Joe Rogan, the American podcast host and comedian at the heart of a snowballing boycott of the streaming service Spotify, is a household name—in certain households.
Rogan, host of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Spotify, said in 2019 that 190 million people downloaded his show every month. He attracts an estimated 11 million listeners to each episode. Millions more know him as a commentator for televised mixed martial arts bouts.
But Rogan’s audience is very specific: He speaks to a largely young, male audience. Beyond his fanbase, Rogan’s name and brand is only now reaching mainstream consciousness. That’s because last week, the singer-songwriter Neil Young removed his music catalog from Spotify in protest of Rogan’s presence on the platform. Young was moved to act after 270 doctors, medical scientists, and science educators signed an open letter to the Stockholm-based company protesting what they called “Covid-19 mass misinformation events” on its platform.
The authors singled out Rogan’s show and wrote: “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine. He has discouraged vaccination in young people and children, incorrectly claimed that mRNA vaccines are ‘gene therapy,’ promoted off-label use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 (contrary to FDA warnings), and spread a number of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.”
What appears to have been the last straw for the signatories was a recent episode when Rogan hosted Robert Malone, a physician who opposes covid-19 vaccines, and “who was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation about covid-19,” the letter noted.
Since Young took action, fellow Canadian songwriter and cultural icon, Joni Mitchell, and Brené Brown, a professor of social work and celebrity author of self-help books, have followed Young’s lead in demanding Spotify remove their content. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—who also host a podcast on Spotify—spoke out against Rogan through their philanthropic foundation.
The boycott, which has also led to consumers canceling their Spotify subscriptions, has put Rogan’s name in front of an even wider population.
Here’s what the uninitiated need to know about Rogan:
Public health officials have lamented the way vaccines have become politicized, particularly in the US where the Republican party has leveraged the antivax movement for political gain. In the past, however, the 54-year-old Rogan has asserted that his views can’t be easily categorized, and while he sides with liberals on several issues, including same-sex marriage, universal healthcare, and universal basic income, he also supports gun rights.
In 2020, Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders, the progressive US Senator and former presidential hopeful, though he reportedly more typically leans toward libertarian politicians, and has questioned US president Joe Biden’s mental health.
He has also been pilloried by the left for sharing his show’s platform with a range of controversial conservative guests prone to publicizing dubious information. Human Rights Campaign has condemned Rogan for attacking marginalized groups, including the gay community, people of color, and trans athletes. “In 2019, 25 transgender and gender non-confirming people were killed because of the type of transphobia that Rogan stokes,” HRC President Alphonso David said in an open letter.
Comedians are inherently contrarian and Rogan is no exception. However, his past standup shows have not stood out as politically extreme or offensive. Comedy Central collected these six jokes as a Joe Rogan sampler:
A taekwondo regional champion and kickboxing enthusiast as a teenager, Rogan became an Ultimate Fighting Championships commentator in 2002, a job he still holds. He has also appeared on broadcast TV, hosting the reality show Fear Factor for seven seasons in the early 2000s.
Rogan, who dropped out of the University of Massachusetts Boston before entering show business, launched his podcast in 2009. He and a friend self-produced the weekly show, which has covered a mix of subjects, including Big Foot, cannabis, and what he sees as an overzealous cancel culture. By the time Spotify paid a reported $100 million for his show in 2020, he had spent more than a decade drawing people to the podcast and amassing a personal fortune, without the support of a network or label who might have reined in some of his excesses.
Indeed, he has crafted an image of himself as a free thinker who will own his mistakes and contradict himself when proven wrong. “I got through the fucking net and I’m swimming in open waters,” he said during one 2021 episode, in what, as the New York Times points out, felt like a mission statement.
Spotify’s share price has dropped since the Young boycott began, and the company’s market cap fell by $2 billion, from $35 billion. In a public statement, Spotify defended its decision to keep Rogan on the platform, citing its commitment to giving artists creative control. (The firm has removed other podcasts that shared misinformation.)
The company has also said it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about covid-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” On Jan. 30, it posted its platform rules in response to the growing outcry over Rogan’s podcast. Under its description of the kinds of dangerous content that would be removed from the site, the company specifically listed “content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information” including claiming diseases like covid-19 and AIDS are hoaxes or suggesting vaccines cause death.
Daniel Ek, CEO, also published a post on the company’s blog explaining other measures Spotify was taking to counteract problematic content on the platform. For example, it will now add a “Covid-19” tag to all relevant content, and the tag would direct users to an information hub that will host credible, scientifically sound articles about the virus.
A few hours later, Joe Rogan posted a video on Instagram apologizing for the storm, promising to present more balanced views, and pledging to be more prepared for each discussion. “These podcasts are very strange because they’re just conversations,” he said, “and oftentimes I have no idea what I’m going to talk about until I sit down and talk to people, and that’s why some of my ideas are not that prepared or fleshed out, because I’m literally having them in real time.”
“It’s a strange responsibility to have this many viewers and listeners. It’s very strange,” he also said. “It’s nothing that I’ve prepared for.”
By the next morning, his video had attracted more than 4 million views.