When Spotify signed The Joe Rogan Experience to a hundred million dollar exclusive distribution deal this summer, practically everyone wondered how the audio streaming platform would handle the next time Rogan brought on Alex Jones, the notorious conspiracy theorist whose provably false and harmful provocations got his ass de-platformed by several major tech companies — including Spotify itself — in 2018.
Rogan had proven willing to give Jones a platform a few times before, engaging the conspiracy theorist in a distinctly Roganian “you’ve said some crazy stuff before but you’ve also said some controversial stuff I think you were right about so it all evens out for me” style of discourse that typically allows Jones to get off a high volume of conspiracy claims with Rogan only contesting some of those claims to the extent he’s interested enough to do so.
It took just under two months since The Joe Rogan Experience officially debuted on Spotify for the show to vault the company into that exact controversy everyone knew was coming. Last Tuesday, the podcast dropped a three hour-long episode with Jones, in which the conspiracy theorist, accompanied by the comedian Tim Dillon, did all the things you’d expect from the face of Infowars. Here’s The Verge with a partial summary:
Jones, who previously claimed that Sandy Hook was a hoax, also said that “a lot of studies show” that masks won’t protect people in large groups from getting COVID. (The CDC recommends people wear a mask “anywhere they will be around other people.”)
At another point, Jones exaggerates an incident in which an oral vaccine caused polio in recipients. Jones says the vaccine caused 100 percent of recipients to get sick after taking it, before Rogan pulls up an AP article that details the cases of two children who were paralyzed after receiving the vaccine. Dillon and Jones also claim that the Democrats are intentionally trying to keep the US economy down in order to get Trump out of office.
The episode drew a ton of criticism and negative coverage, as you would expect, but as The Verge points out, Rogan did again engage in some form of fact-checking, which does somewhat complicate the narrative around this specific situation, since Rogan advocates could argue (justifiably, I guess) that this isn’t simply a case where Jones was given free rein to spread misinformation. Indeed, the logic system does get a little tricky for those who wish to structurally push back against Rogan here: Spotify denying Rogan the ability to give Jones an appearance means that news organizations would not theoretically be free to engage Jones in a “properly” fact-checked podcast appearance should they wish to do so and still get distributed on the platform. Meanwhile, leaning on a framework where only news organizations get to do such things on the platform means that someone has to designate who gets to be a news organization on Spotify, which can be a dicey proposition.
That trickiness likely informed Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s response to a question raised about the incident during the company’s earnings call last Thursday, which leaned heavily on the notion of policy consistency. “We obviously review all the content that goes up” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Joe Rogan or anyone else. We do apply those policies, but it’s important to note that this needs to be evenly applied, no matter if it’s an internal pressure or an external pressure as well, because otherwise we are a creative platform for lots of creators, and it’s important that they know what to expect from our platform. If we can’t do that, then there are other choices for creators to go to so that consistency is super important.”
That response, by the way, was foreshadowed in a BuzzFeed News report that came out the day before the earnings call, which contained leaked emails featuring the company’s chief legal officer, Horacio Gutierrez, defending the show internally and providing talking points to Spotify management should they be made to publicly comment on the situation. One of those talking points was the aforementioned lean on content policy consistency.
Here’s the thing about this story for me: practically everybody knew in their bones that a Jones-Rogan situation was going to be inevitable under Spotify’s watch. So, why does it seem like the company didn’t entirely expect to handle something like this when they signed Rogan?
You can’t say the company didn’t have ample warning. In addition to Rogan’s entire track record, The Joe Rogan Experience gave Spotify two incidents around this general area the very month it debuted on the platform: the first is Rogan inadvertently reciting a debunked conspiracy theory about “left-wing people” being arrested for intentionally starting wildfires in Oregon, which he later apologized for, and the second is a guest spot by Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage” has been criticized for describing gender dysphoria as a “social contagion.” Furthermore, according to a Motherboard report, as a result of signing Rogan, Spotify started experiencing emerging tension with its workforce over content policy questions, which partly came through in a company town hall in which some employees raised concerns over Rogan’s history with comments considered transphobic. These things were light brushes compared to the Jones-Rogan situation, which presents the company with most extreme manifestation of this content moderation problem, but they nevertheless were signals that should’ve prompted Spotify to ramp up some process around pulling together a clear, consistent, and communicable content moderation policy as soon as humanly possible.
