By Anne Steele
Spotify Technology SA's $100 million bet on Joe Rogan has put
the audiostreaming company in business with one of podcasting's
most popular -- and polarizing -- voices. Amid controversy,
executives are standing by that voice.
The deal to bring Mr. Rogan to Spotify is already showing signs
of success. His millions of loyal fans have made "The Joe Rogan
Experience" podcast Spotify's No. 1 show since arriving on the
platform in September, "outperforming our audience expectations,"
the company said when reporting its earnings Thursday. The
company's stock has run up more than 50% since the deal was
announced in May.
Mr. Rogan's show, which also tops Apple Podcast charts and other
rankings, has troubled some company employees, who in a town-hall
meeting in September expressed concern over material they felt was
anti-transgender, according to people familiar with the matter.
Recent appearances on the show from two guests -- first Abigail
Shrier, an author critical of transgender issues; then Alex Jones,
a radio host and the publisher of InfoWars, whose content has been
removed from Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify -- have sparked
outrage from listeners inside and outside the company who have
posted on social media to express their disagreement.
Spotify employees are encouraged to openly debate topics as
diverse as app updates and the snacks available in the office,
people familiar with the matter say. As the company works remotely
amid the coronavirus pandemic, many of these debates take place in
Slack channels dubbed clubs.
A recent thread in the company's #ethics-club channel centered
on Mr. Rogan's episode with Mr. Jones. Employees circulated
information on how to flag content for review by Spotify's
trust-and-safety team, according to people familiar with the
matter. That team is responsible for determining whether shows or
music on the platform violate company policies barring content that
incites violence or hatred, and can remove content if it crosses
Mr. Rogan's episodes so far have passed muster with the
company's content policies, according to people familiar with the
matter. Chief Executive Daniel Ek reiterated Thursday his desire to
make Spotify the "largest audio platform in the world" -- and that
ambition involves embracing diverse voices and differing opinions
as the company chases scale in podcasting.
Mr. Ek said that applying the rules consistently is his
"The most important thing for us is to have very clear policies
in place, " he said in an interview Thursday. "It doesn't matter if
you're Joe Rogan or anyone else, we do apply those policies and
they need to be evenly applied."
Mr. Rogan's show will begin appearing exclusively on Spotify
later this year; the exact length of his multiyear deal hasn't been
made public. Spotify has spent more than $500 million in the past
two years acquiring podcasting companies, including Gimlet Media
and Bill Simmons's Ringer, to cement itself as a publisher in news,
sports and storytelling.
The deal with Mr. Rogan, a comedian and former
mixed-martial-arts commentator who last year said his show had 190
million monthly downloads, brings the Stockholm-based Spotify into
more edgy territory. The reaction to his arrival suggests that
listeners and employees are increasingly trying to hold the company
responsible for the content it hosts, similar to the issues
encountered by Silicon Valley tech companies.
Before his arrival at Spotify Mr. Rogan on his podcast has
smoked marijuana with Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk. The podcast on
several occasions also hosted Mr. Jones, whose own podcast was
removed from Spotify and other platforms in 2018 for hate speech
after Mr. Jones said the 2012 shooting that killed 20 children and
six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was
Mr. Rogan retains full creative control in his licensing deal
with Spotify, he has said, though his show is subject to the
company's content policy guidelines.
At one point in September amid discontent over the episode with
Ms. Shrier, some Spotify employees asked for editorial supervision
over Mr. Rogan's podcast, according to people familiar with the
matter. The company denied the request and stood with Mr. Rogan,
who later retweeted an internet comedian's video mocking the
employees as oversensitive.
After Mr. Jones and Ms. Shrier's "Joe Rogan" appearances,
Horacio Gutierrez, Spotify's legal chief, sent a note this week to
managers telling them to encourage concerned employees to report
any content they felt broke company rules. The email was earlier
reported by BuzzFeed.
"It's important that they aren't simply flagging a piece of
content just because of something they've read online. It's all too
common that things are taken out of context," he said in the email,
which also suggested talking points for managers about Spotify
being a place for creative expression and diverse voices.
Some employees flagged this week's "Joe Rogan Experience"
featuring Mr. Jones to company moderators, highlighting his
comments stating that masks don't help stop the transmission of the
new coronavirus and that the polio vaccine caused people to become
sick. Spotify determined the podcast fit within its guidelines.
Representatives for Mr. Rogan didn't respond to requests for
comment. In an Instagram post on Wednesday, Mr. Rogan said he "fact
checked every single crazy thing he said," referring to Mr. Jones,
adding "he said a lot of crazy, but accurate things, and that's
what I've been saying about him for years."
Some inside Spotify said to The Wall Street Journal that Mr.
Rogan appeared to rein in Mr. Jones during Tuesday's show, steering
him away from topics such as QAnon conspiracy theories, a possible
sign, they say, that the podcaster is mindful of the company's
content rules. Mr. Rogan also apologized in September for sharing
misinformation on a podcast episode where he said "left-wing"
people were arrested for starting fires in Portland, Ore.
"I was very irresponsible for not looking into it before I
repeated it," Mr. Rogan said in an Instagram post, vowing not to
let it happen again.
Other employees at Spotify say they understand that controversy
is part of Mr. Rogan's appeal, and say he has made podcasting a
bigger force in culture.
"He is the biggest voice by far that's going to accelerate our
business, " said an employee familiar with the matter. "Getting him
on Spotify -- and soon exclusively -- is going to help bring a lot
more audiences onto the platform, and hopefully we can spread that
to other programming."
Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Journal, has a content
partnership with Spotify's Gimlet unit.
Write to Anne Steele at Anne.Steele@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 31, 2020 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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