Podcasts Are No Longer Private Conversations

Animation with moving circles and an ear.
Getty; The Atlantic

Keeping track of all the garbage aired in audio can be a full-time job, and the stakes are getting higher.

To take issue with a podcast, you have to do a lot of work. Or you have to hope that somebody else will.

Many of the most popular and longest-running shows are chatty and relaxed or made to feel that way, and they go on and on. Joe Rogan, a comedian and former Fear Factor host, has recorded more than 1,700 episodes of his freewheeling and intellectually dispiriting chat show, The Joe Rogan Experience. A single episode is often more than three hours long. Lately Rogan has been called upon to film a couple of (extremely close-croppedapologies for using racial slurs in old episodes of his show and spewing nonsense about COVID-19 vaccines in more recent ones. But to identify and fully catalog every one of the offensive things he’s said, you would have to listen to at least 4,000 hours of tape—about six months of nonstop Rogan. That would be a full-time job.

And it’s actually a full-time job. Media Matters for America, a left-leaning nonprofit and watchdog group, employs the researcher Alex Paterson to listen to The Joe Rogan Experience as one of his core responsibilities. At the end of 2021, Paterson filed a report on more than 350 hours of tape—less than 10 percent of Rogan’s mammoth oeuvre. He made bulleted lists of suspect statements about COVID-19 and anti-trans rhetoric, and put other comments in a catchall category of “right-wing misinformation and bigotry.” (When Paterson’s report was released, my co-workers and I discussed the 350 hours with shock and distress:Get this guy some hazard pay.)

Even modest excavation efforts merit some congratulation. Wired’s Steven Levy listened to Rogan for three hours; the Atlantic contributor Vinay Prasad did six-plus in January; Slate’s in-house Rogan expert, Justin Peters, went in for eightlast weekend. But going big and searching manually through the archives of any podcaster with a substantial back catalog requires not just time but motivation—an axe to grind, or at least an angle. “It was not a terribly glamorous reporting process,” The Ringer’s Claire McNear told The New York Times after she’d listened to all 41 episodes of a podcast hosted by the former Jeopardy producer Mike Richards, following a (correct) hunch that they would contain egregiously sexist comments. “It was not like what they show in the movies.” It was just sitting around listening to some guy talk.

Things might be different if one could find searchable transcripts of every podcast’s every episode. An episode’s contents could be scanned in minutes, or seconds if you knew what keywords you were looking for. But for now, transcripts are not widely available. Some podcasters make the effort to provide them, along with links in the show’s notes. Other podcasters are popular enough that fan sites create and maintain transcript archives on their behalf. (That’s been the case for Rogan, though transcripts became harder to find after he sold exclusive distribution rights to Spotify for a reported $100 million. Since then, Spotify has offered new ones to only some listeners, in a limited beta test.)

But the outrage over Rogan’s COVID takes, as well as his repeated use of the N-word, highlights an important moment for podcasts—a medium that has until now offered something more intimate than other forms of mass-distributed content, and much less amenable to scrutiny. In the beginning, podcast money was exchanging hands person-to-person, through monthly fees from listeners via platforms like Patreon; the big-money “podcast wars” are just a few yearsold, and truly enormous exclusive deals like Rogan’s with Spotify are still in a trial phase. But as the business grows up, and as more reporters or agitators invest the time in poring over all this content, the days of podcasting without consequences will be numbered.

Alex Paterson decided to start monitoring Joe Rogan’s podcast in July 2020, after a guest on the show, the writer Abigail Shrier, compared trans identity to “demonic possession.”

“He is the most popular podcast host in the world,” Paterson told me. Yet few not in Rogan’s intended audience ever hear most of the things he says. Paterson gave the examples of Rogan’s claims that mRNA vaccines are “gene therapy” and that Democratic politicians will “kill people on purpose that are causing problems.” If Paterson hadn’t been dutifully listening in—at 2x speed, all day long, nearly every day—these comments would have gone unnoticed.

Rogan’s wild comments about the COVID-19 vaccine, and his claim to have treated his own coronavirus illness with ivermectin, have attracted the most negative attention from those outside his fanbase, including Anthony Fauci and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Also, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Paterson’s report included these comments and a wide range of other quotations—some of which could reasonably be called misinformation, some of which almost anybody would call offensive, and others of which were primarily very annoying. (In a May episode, for instance, Rogan predicted a future in which “straight white men are not allowed to talk.”) Paterson says he is still listening to the show. “Rogan usually publishes three to four podcasts a week that generally range between three to four hours long, and I try to listen to all of them within that week.” He does not discuss it with his family or friends!