Let’s pull back for a second. Now, I don’t believe there’s any future in which Spotify does anything to rock the Joe Rogan boat. Don’t forget: Rogan is Spotify’s premiere signing in its push into podcasting, and as I’ve argued previously, The Joe Rogan Experience, whose intense popularity is uniquely significant for its capacity to draw new listeners onto the platform, is the piece that’s supposed to pull the company’s entire podcast bet together and take it to the next level. So, with that in mind, Spotify is more likely to tailor its content policy approach around Rogan’s needs than around anything else, because Spotify likely sees the upside of keeping Rogan happy being greater than the downsides he could bring to the business… even the risk of employee unrest, perhaps.
But however they land on content moderation, they have to land somewhere — and soon, too, because the Jones-Rogan situation is only one type of many, many big content risks the company will inevitably have to deal with in the days to come.
It’s often been asked of Spotify whether it’s a Netflix or a YouTube, with that inquiry generally being used as a way to think through how they should be held accountable for the content that flows through their pipes. That binary is false, I think, as the company has built its push into podcasting on the twin prongs of serving as a publisher of original content (substantiated by talent deals and various acquisitions) and serving as a platform (substantiated by acquiring the hosting platform Anchor). In other words, Spotify is effectively both Netflix and YouTube, and as such, they are exposed to being held accountable to either paradigm depending on the situation. In this specific context, they are responsible for The Joe Rogan Experience as a publisher in much the same way that… oh, I don’t know, YouTube is responsible for Cobra Kai. And someday — perhaps sooner than you might expect — they should be held responsible for hosting unambiguously bad or harmful actors on Anchor.
It’s a lot to think through, and for more insight, I thought I’d call up an expert source who’s been covering this type of stuff for years and years: Casey Newton.
The Same Movie, Over and Over Again: Platformer’s Casey Newton on Spotify
I’ve been following Casey Newton’s work for closely quite some time now, particularly over the past few years as he’s zeroed in on covering tech platforms and content moderation as a senior editor at The Verge. Among his many achievements there, he broke huge stories about the horrible working conditions for Facebook’s outsourced content moderators as part of his broader reporting on Facebook, and he also started a newsletter called The Interface that focused on the intersection of social media and democracy.
Newton recently left The Verge to launch Platformer, his own independent newsletter on Substack — which, by the way, is another platform that I personally believe should be held to the same kinds of platform-publisher questions nowadays — where he continues to stay on the beat. In case it isn’t crystal clear by now, podcasting falls well within this discussion these days, as perhaps they should always have been, and I figured Newton’s insight into Spotify’s predicament would be useful to set the frame for what’s to come.
Hot Pod: Based on your experience, what do you see when you look at Spotify’s situation over the past week?
Casey Newton: I think we’re in the early stages of seeing Spotify eventually come around to implementing many more restrictions on the content that even their own podcasts will include.
So, let’s back up for a second and talk about the bigger shift that we’ve been seeing in the tech industry more broadly. At the beginning of a tech platform, we mostly just see that company as infrastructure. It is a tool that helps put a thing into the world. The early days of Twitter, certainly. Substack is in that zone right now, though recent developments suggest that people are beginning to see it a little differently now.
That early stage is the Wild West. People will post whatever and the platform is barely going to investigate abuse because they see themselves as a tool and not responsible for the content of anything its users publish. As the years go on, these platforms get bigger and more powerful. As their audience share grows, we stop thinking of them as simple infrastructure and start thinking of them as true publishers who should be responsible for the content on their platforms.
This is all preamble to talk about where Spotify is right now. Before they started buying, licensing, and hosting podcasts, you could argue they were a podcast player like any other. Now, there are a lot of bad actor podcasts out there, and if one of them were on Spotify’s platform, they could argue they were just a tool for spreading the thing. We saw this with Alex Jones when they took him off the platform a few years ago.
For the most part, though, Spotify has been generally reluctant to intervene in things like this. They had the whole R. Kelly issue on the music side a few years ago, but they were able to just say: “Have your feelings about artists, but we believe in making a super broad range of content available and we’re not going to weigh in every time an artist does a bad thing, and we’re not going to necessarily remove them from playlists.
None of those music controversies ultimately went anywhere, and while there may have been angry blog posts and critical news reports, they haven’t been called before Congress or whatever. It hasn’t been a major scandal.
I think you’re going to start to see that turn with the Joe Rogan thing. This is their show pony. This is their biggest original content deal ever, and he is a problematic figure. In this Alex Jones situation, Rogan brought on somebody who has been de-platformed by many of the biggest platforms in the world. So I suspect this is the moment where Spotify is crossing over being understood as infrastructure towards being regarded as a publisher in a big way. Because they’re paying Joe Rogan’s salary, they’re responsible for him in a way that even YouTube is not responsible for hosting Joe Rogan, as he was just uploading videos there.
