Everybody loves Joe Rogan. Most people, at least. The man has led a strange career, from young martial arts champion to ‘90s Comedy Central comedian to Fear Factor host. But Joe Rogan today means one thing: the podcast.
At 190 million downloads a month and almost 1,500 episodes, The Joe Rogan Experience may be the most popular podcast of all time. But why exactly the JRE is so popular is hard to pin down. There are likely reasons, like Bari Weiss’s suggestion that men look to Rogan as a male influence in a time when men’s magazines have become less traditionally masculine.1 Rogan comes off like a chill Jordan Peterson. There are less plausible reasons, like that the success of the show is driven by the culture wars—obviously false to anyone who has heard the show, as DMT aliens are brought up more often than Drag Queen Story Hour. On the rare occasions when Rogan does criticize student activism, it’s because he thinks they are being silly, not destroying Western Civilization. Not to mention that Rogan doesn’t neatly slot anywhere on the political spectrum: during an episode with Weiss, Rogan spontaneously raised his concern with how transphobic he thought Ace Ventura, Pet Detective was upon rewatching it with his children. This is a far cry from the right-wing culture warrior Rogan is occasionally accused of being.
Rogan is also not a “good interviewer” in any traditional sense. He doesn’t always ask smart, incisive questions. His interviewing talent is more similar to someone like Howard Stern: Rogan gets people talking. He makes guests on his show comfortable and they always seem to be having a good time. As Weiss points out, the casual, weed-tinged atmosphere Rogan creates is infinitely more appealing than stiff cable news interviews or highly constructed magazine profiles.
The show’s success probably has something to do with Rogan’s earnest and unashamed presentation of himself, particularly in modelling healthy masculinity. But it also has to do with the infectious way Rogan’s favorite topics recur in almost every episode: psychedelics and DMT, concussions and CTE, strength training and performance-enhancing drugs, conspiracy theories, space, wolves. Something about the seemingly unrelated group of topics is incredibly compelling. Rogan rarely fails to bring the topics up no matter who he has on the pod, whether he is asking Tony Hawk why he doesn’t do more weight training or asking Lance Armstrong if he “smokes weed.”2 But what is most compelling about the show—and most overlooked by its critics—is Rogan’s relentless curiosity.
“I’m interested in things that make me scared, that make me nervous,” Rogan told Bari Weiss in their recent interview. Despite his laddish exterior, Rogan has always been interested in the weird. He might be the most unlikely iconoclast. He even had a TV show: Joe Rogan Questions Everything.
One can write a 10,000 word think piece about why Rogan’s public curiosity about Alex Jones’s conspiracy mongering is irresponsible. But when listening to Rogan, the host’s earnest curiosity becomes infectious and understandable. We become curious too. The criticism falls flat. Rather, it only serves to make Rogan’s brand of curiosity more interesting and subversive.
Rogan’s skepticism is not a skepticism of truth itself, to be sure. It is a skepticism driven by his frustration with bullshit. He sees the world the way you would see it if MK-Ultra were also the central event in your political memory. Rogan’s skepticism—rather than being motivated by nihilistic glee or a desire to deconstruct—is motivated by his driving curiosity. He wants to discover new and interesting things and he hates the propagandistic forces and untruths that stand in his way.
So then, why did Rogan sign an exclusive deal with Spotify?
The most obvious reason is that the service gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Wall Street Journal reported that the deal was worth $100 million, but rumor has suggested it being worth up to $500 million. The true number may be somewhere in between, and is probably conditional on performance bonuses and the like. Joe Rogan already has, to use his expression, “fuck you money,” but the possibility that the podcast could eventually make him a billionaire might have been too much to turn down.3 Still, as Rogan told Russell Brand, "There is no point having fuck you money unless you say fuck you sometimes.” Maybe he should have said it to Spotify.
The more important question—the one which can be obfuscated by naive accusations of selling out—is whether corporate ownership is actually going to change the nature of the podcast. In its early days, the JRE took no sponsors at all. When it finally did, it came in the form of the sex toy company Fleshlight—a deal which seemed to be taken partly for its comedic value. Today, one of the main sources of revenue for the podcast is Onnit, a supplement company co-owned by Rogan. It does take other outside sponsorships, though, like one from Square’s Cash App.
