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Joe Rogan Is Already a Headache for Spotify

Joe Rogan. Photo: Vivian Zink/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

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.

News, broadly…

➽ Sony Music Entertainment has announced a development partnership with Campside Media, the podcast studio founded by magazine journalists Josh Dean, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Matt Shaer along with screenwriter-producer Adam Hoff. Their first project will be a true crime/con scandal story, natch.

➽ The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, together with BuzzFeed News, is pumping out a steady stream of stories meant to “reveal the role of banks in industrial-scale money laundering — and the bloodshed and suffering that flow in its wake.” As part of its multi-platform effort to tell this story, they also made a podcast.

Song Exploder has been adapted for television, and it’s hitting Netflix next month. A natural fit, IMHO, given the way Song Exploder’s premise fits neatly into the Chef’s Table-esque genre of culture doc that’s seemingly very popular on Netflix… and also given Hrishikesh Hirway’s telegenic good looks.

➽ The Black Effect Podcast Network, the joint venture between Charlamagne Tha God and iHeartMedia, announced its first exec-level hire last week: Dollie S. Bishop, who largely comes from television. Here’s the Variety exclusive on that story.

➽ Jackie MacMullan, the veteran NBA reporter and columnist for ESPN, will host a narrative podcast for The Ringer, according to Sports Business Daily. Another data point in the narrative about The Ringer positioning itself to be an ESPN rival over the long-term.

➽ I’m just going to leave this here.

ICYMI: Amazon Music adds podcast distribution. This went live last Wednesday, making real something that had been circulating for a few weeks now when podcast publishers started receiving emails from Amazon Music inviting them to add their feeds to the platform. It also makes for a sizable addendum to the column I wrote about Audible and its original audio programming last week.

The Wall Street Journal has a report with more details about this story, but I think you can basically break the big picture down into two parts. Firstly, things seem really early at the intersection between Amazon and podcasting as we know it, and there’s a messiness to the current arrangement — for example, Amazon Music and Audible seem to be doing their own respective things with podcasting, on-demand audio, and original programming to a point where the overlaps feel like awkward clashes — that suggests there isn’t really cohesive strategy driving any of these movements.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I’d pay close attention to the strategic framing, as laid out in the Journal report, around this being a smart speaker play. Smart speaker distribution hasn’t really been all that important for podcast publishers up until this point, but if it ever does, Amazon is currently best positioned to exert strong gatekeeping influence over that channel.

Acast Expands Into Canada

By Caroline Crampton

Acast has this week opened a new operation in Canada, with Heather Gordon coming over from the CBC to lead it as Managing Director. This is the tenth territory that the Swedish podcast company is now covering in this way, following moves into Ireland in December 2019 and Mexico in February 2020, and a continuation of the international expansion that was a stated priority following the $35 million Series C funding raised in late 2018.

In several of those European markets, Acast has followed the same playbook, i.e. arriving early enough in podcasting’s growth to become the near-default monetisation option for both existing publishers and independent creators purely out of a lack of other options. But North America is a different situation altogether. Canada has a much bigger established listenership and a more developed ad market than most of the previous places Acast has expanded into. Add to that a public broadcaster in the shape of the CBC that has been dominating podcasting for quite a while now, and it becomes clear that just being first in isn’t going to be enough to grow a business there.

For reference, the latest Infinite Dial survey from Edison Research puts 18+ monthly podcast listening in Canada on a par with that in the US — that is, at 37 per cent of the population. And although there hasn’t been a dedicated team working in the country yet, there are already plenty  of Canadian shows signed up to Acast, which according to the company’s release generate almost 11 million monthly listens when counted together. That’s plenty of inventory for a homegrown sales team to get started with.

With that in mind, it makes sense to me that Heather Gordon was the choice to head up this  new operation, given that she comes from a sales rather than an editorial background. Unlike with some of these other expansions, Acast’s challenge in Canada isn’t signing up enough podcasts to find enough space to inject ads, it’s selling enough valuable ads to Canadian sponsors to make them an attractive enough partner for shows that already have tens or even hundreds of thousands of listeners.

