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Spotify CEO apologizes to employees for Joe Rogan backlash, says he won’t silence star podcaster

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Spotify Technology SA Chief Executive Daniel Ek apologized to employees for the backlash that has followed the emergence of Joe Rogan’s use of a racial slur in previous podcast episodes.

He said in a letter shared with The Wall Street Journal by a company spokesman that he has no plans to remove the star podcaster from the streaming platform and committed to spending $100 million on music and audio content from what he called historically marginalized groups.

“There are no words I can say to adequately convey how deeply sorry I am for the way ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ controversy continues to impact each of you,” Mr. Ek said to Spotify staffers on Sunday, referring to Mr. Rogan’s podcast. “Not only are some of Joe Rogan’s comments incredibly hurtful, I want to make clear that they do not represent the values of this company. I know this situation leaves many of you feeling drained, frustrated and unheard.”

The Spotify executive’s comments doubled down on his statements last week that Spotify is an open platform despite its exclusive deal to distribute Mr. Rogan’s podcast and that silencing Mr. Rogan isn’t the right choice. Mr. Ek’s letter follows Spotify’s acknowledgment that it was delayed in addressing outcry sparked by rocker Neil Young over Mr. Rogan’s shows about the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines.

Mr. Ek said in his letter that Mr. Rogan chose to remove some episodes from Spotify following discussions with the company and Mr. Rogan’s own reflections. Tracking site jremissing.com says 113 of Mr. Rogan’s episodes have been taken off Spotify since Friday.

Mr. Rogan apologized for the second time in a week on Saturday after a compilation video emerged showing how he and some of his guests used the N-word numerous times on his show. In a video on his Instagram account, Mr. Rogan said he offered “my sincere and humble apologies” for “the most regretful and shameful thing that I’ve ever had to talk about publicly.”

He said the clips were taken out of context and that they were based on 12 years of conversations. He added that they look “horrible, even to me.”

The influence Mr. Rogan’s show has and how much responsibility Spotify has for its content has generated significant attention in recent days. Several artists, including Mr. Young, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash have said they want to remove their content from Spotify for what they deem is misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines spread by Mr. Rogan.

Singer-songwriter India Arie said she pulled her music from the platform because she opposed the language Mr. Rogan used around race and the amount of money he makes from Spotify. She shared the compilation video of Mr. Rogan using a racial slur in numerous instances on his show, which sparked the latest outcry.

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

Last week Spotify publicized its content policies and created advisories for pandemic-related shows that send listeners to an information hub about Covid-19.

In 2020, Spotify paid $100 million, according to people familiar with the deal, to host “The Joe Rogan Experience” exclusively on its platform. The podcast has been critical to Spotify’s growth and expansion beyond music streaming. Mr. Ek repeated in his letter to staffers that he wants the company to be the biggest audio platform in the world.

“The Joe Rogan Experience” is the No. 1 show in 93 markets, Spotify has said. In 2021, Mr. Rogan’s show was the most-listened-to podcast every month in more than 30 markets, including in the U.S., said a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Rogan’s listeners have grown by 75% from the time he joined Spotify’s platform in September 2020 to December 2021, the person said.

Mr. Ek said that having an open platform was a core value of Spotify and that disputes were inevitable. Still, he said, the company could do more to elevate creators from underrepresented communities and diverse backgrounds.

News Corp’s Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a content partnership with Spotify’s Gimlet Media unit.

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