Apple belatedly looks to refocus on podcasts

The podcasting industry was shaken up this week with the announcement that JRE is moving exclusively to Spotify and it looks like it has caught Apple’s attention.

Bloomberg reports that Apple is looking to increase its investment in original podcasts, as well as buying existing ones, to augment its nascent Apple TV+ service. While its easy to view this as a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, Apple seems to view podcasts as either a by-product of video content or as material that could then be adapted to video.

Apple effectively invented the podcast format, which derives its name from the pioneering iPod digital audio player, but the pre-eminence of iTunes as a podcasting platform is under serious threat thanks to this recent development. You have to assume Joe Rogan (pictured) spoke to Apple before recently committing to Spotify, so it would be fascinating to know what led him to ultimately reject it.

If hearsay from Rogan’s friend Alex Jones is to be believed, the straw that broke the camel’s back was supplied by the podcast’s other main publishing platform, YouTube. In an article that seems to have since been taken down, Summit News claimed Rogan told Jones it was YouTube’s censorship of alternative views on the coronavirus pandemic that pushed him over the edge.

According to the piece, YouTube has been actively excluding popular content from its trending lists, including some of Rogan’s biggest. On top of that, YouTube has been taking down some videos from doctors and other experts that challenge the conventional narrative on things like COVID-19 pathology and the desirability of keeping society locked down. Rogan’s move is characterised in the piece as ‘a direct strike against the culture of censorship’.

We don’t know why that piece is no longer available, but it seems unlikely that Jones would have fabricated his conversation with Rogan, even if he is often inclined towards hyperbole. Our best guess is that Rogan either didn’t intend his views to be made public or regretted it once they were, and therefore asked for the story to be taken down. The publisher, Paul Joseph Watson, has close ties to Alex Jones and both of them were banned by Facebook a year ago for being ‘dangerous’.

Back to Apple, the podcasting industry will be hoping Spotify’s move will lead to the kind of spending arms race and bidding war for talent that has characterised the video streaming industry for some time. Not only do podcasts like JRE attract massive audiences, they cost next to nothing to produce. The only catch is that the best ones are completely uncensored and thus risky for prudish publishers. Perhaps that’s ultimately what pushed Rogan away from Apple.

Major blow for Google and Apple as Rogan podcast moves exclusively to Spotify

The streaming wars have opened a major new front with the news that Spotify has lured the Joe Rogan Experience away from YouTube and iTunes.

For those unfamiliar with the JRE podcast, it is the defining long-form, open discussion show, featuring completely unstructured conversations between host Joe Rogan and usually one other guest. As a comedian and martial arts commentator, those two topics are covered frequently, but the guest list is very eclectic, ranging from academics to politicians to showbiz figures.

JRE has 8.4 million subscribers on Google-owned YouTube and while that’s a massive number it’s nowhere near the top of the list of all YouTube subscribers. But if you strip out the music and TV brands, it must be right up there. The real traffic for podcasts, however, is from audio streams and downloads, which Rogan himself estimates are around ten times greater that video views. The biggest single platform for that is probably Apple iTunes, on which JRE is the second biggest in the US.

The raw numbers only tell half the story, however, with Rogan’s cultural influence extending even further, especially in the US. US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used a claimed Rogan endorsement for political capital at the start of this year while, more recently, Rogan’s negative assessment of the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, sent shockwaves across the country and beyond. Most recently, his criticism of how California is handling the coronavirus lockdown seems to have made many residents consider fleeing the state.

So for Spotify to lure Rogan away from these two internet giants with a deal that will be exclusive from the start of next year is a major victory and a significant blow to its competitors. The WSJ reports that it cost Spotify $100 million, which is serious money. While that’s great news for Rogan, we will probably never know if it pays off for Spotify, but if Netflix (where you can find Rogan’s excellent standup) is anything to go by, paying for big names is the way forward.

As you may have gathered your correspondent is a big fan of JRE. At a time when public discussion seems to be more shrill, polarised and dumbed-down than ever, Rogan offers the kind of honest, nuanced, agenda-free discussion that is desperately needed. JRE fans not currently on Spotify will have some serious thinking to do at the start of the year and the Swedish streaming giant is betting a lot of the new users Rogan brings will upgrade to premium services.

The only thing that could go wrong is for Spotify to in any way try to alter the format or censor the often colourful content. Netflix hasn’t and it would be very surprising for Rogan to agree to any such interference. “While Spotify will become the exclusive distributor of JRE, Rogan will maintain full creative control over the show,” assures the Spotify announcement.

To date the streaming wars have largely focused on video content, but this move brings audio to the fore. Once people start commuting again, podcasts will be more important than ever and it increasingly looks like you need to be a Spotify user if you want access to the best ones.

Incidentally the only pod more popular than JRE in the US is currently in the middle of a drama over switching platforms. It may be no coincidence the YouTube recently lured its biggest star, PewDiePie, back from a rival platform. In these fractious times, authenticity has become a precious commodity, one that the internet giants are prepared to pay top dollar for.