HP: What does it mean to be responsible for Rogan?
Newton: That’s a great question, and I think it mostly hinges on another question, which is: what should Spotify’s publishing standards be?
That should be a process that involves a lot of stakeholders and a lot of thought. They should be bringing in people who have worked on this issue for other platforms. They need to be gaming out scenarios. Of course, they could land in a bunch of places in that process — and, by the way, one of those places could be, “We don’t care if our podcast hosts bring on people who have been deplatformed elsewhere, we’re going to enable more speech than any other platform, and here’s why.” They can say that, and it feels like they basically tried out that argument on the earnings call this week.
I’ve seen this play out so many times before, and I feel like I’m watching the first act of a movie I’ve already seen. Now, the second act of that movie is: there will be more controversies about more podcasts, and then there will be a series of articles laying out the most problematic podcasts on Spotify and how much is being paid for each of them, and then there’s a continuous drumbeat of leaks from inside Spotify. Some employees quit, some employees write Medium posts about why they quit and how toxic the environment has become, and then Spotify comes out and says, “We hear you, we’re going to adopt some real community standards now, here are the new rules going forward.”
Of course, maybe that won’t happen. But right now, I don’t see a world in which it doesn’t.
HP: I get the sense from what you’re saying that there are two layers to dig through here. The first is Spotify not yet having a coherent content policy that can be consistently applied across their various business lines. The second layer, which is perhaps more the heart of it, is how it feels like Spotify still hasn’t really committed to the reality of the situation they got when they pushed into podcasting both as a publisher and a platform. There’s a bit of wanting to have its cake and eat it too: “We’re for all sorts of speech, but we’re still the friendly Swedes in the room.” Having seen this movie several times before, what’s the appropriate move for a platform at this point in the story?
Newton: I think platforms would do well to approach these problems with humility, especially at this early stage. It should be okay for them to say: “We’re relatively early in our journey as a publisher that is acquiring and promoting podcasts under our own name, we understand that there are valid questions about the kinds of podcasts are being distributed on our platform, and we want to think about what the rules should be for that so we can adequately communicate them.”
I would start there. You could look at what Zoom did earlier this summer when they experienced all that crazy growth during the pandemic and journalists started uncovering all these problems: encryption issues, security holes, so on. Then Zoom said, “You know, you’re right, we were not prepared for this level of scrutiny, we’re going to take the next ninety days, we’re not going to ship a new feature, we’re going to bring in a bunch of security consultants and stress test the platform, and then we’ll go back to making new features after we figure all that out.”
And that’s exactly what they did. They later publicized what they found and the changes they made, and I would argue that Zoom is on better footing now than before they undertook that process.
I’ve been sort of laughing as I’ve watched Spotify’s early responses to its situation, because all those responses seem to suggest that they think they’re only going to get this problem once. Like, “if we can just get through the controversy around this one Joe Rogan episode, we can put this issue to rest forever.” That’s just not what’s going to happen here.
HP: Who would be the key player within Spotify to watch on this specific issue moving forward?
Newton: So, the kinds of folks within big companies who typically work on problems like this… well, they go by many names, and there still isn’t really a consistent name for this team, but the name you hear the most is “Trust and Safety.”
The weird thing about Trust and Safety is that it’s a baby industry. There wasn’t a professional trade association for employees working in Trust and Safety until this year. It was founded by this woman named Clara Tsao, who is a really interesting thinker. One of the big points that she’s made over the years is that one of the reasons these [content policy] issues have been so acute is that it’s not even seen as a proper career path for people. If you want to be in the business of managing content policies inside platforms, the path to do so is really murky.
Content moderation is usually a backwater. It’s usually the first thing a tech founder will give up as soon as they can, because the tradeoffs are hard and people will be unhappy no matter the decision you take.
My sense is that Spotify doesn’t really have a Trust and Safety team or equivalent. I’m sure they have people working on these issues, but the question is whether they are empowered. I believe there hasn’t been real community standards set for podcasters on the platform just yet. Will they undertake a real process to carve out actual community standards? Because over the long run, they’re not going to find it workable for Daniel Ek to keep responding on earnings calls to a quarter’s worth of complaints about that.
HP: Does it bother you to keep seeing this story play out over and over again?
