Joe Rogan launched his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, in 2009, but it gained relatively recent notoriety through Rogan’s exclusive 2020 deal with Spotify which established Rogan’s show as a leading global podcast. Past critics have focused on the podcast’s content, its more controversial guests and their headline-making moments, as sources of contention, rather than addressing the nature of its host, his public image, persona and leadership style, as the podcast’s primary source of appeal.
What, then, does Joe Rogan represent for his listeners, why does he appeal to them in the millions, and what can we learn about leadership from one of the most popular podcasters in the world?
The Joe Rogan Experience: Profiling Leaders
In titling his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan emphasises that, regardless of how famous his guests are, he remains the cornerstone figure of the show. The episodes are distinguished from one another by the visiting guest - for example, the episode with Elon Musk is widely considered to be the best Joe Rogan podcast episode because of Musk’s contributions, not Rogan’s. As the host, however, Rogan leads the show and stars in every episode. The people streaming and downloading his content are drawn to the appeal of “experiencing” Joe Rogan the person.
One source of Rogan’s growing popularity is that of his apparent authenticity and flexible, unaligned political agenda which many find refreshing at a time when other talk shows, news outlets and other forms of media are perceived to be increasingly politicised and polarised. Many consumers are either confused or exhausted by news of the current western political climate and its entrenched alliances with the media. The Joe Rogan Experience has risen to the top of the podcast charts as a result, providing content unregulated by network censors or political alliances. The fewer filters content has to travel through before it reaches its audience, the more transparent it can appear. And so, by publishing hours of uncut content in each episode, Rogan establishes himself as a sincere host for his audience.
Some criticise the podcast by identifying it as a source of potentially harmful misinformation, but this angle of critique fails to address the mindset of Rogan’s listeners: the quality or factual accuracy of what they choose to listen to is far less important to them than the integrity of its leader.
Humility, Flexibility and a Cool Head
As his listeners do for him, Rogan holds his guests to the same standard by criticising their attempts to sidestep his questions with evasive language. Whether Joe Rogan’s political views, ideas and criticism are astute, useful or relevant is another matter that isn’t particularly helpful when analysing his appeal as Rogan never claims to provide well-educated, thorough arguments. As stated in its description, The Joe Rogan Experience is simply a “long-form conversation” led by, first and foremost, a comedian. It doesn’t necessarily provide insight for its audience, just a leader they can trust.
Part of Rogan’s appeal, additionally, is in his ability to maintain a conversation for hours with someone with socio-political opinions that differ from his own and without, in most cases, becoming heated and launching into ad hominem attacks. One need only review the USA’s most recent series of televised presidential debates, during which not even the moderator was able to resist raising his voice, to see how Rogan’s show provides much-desired relief from aggressive public political discussions.
For those wishing to engage in a political discourse with their family around the dinner table without risking their relationships, Rogan sets a positive example for emotionally mature self-conduct. He is able to express his opinion and endorse political candidates while, most importantly, maintaining the ability to disagree with himself and change his mind when presented with new information.
Many may find Rogan’s flexibility and humility refreshing to see, especially in someone with such traditionally masculine traits. Masculinity should be importantly distinguished here as a set of characteristics, attributes and preferences of an individual, related to but also separate from sex and gender. Traditionally, masculinity has been solely attached to men; however, contemporary understanding also supports the existence and fluidity of other combinations.
For those wishing to engage in a political discourse with their family around the dinner table without risking their relationships, Rogan sets a positive example for emotionally mature self-conduct
At first, one finds in Rogan a level of vulnerability that is viewed by many as incongruous with leadership, a position typically associated with masculinity. From his history in stand-up comedy, to hosting game shows, to his time as an MMA commentator, Rogan has sought work in male-dominated industries and taken on typically masculine roles. And yet, one can track the development of his leadership style from loud and aggressive to relaxed and appeasing as his career progressed into podcasting.
The fact that over 70 per cent of Rogan’s listeners identify as men suggest this demographic’s support for collectively evolving and expanding masculinity beyond its traditional limits, with Rogan as their guide.
The Other Side to Positive Masculinity
It is encouraging to see a more progressive form of masculinity being adopted by someone in a leadership position; however, that being said, Rogan frequently undermines the positive example he sets for other men by reverting to more regressive places. In the past, Rogan has justified his homophobia as a defense of his right to be heterosexual - another characteristic traditionally associated with masculinity - by depicting gay men as predatory.
