It was a March Wednesday in 2019 and I was sitting in a green room in the San Fernando Valley. Across from me, a middle-aged man tapped at his phone. His face was tan and indistinct. In his lap he was holding a pile of red folders. We were both, it seemed, waiting for Joe Rogan.
Rogan's podcast, on which I was scheduled to appear, was supposed to go live at noon. Already it was 12:10.
"He'll be here," Jeff, the on-site manager, assured me. "Eventually."
The studio was an enormous, multi-purpose facility. It opened back on itself, torus-shaped, to include an MMA gym, an indoor archery range and even a sensory deprivation tank. The entrance to the recording booth was positioned off to the side, opposite from where I sat. It was there, in a narrow, nondescript, soundproof space about the size of a small school bus, that "The Joe Rogan Experience" had grown over the last decade into the most popular show in the country.
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Today, an average episode reaches an audience of nearly 11 million. More than 200 million users download the podcast each month. In 2019 alone, Rogan was reportedly paid $30 million, twice as much as his closest competitor, and that was before he signed on with Spotify, last May, for nearly $200 million over a four-year span. And while his listeners are predominantly male—as much as 71 percent of them — they're also, according to a survey by Media Monitors, "largely representative of the majority of podcast listenership," a demographic that also enjoys shows like "Serial," The Daily" and "This American Life."
To some, Rogan is a conman, selling bigotry beneath an awe-shucks veneer. Or he represents the torrid heights of faux-intellectualism unleashed by Trumpism. Or, conversely, his fault is that he's just too normal. Or the problem is that he means well but, in generously welcoming back the Alex Joneses of the world, he's shed whatever capacity for empathy and moral judgment he once maintained. The takes go on and on — he's the new Walter Cronkite! He's an insurrectionist precipitating civil war! — with varying extremity.
But this essay isn't about whether you should condemn or contextualize Joe Rogan. Instead, my goal is to try and convey, through a personal lens, what it is about Rogan as a podcaster that helps to explain why he's so popular — something inherent to his style that goes beyond his demographic appeal.
* * *
I was there that afternoon to talk about my new book, "Freak Kingdom," a chronicle of the countercultural journalist Hunter S. Thompson's political writing and activism in the 1960s and early '70s. Apparently Rogan was a huge Thompson fan, and his show was the final stop on a months-long publicity tour I'd waged between weekdays and off-days from the university where I teach. I was exhausted, the book hadn't done as well as I'd hoped, and my marriage of 15 years was coming to an end.
I had listened to a few episodes to prepare, but what I knew about Joe Rogan was cursory. How different could he be from, say, Terry Gross?
The minutes ticked past noon with still no sign from the host. I tapped my foot. I counted the ceiling tiles. I was reminded of Joan Didion's essay "The White Album," in which she had resigned herself to counting the console knobs in a Sunset Boulevard recording studio while waiting, along with the rest of the Doors, for Jim Morrison. ("There were seventy-six.")
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I counted the files in the lap of the stranger across from me. Why not? It seemed to help. I was first diagnosed with ADHD at the age of six and I've been receiving treatment for it, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember. Lately, moments like the one I was experiencing now had been coming on with startling frequency, and my usual approach at management, which included regular exercise, psychotherapy and medication, seemed woefully inadequate.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, which was already powered down — the prospect of it going off in front of an audience of millions seemed all too plausible — and stared at the empty screen. A few more minutes passed. Now it was nearly 12:30. At last Joe Rogan arrived.
He walked into the green room, I stood up, and we quickly shook hands. Then he took a seat next to the man across from me, who passed him the stack of documents.
Rogan was stout and muscular, dressed in a tight long-sleeve shirt he'd unbuttoned at his neck. His balding head was cleanly shaved. His jaw was sharp with stubble. He read through the contents of the folders carefully, pen in hand. Every few pages he'd scribble something on the documents and pass them to the guy alongside, who'd do the same. His posture was like that of a student athlete, reminding me of a boxer.
But he wasn't young. He was 51. There was a tightness to his squint that broke up the smoothness of his face. The hair at his temples, what was left of it, had grayed. Each time he moved the pen across a paper, the skin at the back of his hand corded and creased.
He finished signing papers. I was still watching him. He glanced at the man alongside, then at me, and shrugged. "He's my notary," he said. And he got up and headed to the recording room. There was no indication he wanted me to follow. I stood there not sure what to do.
His notary gathered up the documents and departed. His manager Jeff wanted to know if I'd like anything to drink.
"Is it too early for whiskey?"
In the recording studio, as I tried to settle in, Jeff brought me a glass with ice and filled it to the top. Rogan was sitting opposite. Things were finally about to start.
But there was a technical issue. The software for the live video feed kept crashing.
As we waited for his producer to iron things out I tried to introduce myself. Coming in, I'd known that this was probably the largest audience I was likely to appear before in my lifetime, but now, the nervousness in my voice shocked me. I was speaking quickly but somehow I could barely get the words out.
Rogan held up a hand. "Let's save it," he said, "for the show."
* * *
The episode we recorded that afternoon has been available to download for almost three years. Millions of people have done so in the time since. I've never been able to listen to it, let alone watch the video feed. It was only recently that I finally sat down and went through it again.
