Spotify CEO apologizes for Joe Rogan backlash, but won't cut ties with podcast host

Joe Rogan has put Spotify in a tough spot, but the streaming giant is not ready to part ways with the popular podcast host despite intense criticism over his anti-vaccine comments and use of racial slurs.

Canadian video service Rumble invites Rogan to join platform to present shows free of censorship

Podcaster Joe Rogan, shown here before a UFC event in Seattle on Dec. 7, 2012, has drawn heavy criticism over his anti-vaccine comments and use of racial slurs. (Gregory Payan/The Associated Press)

Joe Rogan has put Spotify in a tough spot, but the streaming giant is not ready to part ways with the popular podcast host despite intense criticism over his anti-vaccine comments and use of racial slurs.

In a message to employees on Sunday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek also said that Rogan's racist language was "incredibly hurtful" and that the host was behind the removal of dozens of episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience.

"While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realize some will want more," 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 as some musicians, including Neil Young and India Arie, have pulled their work from the streaming service in protest and others could follow.

Spotify reportedly paid $100 million US to exclusively host Rogan's podcast, which now threatens the bottom line but is also a key part of the company's strategy to be a one-stop shop for audio.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, shown here during an event in New York on May 20, 2015, said in a message to employees Sunday that Rogan's racist language was 'incredibly hurtful.' (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"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," Ek wrote.

Ek said he was "deeply sorry" for the impact the controversy was having on Spotify's employees. Rogan, meanwhile, apologized Saturday for his use of the N-word on some past episodes.

Spotify's move likely won't sit well with one side of an increasingly polarized country where there are heightened sensitivities on race and vaccine misinformation, experts say.

"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," said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, speaking before Ek's letter was released.

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," Wihbey said Sunday. "This is a big moment of reckoning for entertainment and streaming platforms to see where the window is, what's over the line."

In his letter, Ek announced an investment of $100 million US to license, develop and market "music and audio content from historically marginalized groups," without giving more details.

An invitation from Rumble

On Monday, Canadian video-hosting platform Rumble, which has been shown to promote misinformation, extended an offer to Rogan via Twitter, pledging "we are ready to fight alongside you."

The company, with U.S. headquarters in Florida, proposed that Rogan bring all of his shows to its service, saying they would be presented free of censorship.

"How about you bring all your shows to Rumble, both old and new, with no censorship, for 100 million bucks over four years?" asked Rumble founder and CEO Chris Pavlovski.

"This is our chance to save the world. And yes, this is totally legit."

Rumble, popular among conservative viewers, has attracted other prominent figures in the past, such as Rand Paul and Marjorie Taylor Greene, after they were suspended on other platforms.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz posted his support on social media for Rogan to make the move to Rumble.

"Big Tech sucks," he wrote. "@Spotify gives in to the mob. Cowards. @joerogan should move to @rumblevideo."

Racist video intensifies scrutiny

Rogan's public troubles started last month when Young asked to have his music removed over concerns Rogan was promoting skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines. Other artists followed suit, including Joni Mitchell and Roxane Gay.

Spotify said 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.

The scrutiny intensified when a video compilation emerged last week showing Rogan repeatedly using the N-word. Arie posted it on her Instagram account, using the hashtag #DeleteSpotify.

"They take this money that's built from streaming, and they pay this guy $100 million, but they pay us like .003 per cent of a penny," the Grammy winner wrote. "I don't want to generate money that pays that."

Rogan apologized in an Instagram video Saturday, saying that the slurs were the "most regretful and shameful thing" he has ever had to address and that he hasn't used the N-word in years.

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," Ek continued in a statement.

Rogan's brand described as 'bro America'

Rogan is an odd mix of shock jock and host who leads discussions of public policy, arts and culture, Wihbey said, describing his brand as conservative "bro America."

His comments were clearly racist, Wihbey said, but he hopes that Rogan will see this as a chance to substantively discuss race and vaccine issues in future episodes. His audience may not hear the discussions otherwise, Wihbey said.

"I do think that assembling this kind of audience is important," he said. "He can say things that I think can move the needle."

Wingfield said the controversy could be positive if it starts a shift to discussions of racial stereotypes.

"I think that if Joe Rogan kind of learns from this experience and becomes a driving voice for that conversation, that could be really valuable," she said. "But I want to stress again that that's a pretty big if — and I don't know if it will come to that."

Spotify reports having 406 million active monthly users, up nearly 20 per cent from last year, and advertising has grown largely because of podcasts. Musicians still generate the bulk of Spotify's profits, experts say. The company had 31 per cent of the 524 million music streaming subscriptions worldwide in the second quarter of 2021, more than double that of second-place Apple Music, according to Midia Research.

Spotify Technology's share price fell 0.5 per cent early Monday in after-hours trading. It had jumped 9.2 per cent on Friday.

With files from CBC News