Rush Limbaugh's Lesson for Joe Rogan

Could you imagine a scenario where aging rockers Neil Young and Joni Mitchell could team up and force Rush Limbaugh to make an apology, and possibly moderate his content going forward?

Yet, that’s exactly what happened last week when the two no longer relevant Boomer artists threatened to pull their music from Spotify to force the platform to seemingly pressure Joe Rogan to perform a public mea culpa for two recent episodes of his hugely successful “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast.

It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of Spotify users had no idea who Neil Young or Joni Mitchell was before this past week, Spotify knew it did not want more musical artists to join the bandwagon, so the response to these “Boomers for censorship” has been to institute a content advisory for any material that features COVID-19 information.  Since then, a smattering of equally unimpressive artists has shown support for Young and Mitchell.

For his part, Rogan posted an Instagram video where he apologized to Spotify and clarified his stance regarding those two episodes and the campaign to censor him. To be sure, his response didn’t even come close to a grovel. In fact, without being heavy-handed he presented a pretty solid and reasonable defense against the rather fluid nature of the attacks on his content. Still, it was obvious that he spoke to an audience of one, which was Spotify.

“I want to thank Spotify for being so supportive during this time and I’m very sorry that this is happening to them and that they’re taking so much heat from it,” he said.

Spotify is the largest music streaming platform in the world. While it has made significant progress towards competing against Apple in the podcast space, music is still Spotify’s bread and butter.

Listeners to the platform have access to more than 70 million songs and roughly 3 million podcasts.

Spotify has 365 million monthly active users (MAUs), and counts 165 million premium (paid) subscribers. The company reports that most of its revenue, about $8.4 billion in 2020, comes from those paid subscribers. And most of those subscribers pay for the music, not the podcasts. This gives music artists more collective clout with Spotify than Rogan has.

Where does Rogan fit with Spotify?

In September of 2020, Rogan moved his podcast to Spotify in an exclusive deal that was reported to be worth more than $100 million, making it the flagship show in Spotify’s commitment to dominate the podcast space.

Prior to his Spotify deal, he reported that 190 million listeners downloaded his podcast each month, and roughly 11 million people listen to each episode.

From a business standpoint, it’s difficult to say whether Rogan has delivered on all of the promises of his contract with Spotify. But from an outsider’s perspective, Rogan has done his part to put Spotify in the discussion as a serious podcasting platform and the rising industry leader.

Here’s the problem. All it takes is a couple of 1960s retreads to force both Spotify and Rogan into retreat over fear of musician and subscriber boycotts.

Rush Limbaugh could see this coming

By the time Rush Limbaugh died a year ago on February 17, 2021, his daily, three-hour radio show had amassed a syndicated network of 600-plus radio stations across the country. Many, if not most of those stations, were on AM radio.

He connected weekly with over 43 million listeners. Those numbers dwarf Rogan’s current podcast download numbers, which themselves dwarf the ratings and download numbers for progressive media outlets, from cable news to podcasts.

No doubt Rush likely had the opportunity to take a big payday by signing a big satellite radio contract if he wanted. And if he would have chosen to enter the podcasting space, he could have written his own terms.

In 2019, Limbaugh himself spoke to the issue of why he had decided not to sign a big-money contract with satellite radio. He said, in a word, it was “loyalty.”

“Without the loyalty of radio stations, this program would never have happened,” he said.

“I have never thought, I’ve never even considered ditching them. Even keeping the program on radio and going to satellite, that would not be fair to the affiliates who have been with me from the get-go.”

Anyone who’s listened to Rush for any length of time knows he meant every word of that, but there is something he left out.

On January 15, 2021, less than a month before he died, on his show, Rush talked about favorable poll numbers for Donald Trump looking ahead at future elections. In talking about the former president, Rush shed light on his own resilience against the kinds of adversity Rogan is currently facing.

He talked about the bond between Trump and his base, and then he said, “Trump is the only person who can break the bond. Nobody else created it. The media didn’t create the bond. Trump did. Only Trump can ruin himself.”

Numerous times on his show over the years, he said essentially the same thing about his own success.

Despite numerous attempts to boycott his national and local advertisers, to misconstrue things he said or didn’t say to take him down, Rush only got stronger and attracted more listeners.

Rush had built a bond with his listeners at a power and scale that no other radio or podcast personality ever has.

In a business sense, Rush created that bond by not putting himself in the position of relying on one employer to fire him, to cancel him, or to take him off the air. Over the years, his syndicated network, fed by steadily growing audience numbers and advertising revenues, fortified the “Rush Limbaugh Show” against so many ruthless attacks from the cancel culture mob.

Rush knew that as long as he maintained that connection with those listeners, as long as he didn’t give a singular entity complete control over his business fortunes, he could withstand the relentless attacks. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell wouldn’t have stood a chance against such an operation.

Joe Rogan is no Rush Limbaugh, ideologically or otherwise, and it would be a mistake to assume he would even want to be. But there are some lessons for Rogan in the Rush Limbaugh experience.

If you are fortunate enough to create a genuine bond with millions of loyal listeners, you need to find a way to be the only person who can break that bond. And it starts with not giving one person or one entity business control over the off switch.

Image: Gage Skidmore

Correction: Rush Limbaugh's 43 million listeners were a weekly, not daily total

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