CNN’s chief medical correspondent came right out and said it, only a few minutes into what would ultimately be a three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan earlier this month. “I like listening to you, Joe,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta declared, matter-of-factly, to the controversial podcast host across from him wearing a black Cypress Hill T-shirt. “I think you’re an authentic guy.”
Of course, it was more than bonhomie and an appreciation for Rogan’s authenticity that motivated the CNN health expert to sit down with the host who scored a $100 million deal last year from Spotify to move his audio and video podcast exclusively to the music streamer. Gupta confessed that he also wanted to reach Rogan’s audience — specifically, the audience that doesn’t watch CNN. “I thought to myself — if there’s one person, really, that I would have a conversation (with) and say, ‘Hey man, just listen to how I think about these things, and I want to hear about how you think’ … who would that one person be in the United States? And it was Joe Rogan.”
“Mmmm,” a dubious Rogan replied.
“It was you.”
“… How weird,” the host continued, as episode #1718 of The Joe Rogan Experience got under way. An episode, by the way, that would eventually generate a slew of headlines, as the show often does — this time for the way Rogan ripped into Gupta for CNN’s coverage of Rogan admitting he took ivermectin after recently contracting the coronavirus.
Without rehashing the particulars of that conversation or the back-and-forth about what Rogan said about CNN (nor CNN’s official response, in which the network acknowledged “The only thing we did wrong was bruise (Rogan’s) ego”), it’s nonetheless important here to appreciate the gravitational pull that Rogan — and by extension, Spotify — exerts in the noisy, fractious media universe.
‘We fought hard’
The streaming giant’s third quarter earnings announcement on Wednesday certainly underscored that aspect of Spotify’s identity, which sometimes gets overshadowed by its status as a music streaming powerhouse. At one point during Spotify’s earnings call, the company proclaimed that it “recently became” the top podcast platform in the US, used by the most listeners, according to the company’s internal tally as well as date from Edison Research.
“We fought hard to gain new listeners,” Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said during the call, about the company’s multi-year ramp-up of its podcast business. “And our success is not attributable to just one thing, but literally hundreds, if not thousands, of improvements that we’re working on in parallel for the benefit of creators, users, and advertisers alike.”
In hindsight, the Sweden-based streaming giant’s lateral move into podcasts years ago as an extension of its overall audio focus ended up being a brilliant move, ensuring that rivals couldn’t flank it as they raced to catch up on music streaming. Not that anyone should have been caught unaware at the fact that this has been Spotify’s ambition for a few years now, either. Indeed, a revelatory 2019 blog post from Ek himself laid out his vision for Spotify eventually becoming “the world’s number one audio platform.”
And why not? The global podcast industry alone is believed to be a $10 billion market, according to one analysis — and growing every year.
Earlier this month, Spotify’s chief content & advertising business officer Dawn Ostroff confirmed that the company now hosts more than three million podcasts (up from only about 185,000 in early 2019). Those include some of the service’s hottest commodities, like Rogan’s show, as well as the wildly popular Call Her Daddy podcast co-created by Alexandra Cooper. Spotify nagged that one a few months ago from Barstool Sports, securing Cooper with a more than $60 million deal to make Spotify the exclusive home of Call her Daddy.
And the deals haven’t stopped. Spotify also signed a $25 million deal with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Same with the Obamas, through their Higher Ground content studio. Journalist Jemele Hill, meanwhile, earlier this year expanded her existing podcast deal with Spotify to form her own podcast network — The Unbothered Network, the purpose of which is to elevate the stories of Black women.
“The Unbothered Network is more than just a content hub — it’s a space where Black women can hopefully see their full selves,” Hill said in a statement about the news.
Other recent podcast updates that Spotify has released include the launch of paid subscriptions in the US, as well as a few dozen new original and exclusive podcasts. Having multiple podcast studios — like The Ringer, Parcast, and Gimlet — under its banner also helps. Indeed, the company’s very strength, its expansive breadth of content, is actually anathema to Spotify’s closest rival in the podcast sphere — Apple.
Spotify vs Apple
The iPhone maker, of course, is a tech company that’s baked things like curation and an avoidance of mass appeal while pursuing narrow, specific markets, into its operational DNA. It also doesn’t help that Apple’s own Podcast app is objectively pretty terrible. The app has a middling 1.8/5 rating in Apple’s own App Store. “How can Apple,” one recent reviewer laments, “(one) of the first companies to realize how important user interface is, make such a convoluted and confusing app?”
Not that the company is sitting idly by and letting podcasts slip entirely from its grasp. Apple, too, has begun commissioning exclusive podcasts of its own, one critically acclaimed example of which is The Line. Apple has also introduced a subscription tier for Podcasts subscribers, into which more show exclusives will flow.
So far, though, it’s Spotify that keeps going from strength to strength in the podcast game.
Joe Rogan podcast
I’ve seen one estimate that every episode of Rogan’s podcast alone reaches around 11 million people, making it the most popular in the US for most of the past two years. But with his size, along with the attendant success that redounds to Spotify, has also come the kinds of questions and concerns that go hand in hand with being a media company.
At a conference this month, for example, Ostroff had to affirm that, no, Spotify will not allow inaccurate information to be disseminated on its platform. Which is a line that Rogan tests regularly. Like in April, when he seemed to recommend that healthy young people not get the coronavirus vaccine. And when he said recently that he thinks President Biden might not have really gotten a booster shot, which was broadcast live.
“We have hit a weird place right now,” Rogan said during a recent episode of his show, in which he interviewed journalist Alex Berenson. A frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show, Berenson is a coronavirus vaccine skeptic who has been banned from Twitter. In the opening moments of the Rogan episode, Berenson railed against “Pfizer and the lies that the CDC told people.”
“What’s really interesting,” Rogan replied, “is almost no anger (directed) at the lab in Wuhan … it’s almost like an inconvenient truth — that, most likely, this virus emerged from a lab.”