That Pesky Podcaster

Written 3 February 2022

I’m still on a Twitter break, while dipping in almost exclusively on read only mode. I often get the urge to respond or put something out, particularly if kicking back in the pub and scrolling through, but it’s reasonably under control.

Goodness, haven’t things blown up at Spotify? I signed up for my free trial a week or so ago (for the music really, I have used Podcast Player for podcasts until now which does me just fine). Neil Young, Joni Mitchell have pulled their music, apparently with the aim of pressuring Spotify to remove the Joe Rogan podcast (the host, his guests, or both being guilty of spreading Covid or vaccine misinformation or some such).

Anyway, I am a big fan of podcasting as a format: there are some very, very good ones out there (though it goes without saying that there is a lot more crud). If you’re interested in history, politics, international relations, finance or economics (as I am) then the material available for free from good podcasts knocks anything you will hear on the radio, watch on the TV or read in a newspaper into a cocked hat. The podcast format of long form, focused discussion with interesting people who are often not on the legacy media shortlists means that a whole world of insights and different angles through which to view the world becomes available. There’s practically unlimited bandwidth, which is what makes the Internet such a wonderful thing.

Joe Rogan’s podcast is huge. I’d heard of him, but didn’t know anything about him, but it seems he’s been involved in wrestling, TV and is now podcasting. A quick google turns up that he gets up to about 11 million listeners, which is pretty good going. I’d like to be able to say that this phenomenon of knowing someone’s name but knowing absolutely nothing about them is something new but for me it’s been a regular feature over the last thirty years. It reaches its apogee when I hear about the contestants on a reality TV show or the panelists on a TV show: I usually have absolutely no idea who these people are. Increasingly I have never even heard of them at all.

Never one to duck a challenge, my job this morning on my walk was to listen to a Joe Rogan episode (I chose an interview with Michael Schellenberger, who was promoting his book “San Fransicko”, which I’d heard of and thought of reading but haven’t yet got round to). But that’s a little bit beside the point, to me I was interested in hearing a Joe Rogan episode.

So, what was the podcast like?  As he’s at the heart of a de-platforming controversy it goes without saying that Joe Rogan is extremely low status, his audience consisting largely of the ghastly deplorables in flyover country who don’t know what’s good for them etc etc. Scrolling through the list of guests I didn’t recognise many names (what’s new!). Ted Nugent was the first one I’d heard of (gun toting extreme right winger and huge Trump fan); not a great sign to be honest. Thankfully I found Schellenberger (episode no 1719 if you fancy tuning in) quite quickly.

Well, the first impression was that the episode is long (2 hours and 53 minutes) and I have yet to finish it. Now I really like the long form format that suits podcasts so well, and I tend to listen slightly speeded up (generally 1.2X) but nearly three hours is in Lord of the Rings territory. Setting that aside, I was naturally predisposed to be interested in the discussion (as I say I might read the book) and so far I’ve really enjoyed it. Joe Rogan is a really good interviewer: he gives the guest time to make their points, interrupts very little and pushes back with intelligent questions that move the conversation on well. I’ve got to a couple of points where he’s gone off on a little bit of a tangent to make what I suspect are his perennial points about where our current politics are. You can tell where he’s coming from as an interviewer, he does have a stance and doesn’t pretend to be impartial, but to be honest I’m struggling to remember the last interview I listened to on the BBC or Channel 4 where that wasn’t the case. So yes, Joe Rogan, excellent: I don’t think I’ll be subscribing, but I can understand why people might.

Of course this might be to entirely miss the point of the controversy: with a huge platform, the podcast might be endangering the wider public good. All the basic arguments on no-platforming really which I’ve been hearing in various forms over the last thirty or more years. I’ve never been convinced by no platforming I’m afraid, it is the refuge of those who are prone to the illiberal urge of wanting to control the public square. There are limits when it comes to inciting violence etc but I think these limits in practice will only be reached in very unusual circumstances. I just need to hear really strong arguments before I support people being denied a voice. Spotify, along with the big social media companies, are private companies and not public bodies, but I do think they increasingly own the public square, or are at least its guardians. It’s how they sell themselves, and I think there is a reasonable expectation that they similarly should err towards being very hard to convince on no-platforming.

I suspect this argument about Joe Rogan is likely to be the digital equivalent of tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. It is an argument between a few extremely online personalities playing to their tribes. What I label in my conscience as gladiatorial tournament social media clicktivism and grandstanding. It’s not debate, it’s not really interesting, it’s tribal signalling, and it will hang its hat on some new issue or another next week. But the broader principle of no-platforming is important, its advocates will never give up and if they win they will not have the faintest idea of where or how to stop. So on this one, Neil and Joni, I’m afraid I’m out.

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