At 54 years of age, martial artist, sitcom actor, comedian, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pundit, psychedelics advocate and eat-what-you-kill moose hunter Joe Rogan finds himself the biggest podcaster in the world - and an increasingly divisive figure.
The Joe Rogan Experience, a meandering discussion show interrogating conspiracy theories and blending libertarian political chat with celebrity interviews, was named Spotify’s most-heard podcast of 2021, a little over a year after the host signed an exclusive $100m (£82m) deal with the audio streaming giant.
Leaked data acquired by Business Insider last summer revealed that the podcast accounted for 4.5 per cent of all shows heard on the platform during its debut month of September 2020, cornering 14.9m hours of total global listening time.
A spokesperson for the service said The Joe Rogan Experience had been its number one podcast every month since and that its audience had only grown in the interim - and the show was already a huge hit beforehand, its bullet-headed host claiming a whopping 190m downloads per month during an interview with Aubrey Marcus in April 2019.
The calibre of Rogan’s guests is a central reason for the pod’s popularity, welcoming everyone from a famously-stoned Elon Musk to Kanye West, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lance Armstrong, Mike Tyson, Jack Dorsey, Dave Chapelle, Kevin Hart, Miley Cyrus, Matthew McConaughey and Edward Snowden.
Whether he is in conversation with “renegade scholars” about astrophysics, ancient civilisations, drugs, survivalism or scientology, joshing with raconteur friends like “Uncle” Joey Diaz or Duncan Trussell or, more controversially, hearing out right-wing denizens of the “intellectual dark web” like Alex Jones, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, Rogan offers everybody an equal opportunity to state their case without being shouted down, for better or worse.
That is no small gesture in a tangled American media ecosystem so often defined by poisonous hostility and confrontation in post-Trump 2022.
But The Joe Rogan Experience’s transfer to Spotify has coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and seen the broadcaster entertain even more dubious and potentially harmful propositions than usual.
Most recently, a New Year’s Eve episode in which his guest Dr Robert Malone likened contemporary American society to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and espoused the theory that “mass formation psychosis” was leading people to accept Covid-19 vaccines without question was taken down by YouTube but is still live on Spotify.
That has prompted 270 scientists and members of the medical community to write an open letter to the company saying that Rogan allowing Malone’s claims to pass unchecked could “damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals”.
The letter continues: “This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform.”
Musicians and celebrities like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle joined the protest last week, with Young and Mitchell asking Spotify to remove their music from the platform as they don’t appreciate the streaming giant’s affiliation with Rogan.
The podcaster finally responded to the outcry in a video on 30 January, where he addressed his belief that “a lot of people had a distorted perception of what I do”.
He began by defending the doctors featured on two episodes at the heart of the backlash - Dr Malone and Dr Peter McCullough - outlining their credentials and saying he “doesn’t know if [the doctors are] right, and claims that he’s just a “person who sits down and talks to people and have conversations with them”.
Rogan pledged to “research these topics” thoroughly and have “all the pertinent facts at hand before I discuss them”, and said he will “try to balance out these controversial viewpoints” going forward.
“I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than just talk to people, and have interesting conversations.”
He also voiced support for Spotify’s new plan to place advisory labels on certain content and said he has no hard feelings toward his critics.
Rogan’s rocky record on Covid
This is hardly the first time Rogan has courted controversy during the Covid era.
He caused a major storm in April last year when he suggested on air that healthy young people do not need to get a vaccine, earning him a rebuke from Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to US president Joe Biden, and forcing him to backtrack and insist: “I’m not an anti-vax person.”
“I’m not a doctor,” he continued. “I’m a f***ing moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian. We just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed. But I’m not a respected source of information even for me!”
While that disclaimer largely shrugged off responsibility for his considerable influence, Rogan did, to his credit, subsequently invite Dr Rhonda Patrick back onto the show to explicitly debunk prevalent vaccine-denier falsehoods.
“I really appreciate that Joe is willing to have conversations with people with whom he disagrees and that he’s respectful in his discussions. It’s refreshing!” one YouTube commenter wrote beneath a clip of their exchange, as clear an insight into his appeal as you could wish for.
Rogan has since raised eyebrows by suggesting that ID cards containing proof of vaccination status take America “one step closer” to dictatorship and by announcing that he had taken ivermectin, a deworming medicine also used to treat livestock, when he himself contracted Covid in September, subsequently attacking CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta over the network’s coverage of his actions.