This expansion into Canada sits alongside what the company is already doing in the US and in Mexico. Back in February they hired Brian Danzis to be Managing Director, Americas out of their New York office. Danzis, by the way, joins the long list of former Spotify employees at Acast — he was previously Global Head of Video and Live Events there. The choice of Gordon, with her background at the CBC, for Canada, seems designed to complement Danzis’ corporate experience elsewhere.

When I caught up with Gordon late last week, she explained a bit more about her background in media and how that has translated to this latest move. Her most recent job was at the CBC as Digital Sales Director, and as such she managed the team responsible for monetising all of the broadcaster’s digital assets. “That would include everything from video to display to native to promotions to connected television. And podcasting was just one element in our portfolio. And that was the piece that quickly emerged as sort of the jewel in our crown,” she said.

Gordon was also quick to counter any talk of Acast Canada as a rival or competitor to the CBC. “First of all, we do very different things,” she said. “Second of all, we are partners with them. So there’s a lot of space and opportunity in the Canadian market right now, which was another one of the reasons why I was so eager to jump in with Acast right now because of all the opportunities.” The beginning of the Acast-CBC partnership predates this launch — Acast signed up to monetise the public broadcaster’s international listens back in November last year (in a similar arrangement to that with the BBC). Now, the CBC is one of the listed publishing partners for the launch of the new Canadian operation, alongside Corus and Entertainment One.

As well as the US level listenership shown in the most recent Infinite Dial, Gordon pointed to a rapid growth in appetite for podcasts among Canadian advertisers as another contributing factor to start Acast Canada now. “Over the past year, we’ve seen so much more interest in the Canadian market in the podcasting landscape,” she said.

“There is still some education to do, which we’re hoping to be that resource for in Canada — when you’ve got questions about the podcast market, how to advertise the best ways to advertise the best rates, we want to be that first call… The great thing is it’s a growing interest from all categories. It’s not just direct to consumer brands, it’s not just specific clients. It’s all categories. It’s finance, it’s auto with CPG. Everybody’s interested in figuring out how to monetise and reach their audiences effectively, just based on the numbers people are starting to see with results and brand lift and that sort of thing.”

At the moment, Gordon has one colleague in Canada working on content partnerships, but in addition to starting a new team they’re also navigating launching this venture during a pandemic. “So obviously, I’m starting my foray into the Acast world in a virtual manner… I have big dreams for what Acast Canada could look like, and that includes real estate and office space. But yeah, until we get a handle on what’s happening in our wacky world right now, we’re taking a wait and see approach,” she said. But the plan is still to hire some “best in class sales talent with a key requirement of being a podcast lover” and get started in the meantime.

Success for Acast in Canada will be more iterative and less easy to measure than in places like the UK or France, I should imagine, where simply attracting new shows or advertisers to the platform counted as a win in the early days. The market is that much bigger and more mature, meaning that there’s more money to be made, but more competition for every deal. And especially given the timing, with Covid-19 cases rising again in some areas, Gordon and her sales future team will have their work cut out to make an impact.

In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod. Really excited about this one: Forever35’s Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer are on the show this week. We’ve written about the podcast a bunch in this newsletter, tracking the way they’ve developed a strong following and a nascent media empire through a mix of thoughtful retail therapy and effective community development.

We talked about how they came to form the show back in 2018, and also, we dug into bigger questions about self-care, how they view the concept as a system and a movement to plug gaps left under-served by capitalism, and the general lack of media explicitly designed for women over the age of forty.

It should come as a surprise to very few people that I am a person who personally struggles with self-care, which is probably why I continue to think about this conversation weeks after taping it. There are many ways in which certain media or movements are created to respond to the failures of policies and the societies that we live in; I think about my nature as a workaholic, my deep fears about being unsupported by a proper health care system. Cord Jefferson was goddamn right: therapy should be free in this country.

Anyway, you can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.