There are plenty of reasons Rogan might fear more control from traditional media organizations. The podcast has been widely criticized for whom it has platformed and for the views that have been expressed on the show. These criticisms were most recently aired after the Sanders campaign shared Rogan’s endorsement. But Rogan, because of his independence, never had to address—let alone apologize—to the widespread and unfair criticism he received from Twitter activists and Blue Checks trying to drum up outrage at offhand remarks he made on the show and lines from ‘90s comedy routines. He had fuck you money and a fuck you platform.
Big advertiser drops get the most attention, but the more pernicious force may be the chilling effect a corporate partnership can bring. Indeed, the greatest virtue in direct feeds may be avoiding this sort of chilling. Will Rogan push Alex Jones quite as far on his theories when the podcast is a Spotify exclusive? Maybe, but it might be hard to tell. Rogan’s appeal is speaking his mind, and even the suspicion of chilled speech could be detrimental to the ethos of the show.
Moreover, the relationship between podcasts and their owners can be tense. Serendipitously, the JRE deal was announced the same week as news broke on the growing conflict between Call Her Daddy, perhaps the only pod rivaling Rogan in popularity, and its parent company, Barstool Sports. Negotiations between the podcast and company have broken down into public drama. In their case, a large part of the issue seems caused by the outsized share of Barstool Sports’s total value driven by Call Her Daddy. This gives the podcast unique leverage over its parent company, leverage which the podcast may have overplayed.
It is unlikely that the JRE could ever comprise a plurality of Spotify’s revenue. The deal seems to have added almost $2 billion in market cap, but the streaming service as a whole is worth almost $35 billion. Plus, the market cap gain after the JRE deal may be driven by speculation on Spotify’s future video endeavors. Up until this point, Spotify has not been a major source of video content. Rogan’s videos going to Spotify may suggest the service may eventually try challenging YouTube’s current domination of Internet video.
The bigger lesson from the Call Her Daddy debacle is how quickly the corporate relationship can become antagonistic. Podcasting has become incredibly low cost. Unlike earlier times when studio space was expensive, a podcaster can always choose to do their work completely independent almost as easily as not. Given the size of his contract, one wouldn’t expect Rogan and Spotify to have conflict driven by financials. But if—or when—a conflict does arise, perhaps in content or guest choices, will Rogan reminisce on the virtues of independent podcasting?
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the JRE deal is just how wrong early pioneers were about the trajectory of the Internet itself. They saw it as a place where individuals would be increasingly empowered to create and share directly with one another. The Crypto Anarchists of the 1990s especially emphasized the anonymous nature of the Internet. Timothy C. May, in the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto writes, “Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner.”
Rogan, whether he realized it or not, seems to have had a similar vision, though he was more interested in the directness that the Internet could facilitate rather than the anonymity. Inspired by shows like Anthony Cumia’s Live from the Compound, he sought to broadcast directly, free of networks, to his viewers. His earliest episodes are perfect examples of this—a couple of friends on a poorly wired setup live streaming their banter. The JRE logo, a close shot of Rogan grinning with an open third eye on his forehead, seems to convey that the viewer is seeing directly into Rogan’s mind. Rogan created an æsthetic based on circumventing the gatekeepers and broadcasting live to the people. We’re seeing the end of that æsthetic.
Alas, the Internet will not be anonymous, nor will it be direct. Simply uploading a video to the Internet virtually requires using YouTube and all of the constraints that come with the platform. Those who are Maximally Canceled, banned from web hosting sites and payment processors, are most aware of just how platform dependent we are on the Internet.
Rogan was already on platforms—almost all of them. So, in taking the deal, is Rogan simply succumbing to the inevitable, and making some money at the same time? Should we be frustrated at Rogan for taking the deal, or frustrated that the Internet isn’t what some of us wanted it to be? Platforms are here to stay. JRE is all of our futures.
1. See GQ’s Orwellian “New Masculinity.” ^