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The $100m podcaster

Joe Rogan smoking a joint with Elon Musk

Not every Covid misinformation spat pushes a tech giant into crisis mode – but not everyone is Joe Rogan.

Who is he?
Host of The Joe Rogan Experience, Spotify’s most popular podcast. Rogan, 54, gets more than 11 million listeners per episode and 200 million downloads a month on Spotify, which paid him a reported $100m in 2020 for exclusive rights. (Harry and Meghan got a measly $25m from the streaming service for their own podcast – though they’ve only delivered a single episode so far.) Rogan says his show has become an “out-of-control juggernaut” – his audience is nearly four times bigger than that of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who hosts the most popular TV news show in America. A single advert on Rogan’s podcast now costs upwards of $1m.

Why all the fuss?
Rogan has repeatedly expressed vaccine-hesitant views, including the belief that young, healthy people shouldn’t get jabbed. And he recently interviewed doctors promoting widely discredited Covid treatments, including one who described vaccines and mask-wearing as “mass formation psychosis”. Classic rocker Neil Young took exception to this – he and other musicians, including Joni Mitchell, have pulled their music from Spotify in protest. But, mindful of how big a draw Rogan is, Spotify stood by its man.

Was he always in media?
Far from it. Rogan was born in New Jersey to a hippie mother and policeman father. The couple divorced when Rogan was five, and he has since alluded to his dad’s “brief, violent flashes of domestic violence”. Rogan took up martial arts as a teenager because, he told Rolling Stone, he was “terrified of being a loser”. At 19 he become a national taekwondo champion. He then acted in a sitcom, hosted the game show Fear Factor – where he would hype up contestants to eat bugs and walk on broken glass – and embarked on a career in stand-up comedy. He launched his podcast in 2009; by 2015 it was being downloaded 16 million times a month.

What’s the winning formula?
Long episodes, which frequently go beyond three hours and sometimes stretch over five; eclectic guests, who have included boxers (Mike Tyson), public intellectuals (Jordan Peterson), rappers, former CIA operatives and everyone in between; and an interview style that allows his guests to follow lines of argument to their weirdest conclusions. “Listening to the show,” says Justin Peters in Slate, “is sort of like crashing an intense, intimate dinner party in which the only courses are whiskey and weed.”

Sounds like a recipe for trouble
It is. Rogan has given a platform to a who’s who of conspiracy theorists, including flat-earthers, UFO spotters and the far-right shock jock Alex Jones. Over multiple appearances, Jones has discussed the existence of an alien base in San Francisco, China growing “human-animal hybrids” for organ transplants, and how sexually attractive the devil is. But perhaps the most notorious episode is one with Elon Musk from 2018, in which the Tesla founder pontificates on the nature of reality before taking a vigorous toke on the spliff Rogan is smoking. The incident sent Tesla shares plummeting by 9%.

What are Rogan’s own politics?
Complicated. “If you say you disagree with me, I probably disagree with me too,” he once said. Rogan is socially liberal but also pro-gun and vehemently opposed to cancel culture. He initially supported Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential election but swapped to the Libertarian Party when Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, comparing the then 77-year-old to “a flashlight with a dying battery”.

Does he get up to much off-mike?
He’s still big into fitness, which he complements with testosterone supplements, monthlong spells of eating only meat (elk is a particular favourite), and meditation in the sensory deprivation tank in his basement. He also enjoys a range of recreational drugs, including DMT (dimethyltryptamine), commonly regarded as the strongest psychedelic known to man. Rogan has three children with his wife Jessica, a former cocktail waitress and model, and they split their time between a $5m LA mansion and a $14.4m, 10,800-square-foot compound in Austin, Texas. The rest of his cash goes on guns, hi-tech archery bows and a collection of vintage muscle cars.

What’s next?
Spotify has said it’ll slap a disclaimer on his more controversial episodes, and Rogan has pledged to balance his more out-there guests with more mainstream perspectives. But he’s going nowhere: podcasts are crucial to Spotify’s growth plan because it can own them, and therefore make bigger margins on them than it does on music. So central is Rogan to the company’s fortunes, says Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times, that his podcast is listed as its own category on the app. “Sports. Music. News and Politics. Joe Rogan.”