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The Voice

When Joe Rogan speaks, millions of people listen
| By David Savona | From Joe Rogan, September/October 2021
The Voice
Photo/Paul Mobley

It’s the kind of conversation that happens over cigars and drinks all the time. Two guys sitting in a cloud of smoke, shooting the bull as the talk meanders from topic to topic: the movie Goodfellas; wildfires in Malibu; learning to fly helicopters; can home security cameras be hacked; do those tigers in India really hunt people or just stumble upon them. If it weren’t for the fact this back-and-forth is going on in a studio between comedian Bill Burr and Joe Rogan, the king of the emerging podcast media boom, it would seem aimless.

This isn’t just two guys talking to themselves. Millions of people are listening, because this is “The Joe Rogan Experience.” The cigar-friendly chat, which will go on more than two hours, is the most popular podcast in the United States. And it has made its host, a stand-up comedian, former talk show host and trained martial arts expert a very rich man.

The podcasting world is growing quickly and becoming increasingly mainstream, and 54-year-old Rogan is its biggest star. More than 100 million Americans listen to a podcast on a regular basis, according to Pew Research Center, which estimates that 41 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12 has listened to one in the past month. The percentage has grown steadily and rapidly since 2013, when it was only 12 percent. The Wall Street Journal estimates that more than $1 billion will be spent on podcast advertising in the U.S. this year, a medium that Nielson calls “the darling of the audio realm.”

No one is a bigger podcast darling than Rogan. His is “the most listened-to podcast in America, and has been for eight straight quarters,” says Tom Webster, senior vice president of Edison Research. “The top show amongst weekly podcast listeners by a comfortable margin.” Rogan talks to all manner of people, from the famous to the infamous and the merely interesting. He has interviewed Quentin Tarantino, Mike Tyson, Bernie Sanders, Dan Aykroyd, Anthony Bourdain and many more. The conversation often has some form of alcohol, and increasingly it includes cigars.

Millions of people download episodes of Rogan’s show via Spotify, the company that paid him around $100 million in a May 2020 deal that gave the company exclusive rights for Rogan’s podcast. (In its year-end report for 2020, Spotify said “The Joe Rogan Experience” had already become the No. 1 performer on its platform in 17 markets.) And it’s more than just listening—millions more will watch each episode on YouTube. Views of five or 10 million per episode aren’t uncommon; his most popular, a chat with billionaire Elon Musk of Tesla, hit 46 million views in two years. Rogan is a phenomenon, his reach so great that when someone floated the notion of his moderating one of the 2020 presidential debates, President Trump endorsed the idea on Twitter. When Rogan talks, he’s reaching an audience greater than any news program (which top out at about three million viewers) and most hit TV shows. He’s a good interview, not afraid to ask a question when he doesn’t know the answer, not trying to play the expert all the time.

Cigar smoke curls up and around the nearly hairless dome of Rogan. A pair of black headphones sit snug against invisible ears, their headband angled back, pointing toward the huge American flag painted on the brick wall behind him. He and Burr have been talking for nearly an hour, and their cigars are about halfway gone. They are not in a rush.

The topic has moved to tigers. Rogan, wearing a tight Rocky Marciano T-shirt, his muscled forearms a tapestry of tattoos, throws out a series of detailed facts, one of his trademark moves. “It’s one of the rare places on earth where tigers hunt people.”

Burr is skeptical. “They hunt or they come across them?” he counters.

“Oh, no, no, no, they hunt,” insists Rogan. When he speaks, he often starts by looking down, or off to the side, before making eye contact with his guest. Sometimes his eyes go extremely wide, showcasing the intensity that has defined him as a person. “There’s an area called the Sundarbans, and in the Sundarbans tigers over the last 200 years have killed more than 300,000 people.” He pulls the information up seemingly without effort. 

Rogan is a busy man with a host of occupations: he’s a stand-up comedian, the longtime color commentator of the UFC mixed martial arts organization, a former reality television host, a onetime sitcom performer and a fitness and wellness buff. He’s also a monster on social media, with 13 million followers on Instagram. (His dog even has more than 700,000 followers.) But nothing brings him more attention than his podcast, which he records in his studio in Austin, Texas. 

Sitting down with experts is one of his fortes, and he hits heavy topics with heavy thinkers, in long-form conversations that go on for hours. Chatting with astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, they turned to the public education system. “People are bored. You take these kids with so much energy, you make them sit still, and watch something that’s not even remotely stimulating by a person that doesn’t care to be there,” said Rogan. “It’s the worst way to learn.” Tyson joined in. “I think the educational system needs an adjustment. Forget whether or not you go to college. What you want are lifelong learners, lifelong curiosity,” he said. “[Children] are all born scientists.” That podcast went on for more than three hours.

Rogan lives his life on the air, his feelings, interests and opinions an open book that are there to be watched and listened to. “I don’t have an off-air and on-air voice,” he says. He seems blissfully disinterested in toeing the line. He fires up cigars, sips whiskey and even smokes joints while he works. Furthermore, his words have impact, and he often ends up in the news cycle, seldom in a flattering way. In early August, he aimed his fire against vaccine passports.