More recently, Rogan suggested that a trans woman was turned from being a man as a result of living with cis women for too long, simultaneously invalidating the trans identity, devaluing women and suggesting that they possess a corruptive influence over men, all with alarming efficiency.
Gay panic is a defense still used in most US states to justify the assault and murder of queer individuals. It is argued on the grounds that the attacker panicked upon learning of the victim’s queer identity to the extent that they became temporarily insane and therefore should not be held liable for their violent actions. Rogan’s reasoning directly contributes to the systemic homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny that works to preserve unjust legal systems that both blame and villainise victims of crime.
I’ve discerned that Rogan’s popularity stems more from his appeal as a person and as a leading host than from his ideas - after all, many of Rogan’s listeners can disagree with his views while continuing to subscribe to the podcast. Rogan’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community, however, hasn't originated from an article, book, or scientific paper he’s been reading and wants to share with his listeners; it is more so derived from the fragile parts of his traditionally masculine identity. In making these claims, Rogan expresses a fear that certain people who differ from him are threatening his understanding of what it means to be a man.
Rogan himself suggested that his podcast is so popular with the male demographic because he believes that they are seeking representation and a space for people, like him, who fear marginalisation as a result of progressive gender theory and the implementation of equal rights policies and laws. Rogan appeals to people who fear the devaluation of their rights more so than they support others gaining them at all.
Rogan’s peaceful argumentative style and vulnerability may be seen as a step in the right direction in terms of leading those towards progressive masculinity that hadn’t considered it in the past; personally, I prefer to hold people like Joe Rogan to a higher standard and demand more from them than bare minimum levels of change.
But how can one criticise Rogan and demand this change when he appears untouchable?
Joe Rogan's Accountability as a Leader
The New York Times published an article earlier this year titled “Joe Rogan Is Too Big to Cancel”. Whether this is true or not, cancelling Joe Rogan shouldn’t be the aim. Cancel culture is unproductive and only serves to shut down valuable discussion; seeking accountability, on the other hand, could be useful not just for those harmed by Rogan who are seeking justice, but also for Rogan in gaining respect and attention from those who have written him off as a bigot. Unfortunately for both parties, accountability is something that Rogan has always dismissed for himself, as many in positions of power are accustomed to do.
The independent nature of his show’s format as well as Rogan’s level of content control allows him to position himself as harmless. According to Rogan, he, as only one person, is ineffectual in comparison to his millions of listeners and, therefore, cannot be held accountable for their response to his content.
To ensure his immunity to criticism, Rogan reinforces his rhetoric with disclaimers of not being an authority on anything and that people shouldn’t listen to him, while simultaneously relying on people listening to him and respecting what he has to say in order to maintain the high listenership of his podcast.
This kind of rhetoric has the same effect as apologising before insulting someone: it’s hollow, and yet Rogan continues to use it, deterring critics by claiming that he supports women and the LGBTQ+ community before making yet another discriminatory comment. On one of his comedy albums, Rogan uses the reasoning, “If it’s not funny, then why am I laughing?”, in defense of making jokes that he knows will offend others.
Evidently, he believes in placing the onus on the receiver of content, not on the creator; the power of his podcast, according to Rogan’s outlook, is in the hands of his listeners. He doesn’t see himself as a leader, only as a harmless medium of opinions, and it is through his use of hypocritical disclaimers that Rogan seeks to persuade listeners of this. Joe Rogan doesn’t ask his listeners to agree with his opinions, only with his innocence.
It is for this reason that many fear Joe Rogan’s popularity and subsequent influence. It is less so his ideas and more so his style of self-absolving rhetoric that appeals to and is being adopted by his followers. The very idea of being Joe Rogan, of being untouchable and unaccountable, serves as inspiration for many members of dominant demographics who feel threatened by progressive change and social justice.
Joe Rogan offers a unique style of transparent leadership that has garnered great success for his show and for his personal brand. Existing outside the confines of more traditional, regulated media, The Joe Rogan Experience provides a platform for its host to experiment with a form of leadership that - seemingly - comes without consequences.
Madeleine Green is a freelance writer and intern for The Industry Leaders. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 with a degree in education, and her interests include sociology, literature and current affairs. Connect with Madeleine on LinkedIn.
All ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not The Industry Leaders.
Main Image credit: Sky News / Reuters
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