Spotify CEO apologizes but backs Rogan after racial slur episodes removed

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek sent a letter to company employees Sunday apologizing for the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan but also backing the podcaster, saying he did “not believe that silencing Joe is the answer.”

The company was reported to have taken down about 70 episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience” over the weekend. On Saturday, Rogan publicly apologized for instances when he used the N-word in past podcasts.

In a letter to Spotify employees, which a company spokesperson sent to NBC News, Ek said the comments Rogan made in past podcasts “do not represent the values of this company.”

Ek wrote that Spotify has been talking to Rogan and his team about “some of the content in his show, including his history of using some racially insensitive language.”

“Following these discussions and his own reflections, he chose to remove a number of episodes from Spotify,” Ek said. “He also issued his own apology over the weekend.”

The apology adds another turn to what has become an increasingly winding saga in which Ek and Spotify have sought to protect their most popular podcaster (part of a strategy considered crucial to the company’s future) in the face of growing outrage from musicians and subscribers.

Ek said Rogan made the decision to remove the episodes and that he agreed with the move.

“While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realize some will want more. And I want to make one point very clear — I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer,” Ek wrote.

“We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope,” Ek continued. “Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.”

Spotify signed Rogan in 2020 to a multiyear contract reported to be worth more than $100 million, a significant move by the streaming audio service to move beyond music and into its own content as it competed with other services from Apple and Amazon.

Rogan, then already one of the most popular podcast hosts, has since routinely topped Spotify’s podcast rankings.

Rogan’s show regularly features a wide variety of topics, touching on sports, politics and entertainment to theoretical physics and pseudoscience. And while he has been criticized for giving a platform to people on the far right, the most recent firestorm started after he hosted Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who has recently emerged as a new voice in the anti-vaccination movement.

Spotify has maintained that the company does not act as the publisher of Rogan’s podcast, which Ek emphasized in his letter.

“Another criticism that I continue to hear from many of you is that it’s not just about The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify; it comes down to our direct relationship with him,” Ek said. “In last week’s Town Hall, I outlined to you that we are not the publisher of JRE. But perception due to our exclusive license implies otherwise. So I’ve been wrestling with how this perception squares with our values.”

Citing those ideals, Ek said the company would make a $100 million investment in “the licensing, development, and marketing of music (artists and songwriters) and audio content from historically marginalized groups.”

Ek said Spotify would also consult with outside advisers on those issues, a move that is reminiscent of Facebook’s introduction of its “Oversight Board.”

“I’ve asked our teams to expand the number of outside experts we consult with on these efforts and look forward to sharing more details,” he wrote.