The ivermectin spat even earned him a telling off from celebrated “shock jock” Howard Stern, the provocative American radio host and perhaps Rogan’s most obvious forerunner.
Recent appearances by Dr Peter McCullough and the aforementioned Dr Malone, two men with a track-record of pushing improbable theories concerning the pandemic and its origins, have raised further questions about how Rogan wields his power, given the immense popularity of his show.
The host has come a long way since he first launched The Joe Rogan Experience with friend Brian Redban way back on Christmas Eve 2009.
He was born in Newark, New Jersey, in August 1967 and is of Italian-Irish stock, his parents separating when he was a child and Rogan subsequently relocating with his mother first to San Francisco, California, then to Gainesville, Florida, and finally to suburban Boston, Massachusetts, as a teenager.
Speaking to Rolling Stone’s Erik Hedegaard in 2015, Rogan remembered his policeman father as “a very violent, very scary guy”, who, the host contends, would have turned his son into a psychopath had he continued to play a role in raising him, hence the adult Rogan’s decision never to seek to re-establish contact.
The podcaster describes suffering from an unshakeable sense of alienation as a youth, despite never wanting for friends, and took up first karate and then taekwondo after a humiliating encounter with a bully in high school, which prompted him to vow never to be unable to defend himself again.
“I was terrified of being a loser,” he told Rolling Stone. “Superterrified of being someone who people just go, ‘Oh, look at that f***ing loser.’ You know? I was always thinking that the other kids were going to turn on me at any moment. I was weird. I just f***ing drifted.”
By the time he retired from competitive martial arts at 21 for a brief stint at Boston University, Rogan had won the US Open Championship taekwondo tournament as a lightweight and been full-contact state champion for four consecutive years, also instructing others in the discipline.
Persuaded by friends to try his hand at stand-up comedy, Rogan took to the stage at the notorious Stitches club in Boston in 1988, enjoyed it and commenced a career as a comic, taking inspiration from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Sam Kinnison, betraying a taste for convention-baiting even then.
His brash, incredulous, wild-eyed stage persona, tackling subjects from Bigfoot to self-satisfied vegans and the inherent weirdness of attempting to enact the role of human being on a vast rock hurtling through infinity, is a world away from the relaxed manner he adopts during his podcast recordings, sat back in a Cypress Hill T-shirt against a brick wall bearing pictures of Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.
Taking odd jobs to make ends meet - delivering newspapers, working as a chauffeur for a private eye who had forfeited his driving licence - Rogan eventually moved to New York City and then Los Angeles in the early 1990s in order to fully commit to a career at the mic, attracting notice with a set on MTV’s Half-Hour Comedy Hour.
That led to him winning the lead in the nine-episode Fox baseball sitcom Hardball in 1994 and, in turn, a regular role in NBC’s NewsRadio between 1995-1999, on which he replaced Ray Romano and befriended the tragic but great sketch comic Phil Hartman, who would later be murdered by the wife whom Rogan says he advised his friend to leave.
His passion for martial arts made him a natural for UFC punditry - although he initially resisted the industry’s overtures, preferring to watch the bouts from the stands in peace - before eventually taking a job as a backstage interviewer in 1997 and moving on to become a “colour commentator”, where his flare for verbal invention made him an instant hit.
Thereafter, he set up his own blog at the turn of the millennium, Joe.Rogan.net, foreseeing the potential of the web as a forum for mass communication, and presented the “gross out” game show Fear Factor on NBC between 2001 and 2006.
Retraining his focus on stand-up, Rogan went viral in 2007 when a video of him confronting fellow comic Carlos Mencia at The Comedy Store in Hollywood over a “stolen” joke began to circulate, an incident that saw him banned from the venue and dropped by his agents but which won respect from his fellow professionals.
Then came the podcast, with Rogan again proving himself to be ahead of the curve by daring to try something new and embarking on what would become the defining project of his eccentric and itinerant career.
Thirteen years on, there are more than 1,760 episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience out there, with three more landing every week, each one commonly more than two hours in length, rendering it near-impossible to become a completist - or even find an entry point for the uninitiated.
