05 July 2022 06:27:25 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Podcasts can be a platform for civil discourse in vibrant democracies

Spotify’s Joe Rogan deal is said to be worth over $100 million as one of the most-consumed podcasts on the platform. | Photo Credit: YouTube

Podcasting as a media format has existed for over 15 years. Embraced by traditional media companies to put out their content for people to listen to or watch on-demand, podcasting became the first all-digital media solution to what people used to do for years. Record their favourite programme on VHS videotape or DVR for later viewing at their convenience.

There are many educational podcasts to demystify complex subjects in different fields, but a relatively new entrant in this format has been podcast conversations. These are when somebody skilled at asking guests probing questions holds a long conversation and pushes the interview out to subscribers for consumption on demand.

The Joe Rogan effect

The king of this new media format is Joe Rogan. A former standup comedian and an actor in TV serials, Rogan delved into holding interesting conversations with people on YouTube nearly ten years ago. The program, called the Joe Rogan Experience, went viral and was only supported by YouTube ads. Rogan would put out a detailed conversation with guests, each about three hours long, three to four times a week.

There are numerous advantages to this format. Television conversations or even radio discussions are limited by time. Producers are forced to take a commercial break often and keep conversations with people limited for fear of losing the audience when a conversation goes too long. Podcast discussions are not constrained by time.

They attract a large audience that nurses a deep quest to learn more about the guest. Sometimes, the audience wants to know about the worldview of the guest; or the guest's work.

People, especially younger people, do not have the time to read autobiographies. We live our experiences through those of others, so learning about somebody else's work satisfies a basic human need — intellectual curiosity.

The format has other advantages. The government does not regulate it in most countries. Language, diction, and free expression of thought all flow unconstrained without the interference of government sensors. These days, the censors at the big tech platforms are constantly pulling content down for not meeting their so-called elusive safety standards. Podcast conversations are exempt from the tech censors' knives.

There are thousands of intriguing people from whom to know. Some people are interesting for their views and how they've helped contribute to society. Others are experts in their fields, toiling hard in laboratories, classrooms, or behind a desk, and have accumulated vast stores of knowledge. Around the globe, as government and public institutions repeatedly fail to speak with clarity and authenticity, people have an innate thirst for learning from experts.

Joe Rogan has had more than 1,800 such three-hour conversations, covering every topic imaginable — sports, comedy, journalism, science, arts, politics, technology, and even spiritual, all forming a library of formidable content.

I heard a recent Rogan conversation with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. The discussion continued for more than two and a half hours in one sitting. Never before in the guest's experience had he been subject to such direct and aggressive questioning. The ability to hold the listener's interest intact until the last few minutes when the host thanks the guest is critical. The guest and host, each a master in his craft, deserve kudos for their effort.

The middle ground

Spotify, the world's largest streaming service, opened the doors to this frontier when they sealed a deal with Joe Rogan to pay him $100 million over a multi-year contract to move all of his copyrighted content from YouTube and continue creating new episodes on Spotify. Media critics chided Spotify for overindulging in a risky bet but are now scratching their heads. The JRE podcast on Spotify is the most listened-to show on the channel.

When Joe Rogan invited eminent scientists to his show, professionals who had questioned governments' approaches to Covid, the elite media world erupted in anger. Many called for Rogan to be cancelled. It is a testament to Rogan's star power and the conviction of his Spotify bosses that made Spotify ignore such calls.

The media company's position was that honest people deserve to hear different views about various topics. Rogan, a free speech advocate for years, provided much-needed information to people that they could take or leave as they pleased. Rogan was adding to the conversation in the public sphere, not subtracting from it.

Rogan not only survived but thrived, frustrating the media police. In hindsight, many of those conversations have turned out to be true. There are real questions about how the coronavirus originated and how alternate Covid therapies have developed. Facemasks are no longer required in most places, and many governments, including the UK and much of Europe, do not require people to be vaccinated to enter their countries.

These conversations have eminently vindicated Joe Rogan, who believes that having discussions with people with various viewpoints with whom Rogan might disagree is not inherently disagreeable.

Podcast conversations provide a way out of numerous restrictions the global radio and television industry has imposed on itself, afraid of pushback from elites in government and media. The format is ripe for adoption in vibrant democracies like India, South Africa, and Israel, which already enjoy robust press freedoms.

The free market determines the success of these programmes, and if conversations consistently border on innuendo and unfounded rhetoric maligning others, people will begin to tune out. And declining audience base is a death knell for quality programmes.