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Spotify’s Long Week of Joe Rogan Headlines

When Spotify signed The Joe Rogan Experience to an exclusive multi-year distribution deal earlier in the summer, the company’s stock price soared briefly, illustrating both the extent to which investors valued its bet on exclusives as well as Rogan’s unlikely standing as a legitimate media phenomenon.

But the move also prompted immediate questions about whether Spotify was prepared for what that media phenomenon brings with it. Sure, The Joe Rogan Experience commands an exceptionally large following and a growing currency of cultural influence, but Rogan’s radical free speech orientation and “freethinking” ideology have consistently courted controversy in the past. In particular, observers were curious to see how Spotify would navigate issues around misinformation and hate speech, the latter being a concept that Rogan himself has a history of actively interrogating in terms of its relationship with free speech.

Two things happened over the past week that hint at the battles to come. As discrete events, they don’t quite push the point just yet, but they do sketch out the broad shape of what Spotify will have to deal with as it negotiates a new identity and set of responsibilities that come with its modern programming efforts.

The first involves a brush with misinformation. On Thursday, The Joe Rogan Experience published an episode with Douglas Murray, the conservative British political commentator, in which Rogan repeated a claim, derived from a conspiracy theory, that “left-wing people” have been arrested for intentionally causing wildfires in Oregon. That conspiracy theory had already been debunked by several mainstream news sources by the episode’s publication, and while Rogan’s citation of the claim seemed to be more of an aside contributing to the flow of the episode’s conversation on Murray’s “madness of crowds” ideas, the whole thing nonetheless added up to a situation where a piece of misinformation — which might be inflammatory or harmful, depending on how you interpret the impact mechanics of misinformation — ended up being spread further by an extremely popular podcast that’s now being paid for, hosted, and distributed by a major audio streaming platform.

Rogan’s recitation of the conspiracy theory turned out to be inadvertent, and to his credit, Rogan issued an apology over his social media accounts the next day, explaining that he had been misled by an article that he had read.

Here’s the version of the statement that went out over Twitter:

This incident — along with the apology, which has been recognized as being somewhat rare for Rogan — drew a good deal of coverage, yielding write-ups by CNN Business, Business Insider, Vanity Fair, and the left-leaning media watchdog site Media Matters, among other places.

The fact that Rogan issued an apology appears to have nipped this specific incident in the bud for now, but it did nevertheless raise the question of what would have happened if the situation turned out to be a little more complicated. What if the claim was murkier, or less solidly debunked? Would Spotify have left the episode up? Would it have added contextualizing indicators on the platform? And what would Spotify’s stance be if public criticism were levied at greater intensity and volume against Rogan? Would it feel moved to defend Rogan, or seek to evoke some sort of distributor neutrality stance? The latter is a possible option, theoretically speaking. After all, Spotify does share a market with iHeartMedia, which distributes both Pete Buttigieg’s podcast and a galaxy of right-wing talk radio programming, including the misinformation-rich Rush Limbaugh. But there’s a certain quality to Spotify’s public visibility and narrative that suggests the distributor neutrality option might be more challenging for this decidedly more “modern” media company in the social context of 2020. I reckon, as we drift deeper into the muck, there’s a real possibility that it might get harder for people to square the Spotify that has an exclusive deal with the Obamas with the Spotify that has an exclusive deal with Joe Rogan.

It’s also worth noting that this whole situation about Joe Rogan and speech was one thing when The Joe Rogan Experience stood independent on the open podcast ecosystem, with Rogan shouldering the risks and costs of his speech by himself. As I understand it, that’s kinda part of his appeal to his listener base: the guy says what he wants, and he’ll own whatever that begets him. But now that he’s on this deal with Spotify — said to be worth over a hundred million dollars — you have to imagine that the calculus shifts at least a little bit. He’ll continue saying what he wants, sure, but the effects of that speech impacts a whole other entity now, and it seems like we’re increasingly looking at a scenario where either Rogan will bend to Spotify’s needs or Spotify will bend to Rogan’s needs. At this point, I’m not quite certain which is more likely, though if you gave me house money to bet with, I’d go with the latter.

(There’s a third wildcard outcome scenario, if you really wanna get five-dimensional chess here. Back when the Rogan deal was first announced, a reader wrote in suggesting a scene in which Spotify rides out the length of the deal, extracting as much value as it can while weathering whatever storms it will bring as much as possible, before letting The Joe Rogan Experience go. Kudos to that reader for the imagination, but I don’t think I’d go that far.)

Anyway, all these questions carry over to the second thing that happened over the past week. Last Wednesday, Motherboard published a report that draws attention to what appears to be an emerging tension between Spotify’s workforce and its leadership over content substance. Citing three anonymized sources, the report highlighted a recent company town hall meeting in which some employees raised concerns and submitted questions over Rogan’s history with comments deemed transphobic. “Many LGBTQAI+/ally Spotifiers feel unwelcome and alienated because of leadership’s response in JRE conversations. What is your message to those employees?” one question read.

There have been several examples of Rogan making such comments over the years, but more recent instances include an episode earlier this summer that saw Rogan bringing on Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage” has been criticized for describing gender dysphoria as a “social contagion,” and another episode just last week, which featured Rogan making a crude joke about Caitlin Jenner and the Kardashians.

According to Motherboard, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek acknowledged that “a total of 10 meetings have been held with various groups and individuals to hear their respective concerns.” Ek additionally commented upon the specific Abigail Shrier guest spot: “Joe Rogan and the episode in question have been reviewed extensively. The fact that we aren’t changing our position doesn’t mean we aren’t listening. It just means we made a different judgment call.” (He also told employees not to leak the conversation to the media, but, uh, here we are.)

One has to imagine that this is only the first sparks of a much bigger fire, and there will almost certainly be many, many more judgment calls to come. The fundamental question, in my mind, is how exactly Spotify — the platform and the publisher — will try and define its relationship to its own content, and the extent to which it will take responsibility for it in the eyes of the audience, the public, and its own employees.

As we move forward in time, there are two specific things that I’d keep an eye on in relation to this thread. The first is whether Spotify will more clearly design a set of policies about speech on its platform, whether the platform will stick closely to it, and whether those policies will sit well with Rogan. The second thing is the growing labor movement within Spotify. Remember: three content divisions within Spotify — Gimlet Media, The Ringer, and Parcast — are now actively organizing in pursuit of building worker power within the institution, and there’s a pathway for that organizing purview to overlap with editorial and speech issues like this.

Spotify shook the podcast world when it went after the big rewards that exclusively signing The Joe Rogan Experience would bring. Now it’s time to see whether it can shoulder the risk.

One last thing… I’d be remiss if I moved on without bringing up the earlier story about certain Joe Rogan episodes being unexpectedly absent on the platform when the show was finally added to Spotify at the top of the month. Many of those missing episodes featured some of the show’s most controversial guests, like the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and this fact triggered some amount of conspiratorial speculation over platform censorship. To my knowledge, those episodes remain absent on Spotify, and there hasn’t appeared to be much clarity or movement on this particular issue since.