporate media has for its host. 

Described by CNN in 2020 as libertarian-leaning,” Rogan has voted for a wide variety of political candidates, including Libertarian Party nominees Ron Paul and Gary Johnson in 2012 and 2016, and even endorsed left-winger Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries. 

His politics are fairly middle of the road in terms of American politics. He’s fiscally conservative, but somewhat socially progressive, drawing the line when it comes to open borders, transgenderism in children, the participation of biologically male athletes in women’s sports, and high taxes. He’s also a strong supporter of free speech and the right to bear arms, which places him at odds with the majority of Democrats. 

His remarks about transgenderism in sport became a bone of contention for Sanders’ progressive supporters, who described his views as “transphobic.” The subsequent outrage in gay, trans, and other communities over the senator’s embrace of Rogan’s endorsement was one of the more intricate and multifaceted political controversies of the election.

Misinformation accusations

In 2021, Rogan kicked the hornet’s nest when he was infected with coronavirus. Having been unvaccinated, he opted to use the antiparasitic drug ivermectin, monoclonal antibody therapy, and a host of other controversial treatments to aid his recovery. CNN claimed he had consumed “horse dewormer” – a point he took up with CNN fixture Dr. Sanjay Gupta when the neurosurgeon was a guest on his podcast. While ivermectin is used in veterinary medicine, it’s also approved for humans, and Rogan said it had been prescribed to him by a doctor – although the US Food and Drug Administration has never approved it as a treatment for Covid-19.

Rogan’s refusal to be vaccinated, his opposition to vaccine mandates, and his willingness to give airtime to guests who have been accused of spreading medical misinformation” have resulted in numerous calls to get him deplatformed.

More recently, he became the target of 270 “experts”not all of whom, it should be noted, are medical professionals – who objected to the podcast having featured Dr. Robert Malone, one of the co-creators of the mRNA vaccine, because of the views he had expressed in it about the pandemic. Dr. Malone has been banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s Covid-19 misinformation policies, and the signatories of the open letter to Spotify declared the episode a “mass-misinformation event” and used it as an example to bill Rogan as a menace to public health.

‘Godfather of Grunge’ Neil Young then issued the platform with an ultimatum: that he would remove his music unless it removed Rogan, and then following through with his warning. Several other musicians, including Joni Mitchell, then followed suit. In an apparent concession, Spotify’s CEO announced new policies on “combating misinformation” about Covid-19, albeit without referencing Rogan by name. The streaming service will now make sure its creators “understand accountability” for posting “dangerous" content that dismisses Covid-19 as “a hoax” and “promotes or suggests” that coronavirus vaccines “are designed to cause death,” and listeners will be directed to “trusted sources” on these issues.

Rogan himself responded to the controversy, saying all he had wanted was to have “interesting conversations” that represented different opinions. He defended his guests’ credentials and promised to ensure the podcast presented a better balance of views in the future.

Ironically, all efforts to silence or otherwise marginalize Rogan have only persuaded the masses to check him out, gaining him ever more listeners who have been lured by the prospect of guests discussing topics the corporate media won’t touch. 

An ‘Oprah for men’-level of influence

Acting akin to an ‘Oprah for men,’ Rogan asks the questions of his guests that listeners themselves would like to ask, quizzing the likes of the aforementioned Jordan Peterson on psychology, and Elon Musk on sustainable energy, technology, and space travel; and Neil deGrasse Tyson on astrophysics. The insights one can glean from listening to speakers of this caliber are unsurpassable.

According to statistics compiled by fan website the JRE Library, Rogan’s most popular shows include that infamous interview with Elon Musk (which garnered 49.8 million views), and the episodes featuring Alex Jones (30 million), Edward Snowden (28 million), Mike Tyson (17.8), and Ben Shapiro (17.1 million). 

A leaked set of Spotify data from Business Insider last year suggests ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ – which the platform snapped up in May 2020 in a $100 million move to gain exclusivity – represented nearly 5% of total podcast listens when it was first made available in September 2020. After becoming a Spotify exclusive, it brought in nearly three million listeners and has remained the number-one show on the platform ever since. 

Controversies aside, why is Joe Rogan so popular?

On his show, Rogan earnestly discusses topics and listens to points of view without too much judgment. He isn’t afraid to give a platform to supposedly ‘bad ideas’ or to challenge the mainstream narrative – a concern around which other podcasts tailor their content. One need look no further than his latest episode with Petersоn and the headlines it triggered with the “brain-dissolving” things Peterson said about climate change, race, and poverty for an example of the kind of backlash he’s unfazed by. 

He’s always willing to hear out both sides of a story – such as when he invited on to the show pariah Democrat Tulsi Gabbard and then-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who called Gabbard a “toadie” for Syrian President Bashar Assad and a “motherlode of bad ideas.” Both got to say their piece.

Joe Rogan is not an intellectual. He freely admits his lack of knowledge about the matters on which his guests want to educate him, and thus he acts as a conduit for the listener. Because he’s ‘one of the guys,’ every discussion on the show feels more like a chilled chat two friends would have over whiskey and cigars instead of a formal interview from which there might be merely an interesting five- or 10-minute soundbite. Rogan is a natural at bringing out the best in all his guests, creating an interesting conversation out of even sometimes dull topics. Thanks to the length of each episode (they can run to three hours), listeners can really get a grasp on the topic and where each person sits within the spectrum of opinion, and it’s all helped along by Rogan’s charisma.

In contrast to those hosts who promote their own political views, Rogan is very much a libertarian, so doesn’t partake in the left-wing/right-wing dichotomy, making him accessible to pretty much anyone, regardless of their politics. He wades into controversial topics without fear – and, at this point, he need never fear cancelation by the mob. Any guests he features are, by extension, guaranteed a platform of millions that they can speak to without being silenced by a hostile interviewer. 

In a world of carefully curated soundbites and corporate narratives, ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ is a place to which you can go if you want to hear someone sharing their views without someone else on the other side of the table shouting them down. And it’s that sincerity alone that makes the podcast worth listening to.

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