Meanwhile, on Reddit, Rogan’s fans have expressed outrage about his treatment by the media, but were—unsurprisingly—not shocked by any of the comments he’d made on his show. They had already heard them. One fan even postedabout warning Rogan last January that he should bleep out racial slurs from past episodes, to protect himself. (“Cancel culture is awful and I never wanna see you go down!”) Others have been sharing words of encouragement from internet personalities who have taken Rogan’s side in the whole debacle, including Donald Trump and another podcast host, Sam Harris, who recently said on his own show, “Anyone who has spent dozens of hours listening to Joe’s podcast knows to a moral certainty that Joe is not racist.” The top comment in response: “I just realized I’ve listened to this podcast for THOUSANDS of hours.” (Fans have also been sharing conspiracy theories about who might be out to get Rogan. Google, for confusing reasons, is one suspect.)

Like all fandom, podcast fandom can be intense. The audience for the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House is so volatile that it was banned from Reddit, so unified that it has built a new online community from scratch, and so invested that it pays the show’s hosts more than $164,000 a month via Patreon. Podcast fans can also lack perspective. Commenters in the Reddit forum dedicated to the Red Scare podcast have gotten a little paranoid in the past few weeks, worryingthat the controversy over Joe Rogan will cause Patreon to take down controversial podcasts, and that the forum’s moderators may be restricting talk of the Rogan-Spotify issue because the Red Scare hosts are secretly working out their own huge deal with Spotify. (This would seem unlikely considering their fondness for the word retarded and their new friendship with the deplatformed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, but who knows?)

Big media companies and platforms like Spotify became interested in podcasts precisely on account of this fan involvement. They wanted in because of the incredibly close relationship between podcast talent and their audiences, and the uncommon flow of devotion and money. “The worth of a podcast is no longer just its content, but rather the sum of the relations it produces,” Jamie Lauren Keiles wrote in a 2019 feature for The New York Times Magazine. Keiles interviewed the producer Gina Delvac, known for her work on the super-popular chat show Call Your Girlfriend, who characterized these relationships by saying, “You have to remember that there’s no fourth wall. When you’re talking to someone, you’re whispering in their ear. You’re in the shower with them. You’re on their commute to work.”

This is not to say that podcast fans are incapable of criticizing the voices they spend so much time with—only that they’re also prone to forgiveness. A Joe Rogan fan may hear Joe Rogan say something false or bigoted and dislike it, but quickly excuse him by reasoning that this one statement doesn’t define who Joe Rogan is, in the same way that a friend’s or family member’s weirdest or most thoughtless comments don’t necessarily change our sense of who they are. Spotify may not have to worry, then, about a dramatic decline in listenership for Rogan’s show. Nor does Rogan’s talking shit about vaccines amount to a content-moderation problem for the company. Rather, it’s an editorial and branding problem: Spotify gave this guy a lot of money to be, essentially, the face of its podcasting empire.

This puts Spotify between a rock and a hard place—between a reactionary fandom that makes a filter-free loudmouth a great investment and a cultural context that makes him a terrible one. This is a familiar problem for media companies. Disney faced the same issue when it tried to partner with the YouTuber PewDiePie—who subsequently shared pro-Nazi content with his 100 million subscribers. (The company decided to cut ties.) Netflix recently dealt with an employee walkout over a Dave Chappelle special that contained anti-trans rhetoric; an unhappy employee also leaked the information that Chappelle had been paid $24.1 million for it. (Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos eventually apologized for his handling of the incident, but Chappelle is still set to perform at the company’s comedy festival in the spring.)

As podcasting becomes further entrenched as a mass-media format and hosts’ platforms grow in size, these pressures will only increase. Work like Paterson’s may be getting easier as well. The past two years have brought lawsuits against major podcast companies like SiriusXM and Spotify’s Gimlet Media for their lack of podcast accessibility features, including transcriptions. (As a sometimes-listener of the chat show How Long Gone—they get good guests and they’re always laughing together!—I have imagined what it would look like to CTRL+F the entire catalog for all of the hosts’ weird comments about fat people.)

If the dustup over Rogan hasn’t resulted in the severing of his contract or his removal from Spotify’s platform, it has still produced plenty of consequences. The Verge’s Ashley Carman published the company’s sparse COVID-19 content policy last month; Spotify then made the rest of its platform rules public for the first time. Later, after Rogan’s racist comments came to light, Spotify removed dozens of old episodes of his show and its CEO, Daniel Ek, committed to invest $100 million in content made by members of historically marginalized groups. All to say, after thousands of hours, whatever Rogan—or, maybe soon, any other podcaster—is going on about is no longer just between him and his fans.

All Rights Reserved for Kaitlyn Tiffany

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