The Guide #20: Joe Rogan is just one rogue in podcasting’s wild west

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Guide – I’m filling in for Gwilym Mumford with your roundup of recommendations for what to read, watch and listen to, and pop cultural conversation starters.

On that note, has there been a bigger cultural conversation starter this week than the beef between Neil Young and Joe Rogan (and by extension a little streaming service called Spotify)? Rogan, a man described by the New York Times as “Oprah for the Creatine-taking set”, sold the rights to his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience to the music/tech giants for $100m in 2020. Fast forward to 2022, and he has been accused by experts of spreading vaccine misinformation on his show – not least through an interview with a controversial vaccine scientist and sceptic, Dr Robert Malone, who claimed that the public had been “hypnotised” into following Covid rules.

Neil Young – godfather of grunge, veteran of rock – withdrew his music from the streaming service in protest, followed by Joni Mitchell, podcaster Brené Brown, comedian Stewart Lee and a smattering of other musicians. While it seems unlikely that this exodus will bring down Spotify, who control 31% of the music streaming market worldwide, stranger things have happened (and imagine what would happen if Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran joined in?)

Perhaps though, besides restarting tired “culture war” conversations about free speech, the biggest thing that this whole affair highlights is the fact that podcasting – even in its most high-profile form – is something of a wild west. Spotify has said it will add warnings to podcasts which discuss coronavirus, advising listeners to do their own research … but is it a case of too little too late?

Unsafe and sound

Spotify is, to many, merely a music streaming company, but the Swedish behemoth has been steadily investing in other forms of audio in the past few years, acquiring podcast companies like Anchor and Gimlet, signing up the likes of Rogan, and partnering with production companies like the Obamas’ Higher Ground outfit.

But even podcasting’s big leagues are devoid of regulation like that seen with television, which is presided over by Ofcom in the UK and the FCC in the US. A quick Spotify search for “Covid hoax” brings up a glut of worrying recommendations, including one show which claims in its title that Covid vaccines contain HIV.

It’s not just amateur shows which are a cause for concern, either. In 2019, the Guardian asked whether podcasting was “a disaster waiting to happen”, citing incidents including alleged plagiarism in the podcasts Crime Junkie and The Dollop, and questions around the ethics of Serial spin-off S-Town, which posthumously chronicled the life of a reclusive Alabama resident who died by suicide. That a major podcast might spread vaccine misinformation hardly seems shocking when you consider the US media market and some of other podcast controversies of recent times, including the New York Times retracting its Islamic State-themed series Caliphate after a central figure was found to have fabricated his account of life as a jihadist in Syria.

Meanwhile, a drama based on the 1982 killing of a Chinese-American man, Vincent Chin, was shelved last year by the company A-Major Media after Chin’s family and an activist who was involved in the case said they had not been consulted (“I’m not dead yet and it’s weird hearing/seeing myself fictionalized by people who have never tried to connect with me or the Estate,” said the activist, Helen Zia, on Instagram, who was played by Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran in the podcast).

Out of control?

Much of the beauty of podcasting comes from the fact that it is an accessible medium – you or I could start a series in our living room and upload it to Spotify or Apple Podcasts to share with the world. And, perhaps, Big Podcasting’s blind spots are a hangover from its beginnings as a purely homespun form of media. Indeed, Rogan launched his podcast in 2009, at home, on his laptop. Similarly, another Spotify hit, Reply All, started out as a venture by friends Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt as part of a startup, Gimlet, which was later acquired by the company for $230m. That Reply All later ran into trouble – via a miniseries on racism at food website Bon Appetit, which led to accusations of racism at Gimlet itself – is no surprise when you consider its insular, unregulated start.

Part of the appeal of Rogan and his ilk is that listeners feel as if they’re hanging out with a friend, albeit one who talks about cage fighting and the failings of the left more than most. Podcasts would be all the poorer if they didn’t bring in the quirks and foibles of their hosts, but – as this and other cases show – change is likely needed. Until then: don’t believe everything you hear …

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