“The problem with applauding vaccine passports—this is part of the problem—they are not going to give that power up,” he said, holding a cigar in hand, swinging it for emphasis. “As soon as you give politicians power, any kind of power that didn’t exist previously, historically, they don’t relinquish that power. They find new reasons to use it.” Rogan’s voice grew a little louder as he spoke, going on about the problems with empowering politicians. “Now you have a mini dictator. You have one step away from a king . . . . You’re moving one step closer to dictatorship . . . . That’s what’s going to happen with a vaccine passport.”

A 14-minute YouTube clip from that conversation went live on August 6. In a week, it had blown past 2 million views and had been mentioned on the news. It wasn’t the first time Rogan has grown animated over the pandemic. In April, when he questioned whether the young and healthy should get vaccinated, it prompted a response from the Biden administration. “I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. Rogan backed off. “I’m not an anti-vax person,” he said on a subsequent show. “I believe they’re safe.”

Chatting with Musk, whom he has interviewed more than once, Rogan peppered the billionaire with all manner of questions. One was the potential future threat of artificial intelligence. “Is A.I. one of your main worries about the future?” Rogan asked. “It’s not necessarily bad. It’s definitely going to be outside of human control,” answered Musk. “The thing that’s going to be tricky here is it’s going to be very tempting to use A.I. as a weapon. So the on-ramp to serious A.I., the danger is going to be more humans using it against each other, I think. That will be the danger.”

Danger is a topic that intrigues Rogan. And to those who only know him from his time around the UFC (where he serves as an exceedingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentator) or via his posts about his intense workout regimens he might seem to exude an element of danger. His exterior is a reaction to the violence he witnessed as a young boy.

Rogan was born in New Jersey in 1967. His father, also named Joe, was a police officer. “My big memory from my childhood is my mother coming home with hamburger meat, and my father being upset that it was hamburger that she had brought home for dinner, and he beat the shit out of her,” he recounted during a podcast interview with Marc Maron. It wasn’t the first time the beatings took place. According to Rogan, they were a regular event, and that day was the breaking point. “We left,” he said. “I just remember all of a sudden we were staying at my grandfather’s.” Rogan was four or five years old at the time.

His mother remarried, and Rogan moved with her and his stepfather to San Francisco for a few years. His stepfather, whom Rogan has called “a good guy” was a computer programmer who later changed careers and became an architect, which meant moving around. It also left Rogan on his own for much of his time. “No one was around,” said Rogan. “I was a latchkey kid.” The family moved to Florida and then to Massachusetts, where Rogan lived until he was in his mid 20s. The memories of his father beating his mother left their mark on him, as did the bullying that came with being a small kid who was always the new guy in town. “Kids would pick on me and I didn’t know how to fight. It drove me crazy,” he said in a 2017 podcast. “So I decided to learn martial arts.” As with many things in Rogan’s life, he immersed himself in what he was studying. “I have a real issue with obsession,” he has said. “As a child, the only thing that ever gave me a real feeling of self-esteem was accomplishing things, getting good at things. So I get obsessed with getting real good at things.” Martial arts became this thing when he was young. “Really from 15 on, that’s all I did, every day.” He became exceptional, winning championships in full-contact tae kwon do. Unwittingly, his march into the world of combat sports would lead to his comedic career.

The tension before matches was heavy, and Rogan and his fellow competitors were often nervous, so he became the go-to guy who would try to make people laugh. “I got talked into doing standup by my friends in martial arts . . . . We would go to
compete or we would be about to spar, and I would be the guy who would make everybody laugh,” he says. “This was long before I ever thought of being a comedian. I was just trying to lighten the mood. This is why I got into stand-up.” A friend grabbed him by the shoulders and told him he was destined to be a comedian, and Rogan took the stage at a comedy club in Boston in 1988, in an open mic night. He was 21.

“As soon as I started doing comedy and going on the road it was like oh my God. I found this thing. I found a thing that just works. It fits into my DNA. It just makes sense,” Rogan has said. Stand-up led to television work, notably the NBC comedy “NewsRadio,” which aired from 1995 to 1999. The project that really ignited his star (and made him a considerable amount of money) was his gig hosting “Fear Factor,” which began in 2001. The NBC reality show was extreme—to say the least. “I’m Joe Rogan and this is ‘Fear Factor.’ The stunts you’re about to see were all designed and supervised by trained professionals. They are extremely dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone, anywhere, anytime,” Rogan would say by way of introduction. The extreme program pitted contestants in physical and mental challenges—crawling through dark tunnels, dealing with all manner of insects, close up encounters with rats—let’s just say it wasn’t “Masterpiece Theater.”

