There’s something idiosyncratically American about Joe Rogan. Maybe it’s his frat-boyish persona. His passions for hunting and extreme sports. Perhaps, most of all, Joe Rogan embodies some whimsical notion of the American dream: a college dropout turned stand-up comedian, who worked his way up to become one of the world’s media titans. His podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, was licensed to Spotify in 2020, in a deal reportedly worth $100m. Last year, it was Spotify’s most-streamed podcast globally, in the US and the UK. Rogan is, anyone would have to admit, quite the big deal.
And yet, he is a polarising figure. A staunch libertarian, Rogan has faced accusations of sexism and transphobia over remarks made on the podcast. His diverse list of guests includes everyone from A-listers to online eccentrics. Robert Downey Jr, Kanye West, Edward Snowden and Elon Musk are among those to have graced his show. Rogan has also become known for hosting controversial guests on his programme, allowing the airing of offensive opinions and misinformation – something that’s become increasingly scrutinised during the pandemic. Last month, a group of 270 medical experts petitioned Spotify to curb Covid-related misinformation they claim is being shared on Rogan’s podcast, branding Rogan a “menace to public health”. Artists including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have removed their music from Spotify in protest. Spotify stood by their man, who issued an apology, but agreed to add disclaimers before podcast episodes that discuss Covid. It’s right to condemn Rogan’s handling of Covid, of course. He has invited numerous vaccine sceptics onto the Experience over the past few years; when Rogan himself contracted Covid last year, he became a proponent of the controversial – and medically dubious – drug ivermectin, often used for deworming livestock. (The FDA clearly states: “While there are approved uses for ivermectin in people and animals, it is not approved for the prevention or treatment of Covid-19.”) His critics brand him an idiot. If so, he’s an idiot with the platform of a statesman.
How exactly did Rogan manage to strike it so big? For one thing, he was already a media figure, albeit a relatively fringe one. His breakthrough role came on the cult 1990s workplace sitcom NewsRadio, in which he played handyman and conspiracy theorist Joe Garrelli. Of all the show’s stars, among them Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, Andy Dick and, until his tragic murder, Phil Hartman, it seems almost perversely unlikely that Rogan would be the one destined for superstardom. After NewsRadio went off the air, he became more known for his comedy, and his work as an Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator. When he started podcasting in 2009, he may not have been a household name, but he was a known public figure – in the US at least.
In the UK, though, his success is more puzzling. What is it that sets him apart from most of the reactionary US media that fails to make hay on our side of the Atlantic? Fox News is widely sneered at, held up as some kind of shabby, transparently biased operation (our own bigoted, deceitful right-wing media is scarcely less malignant, mind). Incendiary right-wing personalities such as Alex Jones or the late Rush Limbaugh have no real sway here – we have our own reactionary foghorns. You might as well buy British. And yet, while Rogan still remains a fringe figure when it comes to traditional media, the Spotify charts don’t lie.
On the one hand, this attests to an ever more porous boundary between our two cultures. American culture already pervades our televisions, our news websites, our social media feeds. Why would podcasts be immune? But more than this, Rogan’s international popularity reveals something fundamental about the man’s appeal. To some extent, Rogan’s approach to interviewing is one rooted in curiosity. He takes a relatively egalitarian approach to booking guests, and usually appears more than willing to indulge whatever they have to say. The problem is that this holds true whether he’s welcoming a leftist politician such as Bernie Sanders – whom Rogan endorsed for president during the 2020 Democratic primary, to no small amount of controversy among the US left – or a debunked conspiracy theorist. Most of the opinions that float Rogan’s way are met with furrowed-brow credulity. His vocal advocacy of psychedelic drug use ties into this ideology; on some level, he is simply a man trying to make sense of the world.
Now, this doesn’t mean that he is successful in these efforts, nor does it diminish the harm of some of Rogan’s offensive comments about, for example, trans athletes, or his decision to give toxic figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos a multimillion-listener soapbox. But when something becomes as staggeringly popular as The Joe Rogan Experience, it’s important to try to understand why that is. It’s not because of Rogan’s journalistic rigour. It’s not because of his comic sensibilities. There are undoubtedly people who listen to Rogan because they align with him politically – but even then, it’s not as simple as him being right wing. Yes, he goes on turgid rants about “cancel culture”. But this is a man who endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, who is more liberal than Joe Biden (and Labour’s own Keir Starmer) on issues like drug decriminalisation, and who admitted to voting third-party in the last election. To some extent, Rogan’s appeal lies in his single-mindedness. In an era where both right- and left-wing political forums so often become echo chambers, Rogan is an outlier. A dangerous one maybe – but an outlier nonetheless.
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