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In memo to staff, Spotify CEO stands by ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’: ‘Canceling voices is a slippery slope’

UFC announcer and podcaster Joe Rogan speaks before a UFC event in Seattle in December 2012. (Gregory Payan/AP)
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One day after Joe Rogan apologized for previously using the n-word on his podcast, Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek told employees that, despite mounting controversies, pulling “The Joe Rogan Experience” from the streaming platform would be a mistake.

“I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer,” Ek wrote Sunday in an internal memo shared with The Washington Post. “We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope.”

Criticism of Rogan’s mega-popular show, which is available exclusively on Spotify, has been building in recent weeks. Last month, more than 270 doctors and health-care workers signed a letter urging Spotify to take action after Rogan aired an episode the medical professionals said spread false claims about the coronavirus. Days later, rocker Neil Young and a number of other artists ordered Spotify to remove their content from the platform in protest. Last week, after social media users began sharing a compilation video that showed Rogan saying the n-word on multiple occasions, singer India.Arie also pulled her catalogue from the platform, citing Rogan’s “language around race” and leading to further scrutiny about the show’s place on Spotify.

Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, podcaster Brené Brown and more are standing up to Spotify for allowing Joe Rogan to keep airing coronavirus misinformation. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

On Friday, about 70 episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience” were removed from the platform without explanation. The next day, Rogan addressed the compilation video and apologized for using racial slurs, calling it “the most regretful and shameful thing I’ve ever had to talk about publicly.”

Ek’s letter to staff on Sunday said that Rogan, not Spotify, had chosen to pull the episodes.

“I think it’s important you’re aware that we’ve had conversations with Joe and his team about some of the content in his show, including his history of using some racially insensitive language,” Ek wrote. “Following these discussions and his own reflections, he chose to remove a number of episodes from Spotify.”

The chief executive added that he “strongly condemn[s] what Joe has said.” He called some of Rogan’s past comments “incredibly hurtful” and stressed that they “do not represent the values of this company.”

The controversy over “The Joe Rogan Experience” comes as Spotify aggressively plots a takeover of the audio industry, including the growing podcast sector. The company acquired Rogan’s show in a reported $100 million deal, and it has paid top dollar for other popular podcast properties, including a nearly $340 million purchase of podcast networks Gimlet and Anchor.

Ek said those ambitions sometimes clash with Spotify’s ability or desire to moderate content. As Spotify works toward becoming the top global audio platform, Ek said, “these kinds of disputes will be inevitable.”

Spotify’s stance in many ways echoes how Netflix responded to the controversy surrounding its Dave Chappelle stand-up special, “The Closer,” last fall. While a number of critics panned the highly watched special as transphobic, Netflix chief executive Ted Sarandos said the program did not violate the company’s guidelines on hate speech and violence, and he declined demands to remove it from the streaming service.

“As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful,” Sarandos wrote.

Netflix CEO argues that Chappelle’s new special, criticized as transphobic, is too popular to cancel

In an attempt to promote a diversity of voices, Ek said Spotify would spend $100 million obtaining and promoting music and other types of audio content from creators belonging to “historically marginalized groups.”

“While some might want us to pursue a different path, I believe that more speech on more issues can be highly effective in improving the status quo and enhancing the conversation altogether,” he said.