As the podcast industry grows and continues to gain millions of listeners, it has become one of the most competitive and difficult industries to thrive in. For an up-and-coming podcaster with no production, marketing, and financial support, hours of labor are put into building a following around their show in the hopes that people can connect to it and share it with others. While musicians make as little as .0033 cents per listen, monetizing podcasts has additional barriers to entry. Even when a podcast meets hosting requirements for Spotify—one of the top music and podcast streaming platforms with 406 million monthly active users reported in Q4 2021—not only is it still extremely difficult to gain monthly listeners, podcasts on the platform don’t get a single cent unless they get paid through other means such as sponsorships or ad revenue from being under a podcast network like Gimlet, Wondery, or NPR. Smaller podcasts without a large audience end up having to rely on other revenue streams to be able to keep their podcast going. Some podcasts, however, get different treatment.
At the height of the COVID-19 Omicron surge, podcaster, TV commentator, and comedian Joe Rogan was in the news following an interview containing anti-vaccine misinformation in one of his episodes. His podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” reportedly reaches around 11 million people per episode, making it the most listened to on Spotify. Artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and India.Arie, announced that they would be removing their music from the streaming platform in protest of the misinformation and anti-vaccine dialogue Rogan had been espousing. Notable podcasters, such as Roxane Gay, Brené Brown, and Sophia Bush, also pulled their podcasts from the platform, with Brown resuming her podcast on the platform due to having a contract with the platform. Many users claimed to have deleted the app and ended their premium subscriptions to the streaming service. The backlash led to two statements from Rogan for the controversy and for his frequent use of the n-word in past episodes, a content advisory to podcast episodes that discuss COVID-19, and CEO Daniel Ek ultimately standing behind the streaming platform’s decision regarding the controversy during internal meetings.
Following Rogan’s statements, a script designed to detect missing “The Joe Rogan Experience” episodes found that Spotify removed 113 episodes of his podcast as of April 5. The controversy surrounding Rogan’s podcast and his behavior highlighted how, despite all the misinformation and vitriol that he amplifies through his podcast, Spotify refuses to hold Rogan accountable for his words and actions, all while reportedly paying Rogan $200 million for an exclusive license and its revenue growing €2.69 billion ($2.95 billion USD) year-over-year in Q4. This is in stark contrast to the many Black and brown podcasters struggling on the platform. Following the backlash, Spotify pledged to spend $100 million, the same amount many initially speculated Spotify pays Rogan, toward developing and marketing content for marginalized groups, but the vagueness of this move has led to some questioning whether this was something that Spotify only declared in order to start separating themselves from the controversy.
Without the proper structural support on streaming platforms, Black and brown artists end up putting in additional labor to grow their audience and revenue. The inequities reflect the demographics of podcasts as a medium where only 18% of podcasts are made up of non-white hosts, according to research conducted in 2016. It’s likely that this amount has grown significantly since then, based on the increase in diverse listeners that gravitate toward backgrounds and perspectives that are similar to theirs. But with the top podcasts on Spotify’s charts consisting of majority-white hosts under major podcast networks, there’s still a lack of consideration for Black and brown artists to get them to similar levels of success.
“The podcast industry regularly overlooks and undervalues the work of creators of marginalized identities,” Lina and Estephanie of the “Bag Ladiez” podcast stated in response to the controversy and Spotify’s inequity toward Black and brown podcasters. “There are so many creators who are doing intentional and thoughtful work with access to much less in resources. This is a reminder for the industry to invest in marginalized voices and uplift the perspectives of people who are not regularly highlighted in mainstream podcast spaces.”
The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), a group that advocates for the equity of musicians and music workers, pointed out in their #JusticeAtSpotify campaign that the average royalty payout on the streaming service is $.0038, regardless of who it is. This rate is nowhere near a liveable wage for an artist, leaving many of them to struggle—and Black and brown artists even more so. Spotify has not only been getting away with paying this minuscule amount, but they also conduct undisclosed royalty deals with major record labels that are estimated to be as high as a 52% share, only some of which is passed on to the labels’ artists, according to Rolling Stone. UMAW gathered more than 28,000 signatures from artists standing by their demands in a campaign for fair pay, transparency about contracts, and an end to legal battles intent on further impoverishing artists.
“I would love to see Spotify and other platforms step it up financially for BIPOC podcasts,” said Lisa De La Cruz, host of “The Wonder of Anime” podcast. “It’s not enough to simply just promote the podcast in a featured list in-app, they need to spend the same amount of money if not more on ads, billboards, radio spots, and more. They need to also offer more partnership and development opportunities for up-and-coming BIPOC podcasters.”
To some BIPOC podcasters, Spotify’s actions to counter the backlash they received, along with its CEO’s response, makes it evident that the company doesn’t want to hold itself fully accountable for Rogan’s harmful rhetoric. Rogan even recently said that he would consider walking away from his $200 million Spotify deal if he had to “walk on eggshells.”
“I think Spotify needs to own up to the fact that by putting this man’s show on a pedestal, they assist in the promotion of misinformation and harmful narratives,” De La Cruz said. “I don’t think it is enough to just pull out harmful episodes from the past and keep it moving forward as a solution. That only puts a Band-Aid on the situation, and curious listeners can probably still find ways to access those old episodes anyway.”
Giving Black and brown podcasters structural support would broaden opportunities for them and uplift them on the platform, allowing many of them to garner success, De La Crus said. However, that support is currently not in place.
Podcast listeners, especially those who tune in regularly, are vital to the success of a podcast, and it’s no different for shows hosted by Black and brown creators. To support BIPOC podcasts, De La Cruz recommends encouraging friends and family to check out some of their favorite shows.
“Word of mouth is still a very reliable way to gain more listeners or followers, whether it’s on social media, at work, [or] with friends, telling people about a new or existing podcast you love is a great way to get new listeners,” De La Cruz said. “If they can support financially through supporting a podcast’s Patreon page or merch, that’s great too. With COVID restrictions lifting, a lot of podcasts are also going back on tours and doing live events, so if they feel safe enough to attend, they can do that as well.”