One episode also allowed Rogan a chance to show off some of his training. When a husband/wife team grew incensed after losing a challenge, the wife punched a fellow contestant who had been razzing her from the sidelines, prompting Rogan to admonish her for assaulting someone, which prompted her husband to get in Rogan’s face. Now, Rogan isn’t tall (his height, like so many things about him, is the topic of much conversation on the Internet; he’s around five-foot-eight) but he’s undeniably fit, strong and skilled. He works out frequently and intensely, doing jujitsu, swinging kettlebells with faces shaped like angry apes and kicking bags with savage intensity. When the husband looked like he was going to throw a punch, Rogan grabbed him by the neck or ears (it’s hard to tell) and rendered him incapable of doing any harm. A fellow contestant broke up the scuffle.

Of “Fear Factor” Rogan says: “It was great financially and sometimes it was fun to do, but there were a lot of times I didn’t enjoy it at all.” 

Any viewer of “Fear Factor” would have been hard-pressed to predict that this wild, extreme show would lead its host to the most listened-to podcast in the world, a show where he sits down with world leaders and intellectuals, but on December 24, 2009, Rogan recorded his first episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.” The rest is history.

Rogan does several shows a week, and hasn’t given up his other pursuits. He still is a color commentator for the UFC,
something he’s done since 1997. (“He’s the best fight announcer who has ever called a fight in the history of fighting,” UFC president Dana White told Rolling Stone in 2015.) And he continues doing stand-up comedy, despite not needing the money. “I love it as much now as ever. I don’t have to do it,” he has said. “I would do five, six shows a fucking week in town. I love it.” When this issue comes off the press, he’ll be in the midst of a multistate comedy tour, playing venues that include New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Rogan openly enjoys drinking spirits. The drinks come out early and often on his show, and Bourbon is one of his favorites, but he’s open to other drinks as well. When Aykroyd visited, they sipped the vodka that the comedian developed, Crystal Head. But he takes off a month of drinking each year in the fall—Sober October—and when he stayed off the booze one recent October he found a new love. “I did Sober October, and during the month of October no drinking at all, and I started smoking cigars,” he said on one show, while puffing away. Now he smokes often on the show, typically puffing on something from Foundation Cigar Co., a producer he has called out by name on several occasions. After Foundation made him some special smokes with his podcast logo and his image, he asked fellow podcast host Ari Shaffir, “Want a cigar? How about a cigar with my face on it?” The cigars are dark, made with Connecticut broadleaf wrappers.

Most times he’s smoking something bigger, but when he sat down with comedian Ron White, he puffed away on miniature Romeo y Julietas. “These little cigars are really good,” Rogan said, taking a puff at the start of their chat, done during the pandemic. White revealed that they are his golf course smoke, a break from the larger smokes he typically enjoys. 

Just when you think you might have Rogan figured out, he becomes hard to pigeonhole. Talking with fervent gun owner Ted Nugent, Rogan, a man who hunts and eats his own meat, a man who seems to be the very symbol of pushing for freedom, pushed back on the notion of gun freedom. Nugent said, “The anti gunners have their dream: it exists. It’s called a gun-free zone. Where free people are forced into unarmed helplessness where the most lives are lost.” Rogan countered: “Let me stop you . . . . the real gun-free zone would be no one having access to the gun that killed these people in a gun-free zone. So it’s not a gun-free zone.” 

He also has the occasional soft side. On a podcast talking about dogs with director Kevin Smith, the two men both got weepy talking about having to put down sick dogs. “It was the hardest thing in the world to do,” said Smith.

In 2009, Rogan married Jessica Ditzel, and they have two daughters, a teenager and a pre-teen. Rogan is also a stepfather to Ditzel’s daughter from a previous relationship. Of course, being Rogan’s daughter means you get up close and personal to martial arts. “My kids are allowed to hit me as hard as they can. I teach them—they’re
taking martial arts classes—but I teach them . . . . it hurts.” He wants them to know how to defend themselves, to know “what it’s like to struggle with a person.” To prepare them for the
battles they might face in the future.

“I went from being a kid who was terrified of conflict to being a martial arts champion. The reason why I became a martial arts champion is I was being picked on all the time,” said Rogan. “I was like, I do not like this. So I am going to become what I am terrified of.”

In the end, Rogan is a man who obviously enjoys the art of conversation, someone who gets off on debating a topic and adding his point of view. And above all, he gets excited when he can add to his body of knowledge. That fervor was palpable during a conversation about addiction with actor and comedian Duncan Trussell.

“That’s the nature of addiction; it’s like what kudzu does to trees—it wraps around your favorite thing in life and tricks you,” said Trussell. 

“What’s kudzu?” asked Rogan. Trussell went on to describe the invasive species from Japan that envelops plant life, particularly in the southeastern United States, cutting them off from the light and slowly killing them.

“It covers them completely and trees just die,” said Trussell. 

“That is a perfect metaphor,” said Rogan. “How did I not know about this?” His eyes light up, and you can see the gears clicking as he adds another fact to his active, eager brain. “There is just too much to know.” v

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