When Podcasting Became ‘Dangerous’

I released my first podcast in the summer of 2012, eight years after the world’s first podcast was released. Since then I’ve learned a lot about the format. Through this internet version of talk radio, I’ve interviewed incredible people, found friends, and made positive contributions to my career. Podcasting has been used by comedians and commentators alike to express themselves and provide their unique perspective. 

Why is a technology that’s been here for nearly 20 years and been largely embraced by society as a good communication platform, been called out as ‘dangerous?’ I think that’s a question worth exploring deeply.

In recent weeks, podcast host Joe Rogan has found himself on the business end of a marathon cultural and political reckoning. His podcast has had a continuous run since late 2009, and amassed over 1700 episodes, most of them settling in around the three hour mark. These are well produced but almost entirely unedited. Thousands of hours of casual conversation with comedians, martial artists, health and fitness icons, and cultural players.  Calculating the likelihood of a conversational misstep in casual chit-chat is simply a numbers game. Talk long enough and at least one of your feet will end up in your mouth. And in the thousands and thousands of hours that The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), named after the Jimi Hendrix Experience, has logged, Joe has put his foot firmly in his mouth a number of times. Some of these missteps have not been pretty.  He has owned this fact, apologised when he felt it was needed, and frequently mocks himself with a level of self-deprecation that only a professional comedian can pull off.

So what? What’s the point? 

Speaking freely and authentically is the only real way to explore ideas, testing them to see which are wheat and which are chaff. This is authenticity. This level of candour and vulnerability is the path to growth, but it’s usually done in a low risk environment. It’s the conversations that we all have with our friends at the kitchen table, or in the garage, after a drink or two. Ideas and words are allowed in that space that are not allowed in a politically charged environment. Some would even like them to be verboten. 

Long-form conversations like these are a demonstration of genuine intellectual curiosity and an exploration into ideas and lifestyles that go far deeper than a three-minute scripted  piece on the news. Why is that so dangerous?

In a world where people can wear pajamas to the grocery store or where a well-timed sex-tape can launch the career of a billionaire, why can’t people make a fool of themselves on a podcast? 

Portions of society have made careers out of being offended on behalf of others. When those permanently offended individuals have their sensibilities insulted, when someone shares an idea that is just too horrible to confront, they feel obliged to shut that conversation down. Surely if they can’t handle it, it must be more than the rest of us can bear. 

Until late 2020, Rogan’s podcast was widely distributed on YouTube. Many people put their content on YouTube, which can be a lucrative career through ad revenue, a process called monetization. When this process is disallowed, it’s called demonetization. By default, many videos will be posted and YouTube will put ads on the front and often in the middle. If a video can rack up millions of views, it will definitely contribute to revenue for the content creator. When Joe brings on a guest that doesn’t align with the squeaky-wheel-brigade, pearls are immediately clutched and, regular as clock-work, efforts to censor him are turned up.  This has happened when he has guests who share their insights that may go against the blessed ideas around transgenderism, around politics, even around health topics. YouTube will automatically demonetize videos. This prevents the creator from running ads, cutting off their revenue stream. So, JRE episodes that didn’t align with YouTubes ‘values’ resulted in zero revenue.  On rare occasion, the video would actually get pulled down, but in most cases the video would still be available on the platform, but Joe (and his employees) would see no profit.

A knee-jerk reaction from the right side of the aisle is that this is censorship and goes against free speech. The leftist rebuttal is that YouTube (and all streaming platforms, by extension) is a private business and can do what they want. And sure enough they are and they can. The act of demonetization, in itself, is not a restriction of free speech. Those episodes still existed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a free-speech slam-dunk. If someone relies on their ability to make money on the platform, they now have a very good reason to not say the sort of things that will result in demonetization. Why say things that don’t contribute to your bottom line? This makes good business sense. When you have employees to pay, making money is not a matter of vanity. Here we can see how one’s responsibilities potentially come in direct conflict with expressing one’s honest opinions. This concern may be met with the unsympathetic and simplistic, “it’s a private business and if that content creator doesn’t like it they can go somewhere else.”

That’s true. They can. So that he could both express himself and maintain creative control over the Joe Rogan Experience, Joe moved to Spotify at the end of 2020.  Case closed!

