Joe Rogan’s mouth has put Spotify in a tough spot, but the streaming giant is apparently not ready to part ways with the popular podcast host despite intense criticism over his anti-coronavirus vaccine comments and racial slurs.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said in a message to employees that the company would not part ways with Rogan.
“While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realise some will want more,” Mr Ek said in the note.
“And I want to make one point very clear – I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer.”
The letter is the clearest indication yet of where Spotify stands on Rogan’s fate with the company.
It reportedly paid 100 million dollars (£74 million) to exclusively host the podcast, so dropping Rogan threatens the company’s bottom line but is also a key part of its strategy to be a one-stop shop for audio.
Mr Ek wrote: “We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but cancelling voices is a slippery slope. Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.”
He said he was “deeply sorry” for the impact the controversy was having on Spotify’s workforce.
Whether Spotify continues to keep Rogan or cuts ties, the decision likely will not sit well with one side or the other in an increasingly polarised America.
On race, the choice is between keeping Rogan and sending a message that society has become too “woke”, or showing that Spotify is more attuned to a multiracial society, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St Louis.
“If Spotify says: ‘We can’t drop him. He has the right to say what he wants,’ that continues on the line where there is this implicit support to say racist things on these platforms,” she said in an interview before Mr Ek’s letter emerged.
The streaming site also has to decide whether offensive words are allowable elsewhere on its app, where songs with racist, homophobic and anti-immigrant messages are available, said John Wihbey, a Northeastern University professor and specialist in emerging technologies.
“There’s some real self-examination to be doing beyond Joe,” Mr Wihbey said.
“This is a big moment of reckoning for entertainment and streaming platforms to see where the window is, what’s over the line.”
Rogan’s public troubles started on January 24 when musician Neil Young asked to have his music removed because of concerns that Rogan was promoting scepticism about the Covid-19 vaccines. Other artists followed suit, including Joni Mitchell and Roxane Gay.
The scrutiny only intensified when a video compilation emerged last week showing Rogan repeatedly using racial slurs. Grammy-winning artist India.Arie posted it on her Instagram, using the hashtag #DeleteSpotify.
Spotify said previously that it would soon add a warning to all podcasts that discuss Covid-19, directing listeners to factual, up-to-date information from scientists and public health experts.
“They take this money that’s built from streaming, and they pay this guy 100 million dollars, but they pay us like .003% of a penny,” Arie wrote. “I don’t want to generate money that pays that.”
Rogan apologised on Saturday, saying that the slurs were the “most regretful and shameful thing” he has ever had to address, and that he has not used the N-word in years.
Mr Ek told The Wall Street Journal last week that he took responsibility for being “too slow to respond” to the criticism over vaccine misinformation. It took the company five days to respond publicly to Young.
“It’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time,” Mr Ek continued in a statement.
Rogan is an odd mix of shock-jock and host who leads discussions of public policy, arts and culture, Mr Wihbey said, describing his brand as conservative “bro America”.
His comments were clearly racist, Mr Wihbey said, but he hopes that Rogan will see this as a chance to substantively discuss race and vaccine issues in future episodes – otherwise his audience may not hear the discussions.