For weeks, Spotify Technology SA has faced growing controversy over podcast host Joe Rogan centered around the harmful effects of Covid misinformation spread by some of his interview guests. Musicians starting with Neil Young asked to remove their music in protest. Rogan said he was simply letting his guests speak their minds.
Last weekend the scandal grew when a video compilation of podcast episodes circulated on social media featuring Rogan repeatedly using a racial slur. The idea that Rogan himself doesn’t hold harmful views was suddenly exposed for what it was: more misinformation.
The game is up. Spotify can no longer avoid the fact that it is partnering with someone who amplifies racism, misinformation and misogyny. The streaming service should end its exclusive relationship with Rogan.
On Sunday, the resulting firestorm prompted Spotify Chief Executive Officer Daniel Ek to apologize to employees. Ek said Rogan had agreed to remove episodes from the platform. But the CEO also vowed to maintain its ties with Rogan, saying “silencing Joe” wasn’t the answer. “Canceling voices,” Ek said, “is a slippery slope.”
Ek has it wrong. The real slippery slope would be to pretend that the streaming service was censoring Rogan if the company ended their exclusive arrangement, which stems from a multiyear, $100 million contract agreed to in 2020. If Spotify were to exit the deal, Rogan would have no trouble reaching his millions of listeners the way most podcasters do, as independent productions accessible on myriad apps and platforms including Spotify. No one needs to spend tens of millions of dollars to keep Rogan online.
Rogan’s apology tour is equally unconvincing. In an Instagram post Saturday he expressed regret over using the N-word in past podcasts, and insisted his remarks were taken out of context. But Rogan has a pattern of trying to minimize bad behavior. Responding to critics about his anti-vaccine guests, he has portrayed himself as a curious person who likes to have conversations with people who hold a wide range of opinions. In reality, Rogan has made his own pronouncements questioning vaccines.
It’s probably safe to assume that Spotify didn’t peer too deeply into Rogan’s podcast vault before inking a deal with the host in 2020. And if the company did and decided to overlook Rogan’s egregious comments, that’s even more alarming.
Rogan’s podcasts both before and after he joined forces with Spotify are filled with cringe-inducing remarks. The host once described going to a movie in a predominantly Black neighborhood as entering into the “Planet of the Apes, we walked into Africa.” In other instances, Rogan has denigrated women, calling them “crazy” along with an expletive, and disparaging some as “gold digging” and “alpha predator” females.
Then there is overt racism against people of Asian descent. Here is Rogan joyfully bantering with a guest as she talks in an offensive caricature of an Asian voice while lamenting that making fun of accents is now frowned upon. In another clip, he joins in.
I winced as I watched the clips. Like all Asian-Americans, I endured xenophobic taunts growing up. It’s troubling to know that a podcast with an audience this large risks normalizing casual bigotry for a generation of young listeners.
If Rogan wants to fill his interviews with prejudice and misogyny that’s his prerogative, but Spotify has no excuse. Continuing to associate with him is shameful.
By sticking with Rogan, Spotify risks more than embarrassment. The podcast could make recruiting and retaining workers tougher for the company in an industry where competition for talent is fierce. Ek certainly knows that, and it’s no surprise that his apology over the weekend was directed at Spotify employees.
Ek said that Rogan’s remarks don’t reflect Spotify’s values. It’s time for the company to show it by ending the relationship.