The Joe Rogan revolution

A podcaster is rewriting the traditional media norms

Joe Rogan | Getty Images Joe Rogan | Getty Images

On Tuesday, audio streaming service Spotify announced a licensing deal for US-based comedian Joe Rogan's podcast. Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) will be available on the platform starting September 1; it will become a Spotify exclusive later in the year. Post the announcement, Spotify's shares surged eight per cent. Neither the platform nor the podcaster have released the contract details, but the multi-year deal is estimated to cost the streaming company around $100 million.

It is hard to overstate the impact of Rogan's move. Apple, with iTunes, has a virtual stranglehold over the nascent podcasting industry, which is expected to grow in advertising revenue to over $1 billion by 2021. Spotify hopes to overturn the monopoly by signing Rogan, who is the biggest name in the field by quite a distance. JRE started a decade ago and has since transformed into a behemoth—the show is downloaded in the millions each month and constantly features among the top podcasts on Apple's charts. On YouTube, he has over 8 million subscribers, and every podcast hits at least a million views within a day of release.

"A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they're paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights,” wrote music writer Ted Gioia on Twitter, adding that this means "Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world".

The deal catapults Rogan—a trained martial artist, former Fear Factor host, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) commentator, marijuana enthusiast, and, now, a man with enough influence to make or break a US presidential candidate—reportedly to the position of the highest paid broadcaster in the world. That too without the backing of a single major corporate or production house.

WHAT IS THE JOE ROGAN EXPERIENCE

When it was launched a decade ago, the Joe Rogan podcast had an informal tone to it, like a conversation between two close friends—full of inside jokes and private moments. As it evolved over the years, spanning 1,000-plus episodes, it was the same format—one he personally emphasised as “listening and learning”—that elevated him to superstardom. Each episode spans anywhere from two to three hours, and Rogan owns an additional channel where clips of the long-form conversations are uploaded.

"A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they're paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights." —Ted Gioia, music writer, on Twitter

On his show, Rogan was a regular, mild-mannered “bro”—armed with an almost naive enthusiasm to understand how the world worked—and his audience were crafted in his image. The conversations were mostly thoughtful and intimate; he rarely pushed back against his guests who ranged from politicians, academics, philosophers, comics, journalists and your garden variety internet cranks. There were no gotcha moments. There was no artificial conflict. He spoke, sometimes high under mind-altering stimulants, on an ocean of topics ranging from alien abductions, martial arts, elk meat, cooking steak, DMT experiences, the universe being a simulation, fellatio and crazy ex-girlfriends.

He criticised feminism and bemoaned the destructive nature of "identity politics". He lashed out against lying politicians and the fraudulent 'left-right' political systems, he listened enthusiastically (often agreeably) to every single guest on his show, and bashed mainstream media as “biased, agenda-driven and divisive”.

For his disaffected male viewers, Rogan was nothing less than a cult guru—an internet father figure who sternly told them to clean up their act, work out, prepare for the harsh realities of life, and embrace “personal responsibility” as their lord and saviour.

If, one day, Rogan engaged patiently with a guest who claimed that earth was flat, and that inter-dimensional child molesters were on the prowl, the next day he would listen wide-eyed to the Many Worlds Theory and the intricacies of quantum physics with Caltech Professor Sean Carroll. The same malleability is a feature that defines most of his audience. And this is what makes Joe Rogan one of the hottest internet commodities on the face of the earth. For advertisers, Rogan commanded an army of ultra-loyal young viewers; for politicians, there was a unique, open-minded demography—ones who defined their ideology as 'Joe Rogan's politics'—that they could “reprogram to their wavelength”.

In September 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk smoked marijuana with Rogan on his show; days later, Tesla shares fell nine per cent.

In 2019, US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, then a marginal figure, credited an appearance in Rogan's podcast with a massive surge in popularity and fundraising. “After the appearance in the Joe Rogan podcast,” said an aide of Yang, “everything went right."

In 2019, the then US presidential candidate frontrunner Bernie Sanders made an appearance on his show, promising to tell Rogan the truth about aliens if he is elected president; the episode currently has around 12 million views on YouTube. In a subsequent show, Rogan hinted that he supported Sanders and that he would vote for him. The Sanders campaign shared a clipping of the “endorsement” on all their social media platforms.

Rogan is also a highly controversial figure. When Sanders touted the comedian's endorsement, the former faced a lot of backlash; several trans-rights groups came out against Sanders, pointing out Rogan's problematic comments on transgender athletes.

He has been called everything from a purveyor of toxic masculinity to a white nationalist and a racism enabler. He has addressed most of the criticisms on his show, explaining that his politics was to the "left of centre" and that he was a supporter of policies ranging from universal healthcare to free college education.

Usually, whenever a big independent broadcaster switches platforms, the conversation revolves around how much audience the broadcaster stands to lose. But, in Rogan's case, the often-asked question is how much YouTube stands to lose, such is the devotion that he commands from his massive base. And how much Spotify stands to gain.

What the future holds for the podcasting industry, Joe Rogan, Spotify and YouTube remains to be seen. For now, only one thing is for sure. A media revolution is on the horizon, and, be assured, it will be televised.