Well, no, not really. It turns out that it’s not enough to take your toys and go play somewhere else. Calls to censor JRE have become louder than ever in the last couple of months. It’s not that he can’t say those things here, on Youtube, some think that he, and his guests, shouldn’t be allowed to say some things anywhere. Ever. And even if somehow they did, there’s no way that the general public could handle it- they are too pedestrian and simple to make up their own minds. This proves that the “go say it over there” argument is completely disingenuous and the desired effect is to truly restrict free speech. 

Whose Decision Should It Be?

As a thought exercise, I’d like you to look at your inbox. Quickly scroll to find the first person that you really don’t quite know. Could be a sales email asking for 10 quick minutes of your time, or an invitation to a webinar from a PR firm’s marketing director. Picked one? Now for the exercise. Consider for a moment if I granted that person full control over which ideas and conversations you, dear reader, were allowed to be exposed to. They get to say ‘this…but not that…’ and ‘Oh my! That won’t do. If they hear that, they won’t be able to make an informed decision…’ and ‘oh, I really like this. Make this 80% of their stream.’

This is a horrible, horrible idea. You know it and I know it. Regulation of speech is, rightly, a third rail in healthy and free societies. So why are we flirting with it now?

The Recipe for ‘Danger’

Rogan moved to Spotify and took the opportunity to remove a few episodes from his back catalogue, to clean up his own backyard a bit. Some were characters that he regretted inviting on the show, or shared ideas that really weren’t well thought out and didn’t age well. This was a demonstration of reflection and individual growth. 

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough that Rogan scrubbed his back catalogue of episodes that he didn’t like. He needed to stop saying things that were out of line with the mainstream perspectives. With other people’s perspectives. Remember the sales guy that was asking for 10 minutes of your time? The one who I gave full authority over your media consumption? Well, he doesn’t like the idea of you listening to free-flowing conversations that he doesn’t agree with. This, my friends, is the real reason why Joe Rogan, and by proxy podcasting, is dangerous. 

There are three essential ingredients to a dangerous podcast:

  1. Make your own observations (even if they do not align with establishment views) 
  2. Be authentic
  3. Be transparent

That’s it.

Make Your Own Observations

We have the ability to find our own information and make our own decisions. It’s part of being human. Because of our limited perspectives and need to rely on what others humans have seen and experienced. Information gathered from alternative perspectives helps us each develop a more thorough understanding of how the world functions. We don’t need less speech, we need more. There are no good reasons to fear facts or alternative points of view. When someone in your life actively wants to restrict your information diet, you need to consider why. Either you’ve lost the cognitive ability to make your own choices or they are trying to guide your choices to fit their needs. No one has a monopoly on the truth. Anyone can spin numbers, quotations, and facts in a way that suits them simply through framing them in different ways. This cannot be avoided. It’s through freedom of thought that we can observe these data points, and hold them up against other data points to see how they stack up. 

Be Authentic

Being yourself is easier than putting up a facade, but it comes at a cost. Some people will not like how you talk or what you say. That’s ok, because no one is liked by everyone. This is not a justification to be an asshole, simply because it’s ‘your authentic self.’ Healthy conversations must be had by mature people with civility and respect. 

Be Transparent

Everyone makes mistakes and missteps.  Own up to yours.  In this current culture of vengeance, spite and punishment, the mob demands a higher price for social missteps than in recent years. You’ll see this play out as ‘cancel culture,’ from a right-sided perspective, or as ‘consequences for actions’ from a left-sided perspective. Either way, a culture without a mechanism for forgiveness is destined for violence.  If we are to grow as individuals we MUST be able to make mistakes and allow for  the power of forgiveness. Establishment players are incapable of expressing that they made a misstep. If they did, the other establishment players would smell blood in the water and strike.  This is probably why trust in the establishment is at a seemingly all-time low.

Calls for censorship are made by those who have built a house of cards. But you can’t deny the breeze. Just a breeze. It doesn’t have to be a wind, a gale, or anything else. It takes almost no effort at all to discredit a facade.

I could be wrong about some of this. I’m confident that I’m ‘directionally accurate’, as Scott Adams might say, but I’m sure I’m missing something. The only way to find out is to put this out into the world and see what the world does with it. 

Please consider the power of forgiveness. Each one of us is flawed, and each one of us deserves a chance to grow. Don’t take that away from anyone.

Let me know if you want to chat.