The host’s curiosity about his guests’ often oddball positions is never less than sincere and he does not usually allow nonsense to go unchallenged, frequently getting into heated debates with interviewees, memorably sparring with jiu jitsu flat-earther Eddie Bravo, for instance, or with Candace Owens over a flip remark she made about not believing in climate change.
However, the Dr Malone affair suggests he does not always go far enough.
Writing about that episode, The Independent columnist Noah Berlatsky took the broadcaster to task for abusing the “misplaced trust” he enjoys from his fans, saying: “Rogan’s audience is a mix of people who distrust establishment media, people who distrust the left, and people who seek out alternative, scientifically unproven health advice. Not surprisingly, this is a perfect stew for disinformation about a public health crisis that has been intensely politicised by reactionaries.”
Before the pandemic, Devin Gordon of The Atlantic also sought to pin down the essence of Rogan’s appeal, particularly among men, and defined his principal audience as: “Guys who get barbed-wire tattoos and fill their fridge with Monster energy drinks and pre-ordered their tickets to see Hobbs & Shaw.”
Making a point of sampling the mushroom coffee and other supplements Rogan advertises on his show, Gordon is reasonably sympathetic and writes: “The hard truth for some of Rogan’s critics in the media is that he is much better at captivating audiences than most of us, because he has the patience and the generosity to let his interviews be an experience rather than an inquisition.”
He is “a tireless optimist”, Gordon argues, as well as “driven, inexhaustible, and an honest-to-goodness autodidact” but carries the fatal weakness of showing “too much compassion for bad actors”.
The democratic value of making his considerable platform available to the likes of such pseudo-intellectual provocateurs-for-pay and division-stokers as Jones, Peterson, Shapiro, Yiannopoulos and Owens is not a given, even if his intentions are honourable.
While Rogan does not identify as a Republican and resists political labels, he certainly shares some of the right’s anxieties about the shifting role of traditional masculinity in the 21st century, recently ranting somewhat hysterically that: “You can never be woke enough, that’s the problem. It keeps going. It keeps going further and further and further down the line and if you get to the point where you capitulate, where you agree to all these demands, it’ll eventually get to ‘straight white men are not allowed to talk’.”
Heated opposition to “wokeness” and “cancel culture” is actually a relatively conventional stance among conservative-leaning comedians, who see both phenomena as antithetical to the radical free speech most comics endorse for the sake of their livelihoods.
But is Rogan conservative-leaning? His refusal to overtly align with either side of the aisle permits him space to pursue pet issues like the above, cannabis legalisation or gun rights without being committed to any one set-menu ideology.
However, it can also look like plain indecision on his part.
He briefly endorsed Democratic outsider Tulsi Gabbard for president in 2020, before changing horses and opting for Bernie Sanders, only to ultimately cast his vote for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen, all the while promoting baseless Trumpian lines questioning Biden’s mental fitness for the Oval Office given his advanced years.
Since Biden’s inauguration, he has continued to dabble, recently advising Michelle Obama to run for the Democratic nomination in 2024, despite the former first lady’s stated resistance to seeking political office, and joining Gettr, a new right-wing alternative to Twitter founded by Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Jason Miller, seemingly a protest against populist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s exile from mainstream social media.
“Anti-fascist” podcaster Jim Stewartson has gone so far as to brand Rogan “Steve Bannon’s gimp”, getting himself booted off Twitter temporarily for his trouble, but that is surely too reductive and unfair to the man.
Perhaps the host’s own explanation of the impact psychedelic drugs have had on shaping his psyche and singular social outlook is the real key to his character.
“You know what you figure out in the middle of a trip?” he asked Rolling Stone. “That all these assumptions and preconceived notions of who you are, they’re all bulls***. You’re just an organism who is trying to find normalcy by repeating patterns.”
Joe Rogan is not interested in even trying to be consistent because he is smart enough to know that allowing one’s opinions to become set in stone means an end to personal growth, a death of sorts, and so keeps his mind open at all times, unafraid to take soundings from all quarters, always prepared to be convinced and never shutting himself off from the possibility of new horizons and new ideas, however absurd.
“Learn, learn, learn, ladies and gentlemen,” he tells his audience. “That’s what I’m getting out of this. I think it’s very important to continue to challenge your mind.”
Which is more than fine, but perhaps a little more discrimination here and there wouldn’t hurt.
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