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 those lines.

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 priority.

"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 staged.

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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