The Sporkful Turns the Decade

Dan Pashman’s award-winning food podcast — or podcast about food, rather — celebrates its tenth year anniversary this month, and the team is marking the occasion with a few things. Over the course of this week, the show is publishing updated re-releases of three episodes chosen by its listeners: Searching for the Aleppo Sandwich, Katie’s Year in Recovery, and Notes From a Young Black Chef. And on Saturday night, they’re staging a virtual party over Instagram Live, which will feature appearances by special guests Carla Hall and Sohla El-Waylly.

I like The Sporkful quite a bit, though as podcasting has become a lot more crowded lately and the pile of new releases I’m supposed to get through grows with each passing week, I don’t get to pick the show up as much as I used to. Anyway, this is presumably the point of a write-up like this where I very briefly go over the history of The Sporkful: when Pashman created it, where he was in his life, why he did it, how he and the show has changed over the years, and so on. But you know what? I’m just going to point you to this essay that Pashman wrote himself as part of the tenth year celebrations instead. It’s a fun read, laying out how a show can evolve and shift as it figures itself out from stage to stage. It also features a bunch of familiar names, which underscores just how small the podcast world was back then. Like, really small.

The end of the essay hints towards big plans ahead, which I asked about when we jumped on the phone last Friday to talk about everything that’s happening this week. Pashman tells me that plans are in place to develop a Sporkful spin-off with Stitcher, which had been co-producing and distributing the show since 2017. No concrete details just yet, and he points out that Stitcher’s acquisition by SiriusXM might influence the timeline here and there, but there’s nevertheless a process in place, and the thinking is that all this will result in a new show that he will help produce and create but not host. This new show might be the start of an imprint, or it might not. Pashman’s hesitant to oversell the announcement; that’s just his way. Point is, he tells me, he wants to help launch a spin-off show because there are all these interesting food writers and journalists that could benefit from a bigger platform, and maybe this show could be that platform.

Here’s another thing that’s in the pipeline for Pashman: he’s developing a TV show with Zero Point Zero productions — the studio behind the late Anthony Bourdain’s television programs, among other programs — that’s about to be shopped around. He sounded excited when we talked about it, but again, he was reticent to oversell the news. That’s the thing you generally need to know about the guy: he’s somewhat modest to a fault, apologetic even when made to acknowledge the fact that what he’s doing sorta kinda amounts to a media company. “I wish I could say I had some grand strategic vision,” said Pashman. “It was more like a few different things that came together at the same time.”

Indeed, when pressed, Pashman was fairly eager to dismiss any sense that what he’s doing — what he’s building — is pretty well-timed, given the empires currently being crumbled by the on-going reckoning in the food media world. When the prospect was raised, he hesitated, made a worried sound, and pushed it aside. He’s extremely wary about the notion, no doubt feeling slightly strange and guilty about his standing as an older white dude trying to make more media about food. Besides, he’s always had this vaguely Gen X-ish flippancy about overtly capitalistic endeavors. When The Sporkful originally launched in 2010, he slapped a joke on the website saying that someday he would form “Sporkful Omnimedia,” a gag making fun of how Martha Stewart’s media company — Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia — has always had this weirdly ominous name.

Besides, he’s not really interested in all that. No Dan Pashman food media empire, no investors, no heavy staffing up effort, no big plans to sell to the Food Network. Not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever. For the most part, he’s just hoping to be helpful and thoughtful where possible, and he just wants to keep doing more stuff in his own way.

He tells me about a moment that he always thinks about from the first episode of Startup when (now multi-millionaire) Alex Blumberg meets with Chris Sacca and makes that painfully awkward pitch, and they talk about the idea of a lifestyle business. Sacca isn’t interested in such businesses, of course, given that the mandate of a venture capitalist is to fund stuff that yields manifold returns, but Pashman was stuck fixating on how Sacca described a lifestyle business in that context.

“He basically describes it as a business that works well, treats its employees well, pays people well, and makes people feel good about their work,” he said. “You know, that sounds really good to me.”

Joe Rogan Is Already a Headache for Spotify