Newton: Nah, it just makes me excited. I feel like I ended up in this weird niche as a journalist where I’m always writing about these same issues, and I’m happy to repeat myself, you know? I don’t actually have to do a lot of work. It’s just, “We’re in act one now, class, anybody wants to guess what happens next?”
For this Jones-Rogan situation, I’m not really that bothered. I think Jones has actually been effectively de-platformed, and yeah, Rogan has said some anti-trans stuff that’s gross and upsetting, but I wouldn’t put Joe Rogan on my top ten list of worst content problems on the internet. There are other ones that have definitely bothered me way more, a lot of it on Facebook.
But I was talking with someone a few years ago — I won’t say his name, but he’s a billionaire tech founder — and he was saying, “You guys really aren’t studying podcasts enough.” He brought up people like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson, and he said, “People are spending four or five hours a week with these guys, and most journalists aren’t listening to these podcasts, so there are these huge surging currents of thought in America that are really underexplored.”
And I started thinking about that for myself. A podcast I’ve listened to for over ten years now is the Savage Lovecast, and I’m now at a point where all my opinions about sex and relationships are just Dan Savage’s opinions. That is one situation where I thought I had really firm opinions about certain things, but over ten years, Dan just wore me down, and now all my opinions are basically his opinions.
Now, I believe his opinions are good, and if he’s radicalized me about anything, it’s just to be, like, a good and loving partner, you know? But if you apply that framework to listeners of these other kinds of podcasts… The scariest stuff here isn’t when a podcast host has a bad guest on, but when you get somebody with a genuinely pernicious ideology podcasting that maybe starts out being really innocuous but gets really dark over time. That’s a much harder problem for a platform like Spotify to solve, because you don’t want them policing thought, but what happens when you get something like a Stefan Molyneux? What happens when you have certain kinds of people banned on YouTube, and they start becoming the next generation of popular podcasts on Anchor? Will Spotify intervene there?
That, I think, is the bigger and more interesting question.
You can find Platformer, Newton’s newsletter, here.
➽ Jason Concepcion (of Binge Mode fame, among many other things) has left The Ringer to join Crooked Media later this month.
➽ Steve Lickteig, the executive producer of audio at NBC and MSNBC, has left the organization to start his own production company, Small Good Thing.
➽ PRX has published an excerpt of the external investigation into the allegation of systemic and specific racism at the organization on its Medium page. The investigation was catalyzed by the recent departure of a Black employee, who publicly shared a letter in August detailing her negative experiences while working there.
➽ Slate has announced a new upcoming season of Slow Burn: Joel Anderson will return to host an entire season on the 1992 LA riots, which will follow Noreen Malone’s upcoming season on the run-up to the Iraq War.
➽ VICE has a fascinating new project out that’s produced entirely from user-generated content to tell global stories from the ground level. It’s called Source Material.
For today’s election… A quick and incomplete list of stuff various podcasts are doing for tonight’s vote count:
➽ Axios will be dropping five minute-long episode updates on its Axios Today and Axios Re:Cap feeds throughout the night.
➽ Slate is taping episodes of The Gist and Trumpcast to drop this evening, while What Next and the Slate Political Gabfest are taping tonight for an AM drop tomorrow. (Shout-out to Slate’s 2016 election night rolling podcast experiment, which was hosted by Zoe Chace and Alison Stewart. That was a fascinating idea that should be tried again… count to think of it, I think Axios’ five minute updates are a variation on this.)
➽ There’s always NPR’s many various digital audio outputs.
➽ WNYC’s On the Media is also doing a livestream tonight.
➽ As are Futuro Media’s In The Thick with Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Valera.
➽ As are Chapo Trap House.
➽ Radio Ambulante’s El Hilo is planning a quick turnaround episode for whenever the results are in. (Assuming it’s within the week, and not, you know, a 2000 revival.)
➽ KQED’s The Bay is following three poll volunteers throughout the day, and those recordings will be packaged as an episode for the next drop.
➽ Pantsuit Politics is doing a live show on something called the Hot Mic app.
➽ And because there is a god, Jon Mooallem is gracing us with a four hour-long special election episode of WALKING.
We’re still dropping an episode of Servant of Pod tomorrow… The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk II is the focus of our profile this week, where we dug deep into his spectacular podcast series from March, Floodlines.
We taped this a while back but saved the episode for Election Week — a thematically appropriate time, maybe, to run a conversation about Hurricane Katrina, government failure, unequal impacts, and the long legacy of large-scale disasters. We also talked about the show’s music and sound design, which, quite honestly, is some of the best I’ve ever heard on a podcast.
