This morning I finished listening to what is undoubtedly one of the most listened to podcast episodes in the history of podcasting. You can listen to it here. In fact, I would encourage you to listen to it not because I’m convinced that everything said is absolutely true, but because being exposed to ideas that run contrary to conventional narratives is helpful and even necessary for clarifying our own thinking.
This post isn’t about the specific content of that episode. It’s more about the phenomenon of Joe Rogan. On the surface of things there is no reason why people would look to a person like Joe Rogan to be an expert on much of anything outside of perhaps MMA, stand-up comedy, and the recreational use of marijuana. But despite the fussing and the pouting of numerous media-gatekeepers (and their online defenders), Joe Rogan has fundamentally altered the media landscape. I saw this graphic on Twitter and almost couldn’t believe it. After Rogan, the next five in the rankings are all Fox News shows. Rogan’s podcast has over 2.5 times the viewership of the highest rated shows on MSNBC and CNN combined! Maybe the comparison isn’t completely fair. It’s hard to categorize exactly what Rogan’s podcast is, but it is definitely not just a news and headlines podcast. Nevertheless, this UMASS dropout, former Fear Factor host, and UFC commentator is absolutely demolishing everyone in the ratings. People would much rather listen to Joe for three hours than spend any time with Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, or even Hannity.
Why? There are at least three answers.
- Joe Rogan. I am not a regular listener to the podcast. I kind of pick and choose only the topics or the guests that I’m interested in hearing about. So, I likely won’t listen to today’s episode with Carrottop, but I was very eager to listen to the episode with author Abigail Shrier. When I’ve brought Rogan up with other people, that seems to be a common approach. One of the reasons people gravitate toward Rogan is they identify with him. He’s not some condescending, painfully woke suit on CNN. He isn’t some blowhard who is overly obsessed about politics on Fox News. He’s just a dude. I obviously can’t endorse everything about Rogan’s speech or lifestyle, but there is no denying that people are drawn to his unique flavor of authenticity. He asks the questions that almost no one else in media is willing to ask. He calls people out when they need to be called out. He’s no pushover, but he is also respectful, never cruel. For years people have talked about a “beer test” with politicians. Who is the candidate that people would most like to have a beer (or a Dr. Pepper) with? They’ll likely vote for that person. I think the same is true about people in media. Anderson Cooper doesn’t seem like a good hang, but neither do many of the people on Fox. Whether you personally like him or not, there are millions of people from all sorts of walks of life who would much rather hang out with Rogan.
- Lack of Trust. According to Gallup, only 9% of Americans trust mass media “a great deal.” 33% of Americans have no trust in the media at all. The fact is that Americans generally don’t like and don’t trust people in the media. Journalists can grumble and complain about this, but they haven’t done much to address it especially in the era of COVID. People have lost trust that the media is telling them the truth. Instead, there is the fear that the media is there to merely prop up some version of the officially sanctioned narrative. If you think I’m being too cynical, take it up with the American people because this is exactly how so many people feel. That lack of trust goes well beyond the media though. It extends to almost everyone in positions of power. The condescension and lack of transparency encourage people to go looking for alternative sources of information. Joe Rogan invites people on his podcast that are simply dismissed with a wave of the hand by major media outlets. He invites people on his podcast who have been banned by tech companies for daring to question certain official narratives. He interviews people whose books have been removed from Amazon and Target for wrongthink. The hegemonic power of elites in our culture has virtually guaranteed the ascendancy of people like Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Bari Weiss, and Jordan Peterson. You’re only going to get more of these people moving forward. Gone are the days where certain outlets have a monopoly on the narrative. Now, despite their best censorious efforts, people are able and eager to find forbidden information. They are able to discuss it, think about it, reject it, or accept it without gatekeepers wagging their finger at them. Honestly, it would make sense for Tony Fauci to appear on Rogan. If Fauci really wanted his message to reach the masses, his time would be much better spent on Rogan than yet another appearance on MSNBC. But Tony Fauci will never appear on Rogan’s podcast because people like Fauci are a part of the gatekeeper apparatus. They will only appear where the official narrative is endorsed and defended. They will only appear where they are not seriously debated. And so less and less people will take them seriously. They may even come to deeply distrust them.
- Longform Conversations. In my comment above, some of you might be a bit defensive. “Joe Rogan is not a legitimate journalist. There’s no reason for someone like Tony Fauci to take him seriously and appear on his podcast.” Fine. But here’s the thing. Rogan is actually doing the job of journalists better than most journalists. He would actually challenge Fauci, asking him difficult questions that no one on CNN would dream of asking. So who is the better journalist? The one looking for a 10 second soundbite affirming what we think we already know or the one who sits down with a person for three hours and has a blunt conversation? The longform, conversational nature of a podcast means that Rogan is going to win every time he goes against cable news. You can’t learn anything or question anything the way that cable news is constructed. You just have a bunch of talking heads opining into a camera and pretending that it’s journalism. A longform podcast that you can listen to at double speed in your car and during your workout is just naturally going to be more popular and more relevant.