For an hour and a half, Rogan and I talked about, among other things, Hunter S. Thompson. Or to be more accurate, I talked. At a feverish pace. He hardly had a chance to break in. And when he did, I kept bringing everything back, without fail, to Donald Trump's presidency; again and again I connected our current political moment to the past, regardless of context. I sounded like I'd been handed a set of talking points.
"Joe's interviews are informal and conversational in nature," his producer had emailed me beforehand, "and generally run between two and three hours in length." Nevertheless, I'd gone in expecting an interview with questions prepared ahead of time.
Rogan wanted to discuss Thompson in a personal way. He talked about a visit he took to Woody Creek, the small town outside Aspen where Thompson had spent much of his life, with his children. And he told a story from his childhood — what it was like to watch his favorite athlete, Muhammad Ali, fight on television for the first time. "My parents were hippies," he said. "My parents never watched TV, and they definitely never watched boxing. And they sat in front of the TV to watch that … I just remember thinking, I can't believe my parents want to watch a boxing match. And that's when it sunk in at an early age that this guy was not just this heavyweight boxer. He was a cultural icon. He was a storied figure."
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About an hour into our episode the conversation turned to stimulants. Hunter Thompson, during his most productive stretch of writing and reporting, had taken Dexedrine, which is similar to Adderall.
"There's a weird tradition in journalism right now to destroy your body while creating art," Rogan said. "There's a big problem with Adderall today. Have you done it?"
My first book, "Hyper," was a memoir and cultural history of ADHD that included my personal experiences with different treatments for the disorder. It was published in 2014. I mentioned it to Rogan quickly, assuming he already knew about it. (He did not.) "I take 30 milligrams a day," I said." I also brought up, as an aside, a moment from the opening to "Hyper": an extreme response I had to Ritalin at the age of six. This only seemed to confuse matters further.
"I mean," he responded, "you don't have an issue that you need to take it for?"
It was a straightforward question: He was asking me to clarify what I'd been talking about — an opportunity to discuss my ADHD and why I was prescribed stimulants. I literally wrote a book on the topic. But I froze.
Five years earlier, after "Hyper" was released, I'd been invited by the council for Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) to talk about promotional opportunities. At their headquarters in Maryland I met with the executive board. I'd packed my pens and notebooks the night before. I arrived 30 minutes early. My shirt was pressed and tucked, my tie was straight. I was just another neurotypical, I told myself — I was together. I spoke slowly and did not move my hands. I tilted my head thoughtfully and listened when others spoke. Afterward, walking out, I was elated. Then I caught my reflection in the elevator door. My fly had been down the entire time.
Here I was now, on the largest stage of my life; I'd been found out. Maybe the zipper to my pants wasn't down, but I'd hijacked a freewheeling podcast and, at a rapid clip, gone from discussing Trump's totalitarian impulses to inviting the show's host to discuss my shortcomings — along with the psychotropic medication I was prescribed in order to deal with them. I wanted to get back to talking about other subjects — about Thompson, about politics, about America, about anything else — even though I understood that the way in which I was coming across on the show precluded the possibility of leaving this question behind.
"The world," I replied at last to Rogan, "is incredibly painful." That's it. I refused to simply say: I have ADHD.
He shook his head. "Wow," he said. "Fuck. It's crazy that we're talking about this."
* * *
Rogan had asked a personal, difficult question. He was curious and engaging. It was up to me, however, to go further. I wouldn't. I was the one making assumptions. We talked together for a half-hour longer before, mercifully, wrapping up.
Rogan's talent, during conversations with strangers like myself — with people who are often very different from him — is to isolate points of complexity without derailing the discussion in the service of correcting or contradicting.
That's why, in my opinion at least, so many people listen. And that's also at the heart of the recent controversy over COVID misinformation: Rogan's failure to challenge his guest Robert Malone, in the moment, over the latter's bogus vaccine claims. "If I were Joe Rogan," John Oliver said in response, "I would employ a search department if I want to confidently say things and not just sit with a laptop next to me fucking Googling stuff as it occurs to me. I would be mortified if I passed on bad information."
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But to expect him to correct his guests is to take away what makes the show — and makes him — so appealing.
Take my experience: By refusing at that moment to say that I had been diagnosed and was being treated for ADHD, I seemed to be admitting that I was consuming the drug illegally. Another host would no doubt have pursued that fact. (Some of his listeners certainly did, threatening in direct messages to report my "drug abuse" to my employer and law enforcement.) But Rogan let it stand.
My appearance would turn out to be one of the shortest in his catalog of episodes. By the time we finished up it was just after 2 p.m. I walked out of the small studio, buzzing from the whiskey, with the California sun brightening the windows along the wall.
Rogan was waiting to say goodbye. He smiled and, reaching out, shook my hand vigorously, a far cry from our introduction in the green room, when he'd walked in to find me panicked and restless with anticipation.
"I hope you sell a million books," he said, "and everyone is talking about what you wrote."
Neither would turn out to be true. I had a feeling, at the time, that this was the case. Still, his gesture felt sincere.
"I really enjoyed our conversation," he added. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believed him. I still do.