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.
Audio Art: Podcasting’s Pressure Valve
By Caroline Crampton
In search of an occasional break from all that listening to people talking generally required to keep up with podcasting, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the more experimental, “sound art” corner of the audio universe. The term “sound art” is a broad one, of course, and can be stretched to include everything from soundscape-dominated shows like Field Recordings and Jon Mooallem’s Walking to found tape or archival pieces such as those put out by Centuries of Sound, along with straight up audio collages and installations. All of these feeds and more have become remarkably important to me in recent months, and I prioritise new episodes from those projects in much the same way that I used to drop everything to listen to my favourite comedy podcasts back in 2009.
Beyond just the sheer pleasure of listening to someone silently taking a walk in a place I’ve never been (as in the case of Field Recordings), I like the way these shows prompt me to think differently about the podcast business. Monetisation, audience, and IP potential are usually top of mind for me when assessing a new launch or acquisition, but none of those approaches really seem to apply to this corner of podcasting, which nevertheless cultivates a strong base of fans and dedicated practitioners. More than that, it seems to function in part as a counterpoint to everything else that is going on with podcasting: a kind of pressure valve for the industry.
Accordingly, when I was asked to guest on the BBC’s Podcast Radio Hour recently I chose this very idea of audio art and found sound as my theme for the programme. One of the interviews that I conducted for the show, with Michelle Macklem, the artistic director and co-founder of Constellations, really stuck with me, so with permission I’m going to unpack it in more detail here than was possible in the time available on the Podcast Radio Hour.
Macklem explained that Constellations had its origins in conversations between herself and co-founder Jess Shane when they were both living in Toronto and working at the CBC. (Macklem has since relocated to Melbourne, Australia.) “We were finding that with a lot of our peers who were working and podcasting as the industry was becoming more and more commercial, there was less space for experimentation and less space for thinking about sound critically and how we experience sound in the world critically,” she said.
This fed the desire for a project that stood apart from the commercial pressures audiomakers were experiencing elsewhere in the industry — a refuge from the increasingly homogenised sound that was developing as podcasting grew in popularity in the US and Canada. Macklem and Shane started asking friends and contacts if they could release their audio art on a new feed, and found that creators were enthusiastic about offering work to such an outlet while they worked in a very different way for their day jobs.
Another driving force behind the founding of Constellations that really intrigued me was burnout. Longtime readers will know that I’ve been tracking this phenomenon with respect to podcasting for some time now, and it was fascinating to hear that Constellations was in part an expression of the fact that while demand for audio content has been ramping up everywhere, key things like compensation and healthy working practices have remained out of step for many creators. “We saw a lot of our peers becoming really burnt out,” Macklem said. “We work and need to make money and do our jobs and stuff, but I think that something about the creative aspects were feeling a bit lost for us.”
Constellations has now put out four seasons of work since it launched in July 2017, as well as organising a physical exhibition in Toronto and arranging various remixing projects. It has remained a non-commercial outlet for the creators involved, a dispersed network of people who want a home for their audio experiments.
I asked Macklem about how listeners respond to the works, since it is a feed primarily conceived with creators rather than the audience in mind. “We have really varied listener feedback and I think that’s exciting because I think Constellations being a non-commercial space can be a space where people can actively dislike the works, and that’s totally fine and great,” she said. “I think the joy in that is being able to talk and discover why you don’t like things rather than trying to fit a mould of things that you think you should like, which I think culturally is something that we all do because we, you know, want to get behind things that seem great and critically robust.”
I’m very familiar with this dynamic. It’s perhaps less noticeable these days, but when I first started writing about podcasts there was very much a sense that it was necessary to be mostly positive so as not to denigrate this up-and-coming medium in case it put off new adopters. Even now, I think podcast critics are perhaps less willing to write off a show they have issues with than their counterparts in film or book criticism might, for myriad understandable reasons such as scarcity, the amateur/professional crossover, and more. As a space where listeners are free to just… not feel positive about everything, Constellations also seems to offer a respite in that sense too.
Of course, commercially funded work elsewhere is what makes a feed like Constellations possible on a practical level — the creators who release their audio art through this show are also using their skills in other directions that pay the bills. The show does do some crowdfunding, but it mostly leans back on the ethos that getting paid matters less than releasing ideas into the world that wouldn’t have a home anywhere else. For those efforts, and how it hopes to expand the horizon of what could be, Constellations deserves our attention.