Column: After the big Spotify desertion, Joe Rogan and the streaming service vow to do better

A wide-eyed Joe Rogan holding a microphone
Joe Rogan has a huge platform on Spotify, and a moral obligation to be careful with how he uses it.
(Michael S. Schwartz / Getty Images)

I’ll be the first to admit, I do not understand the popularity of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. My only consolation is that Rogan doesn’t appear to, either.

Last week, in a video explaining why he interviews scientists who spout misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines, he described his podcast as “some out-of-control juggernaut that I barely have control over.”

I cannot disagree with that. His rambling interviews can run four hours or more.


Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

“Oftentimes, I have no idea what I’m gonna talk about till I sit down and talk with people,” Rogan said. “That’s why some of my ideas are not that prepared or fleshed out because I’m literally having them in real time.”

Who could have guessed a lack of preparation could pay off so well?

Rogan has an estimated 11 million listeners per episode and a licensing agreement reportedly worth $100 million with Spotify, which was put on the defensive last month after Neil Young yanked his music off the streaming service.

Young made the move to protest Rogan’s embrace of guests who mislead listeners about the pandemic and vaccines.

Young was soon followed by Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and India Arie. Writer-podcasters Roxane Gay and Mary Trump have left the platform. Brené Brown, who signed an exclusive deal with Spotify in 2020, has stopped posting new content. And Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who also have a Spotify deal, issued a statement expressing their concern about “COVID-19 misinformation.”

It is true, as Rogan pointed out in his video, that statements that might once have gotten someone kicked off social media — say, that COVID-19 leaked from a lab, or that a vaccinated person can still contract the disease — are now tolerated.

France has just mandated “vaccine passes” for public places. We should too.

But pretending to simply ask questions — when he is in fact allowing his guests to undermine the public trust in science — is disingenuous. Rogan has a huge platform. He has a moral obligation to be careful.

Last week, I listened to quite a bit of Rogan’s interview with Robert Malone, a molecular virologist and vaccine contrarian who has outraged the scientific community with his conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID treatments. He has promoted the idea that people who get vaccinated are victims of “mass psychosis.”

Over three-plus hours, listeners heard a lot of talk about dark conspiracies between government, media and pharmaceutical companies, anecdotes promoting unproven COVID remedies and wildly incorrect information about how a state in India “crushed” COVID.

“What we’re experiencing is coordinated media warfare the level of which we have never seen before, and I and my peers who were experienced in multiple outbreaks have never seen this level of coordinated propaganda,” Malone said on the air.

Malone told Rogan that “good modeling studies” have shown that “probably half a million excess deaths have happened in the United States” because the government blocked the use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine in COVID patients. Who conducted the studies? Rogan didn’t ask. (The FDA has not approved ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Neither, the agency says, has been shown to be safe or effective against the virus, although clinical trials assessing both drugs are ongoing.)

Cardiologist Peter McCullough’s preposterous lies on Rogan’s show include claiming the pandemic was planned, that COVID-19 vaccines are experimental, that previously infected people have “permanent immunity” and that thousands of people have died from vaccine side effects.

Last month, hundreds of scientists, doctors, nurses and other health professionals posted an open letter to Spotify urging it to take action against “the mass-misinformation events” on its platform. The average Rogan listener is 24, they wrote, citing data showing that unvaccinated 12- to 34-year-olds are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than fully vaccinated people. The coalition practically begged Spotify to do something.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told employees Wednesday that the company is a platform for Joe Rogan, not Rogan’s publisher, setting a lower bar for content moderation.

“This is not only a scientific or medical concern,” they wrote, “it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform.”

The Spotify CEO reportedly told employees the service takes no editorial responsibility for Rogan’s content because it doesn’t own “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, it merely distributes it. This is risible.

When Rogan’s podcast and library of episodes moved from YouTube to Spotify exclusively, the company erased dozens of episodes from his archive. Guests on the deleted material included alt-right, antisemitic comedian Owen Benjamin, conspiracy lunatic Alex Jones, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and comedian Chris D’Elia, who has been accused of soliciting nude photos from underage girls.

Given these guests, who could possibly be surprised that clips of him using the N-word have shown up online? On Saturday, Rogan apologized after Arie, who is Black, posted a montage of him using the slur about 20 times. He also apologized for equating a Black neighborhood to the movie “Planet of the Apes.”

Much of the news coverage has framed this controversy as a fight between Spotify and Young. I don’t see it that way.

Young and others stood on principle; they don’t want to be on a site that encourages and promotes misinformation, and they are willing to take a financial hit.

Good for them.

Even better, their actions have not been in vain.

Spotify Chief Executive Daniel Ek initially defended Rogan’s content. But after days of pressure from inside and outside the company, Ek said Spotify would enforce its policy against medical misinformation being aired on its podcasts.

“It’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely accepted information from the medical and scientific communities,” wrote Ek in an open letter.

Rogan, for his part, has also apologized and vowed to do better, promising to “balance out” the highly credentialed wackos (my words) on his podcast with credible experts. He’s also promised to research topics beforehand “and have all the pertinent facts at hand before I discuss them.”

“If I pissed you off,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

Yeah, well, if he’s serious about being sorry, he should apologize for potentially endangering the lives of his listeners — and urge them to get vaccinated, stat.