In terms of scale, there are podcasts, then there is The Joe Rogan Experience. The difference is an order of magnitude. If The Joe Rogan Experience were a pop single, it would make Bryan Adams’s monolithic 16-week stint at Number One in 1991 look like “I’ll Be Back” by Arnee and The Terminators. The total pre-eminence of the JRE enrages and confuses the podcast industry, whose workers tend to be faithful representatives of the tote-bag class. As an article of faith, Rogan’s work is deemed to be at best crude, possibly a fluke, and certainly a sump for “disinformation”. Success leaves clues, but when it comes to the most popular show in the world, no one is dusting for fingerprints.
So the cognitive dissonance was palpable when the country’s first Rajars-style consumer survey of podcasts was published last week, offering the best snapshot yet of what Britain listens to. Much of the top 25 paints the UK as essentially and irredeemably twee. No Such Thing As A Fish — gadzooks trivia from high-end neckbeards. Off Menu: whimsical comfort-eating celeb fodder. The Therapy Crouch: Peter Crouch having a mind-numbingly pleasant chinwag with his missus. Shagged Married Annoyed: exactly what it says. The Rest Is Politics: a show built around the heartwarming premise that the last 20 years can be neatly scooped up and packed away.
But at the top of the charts were two shows that pointed towards something hiding in plain sight. A missing market: the market for men. Podcasts are a confessional booth medium, after all. Up and down the train carriage, no one knows what’s in anyone else’s earbuds. As economists would put it, they are an example of “revealed preference” as opposed to “stated preference”. What you actually want, rather than what you think you should want. And by their mass adoption of Rogan, it seems that what men want is the old tradition of the men’s magazine, continued by other means.
At the start of the 2010s, the last of that old world — the shining city on a hill of Arena, Select, Nuts, Jack, Loaded — finally fell away. We were told this was because there was a new lad in town. Softer, kinder, he could “do better”, if he avoided his inherent “toxicity”. He had the feeling of inevitability that all modern archetypes take on. Vice threw off its buccaneering spirit, and actively mocked its old ways. Even LadBible, once at the end of a scale that could genuinely be termed toxic, has reformed itself into the doughy shapes of the maaate cultural revolution.
The message of the new man was gynocentric: by 2013, the conversation among women had begun to guide what men’s interest media looked like. Men took note of this important new datapoint: they softened their image, nodded along. Then, as the podcast charts show, secretly went back to listening to bodybuilding tips, insane stories of shark attacks, reasons why the pyramids were built by aliens, how fugitive Nazis founded actual colonies in South America, what it’s like to kill a moose, and what Tim Dillon thinks of twerking children. In short, they went back to what men’s magazines had always been about. Not connecting with a sort of soft Jeremy Corbyn vibe. Not trying to figure out complex relationships.
If Rogan is the pure Gen-X vision of masculinity — basically every self-educated stoner at a 1999 house party, who has that old-school vision of hating both the military-industrial complex and political correctness — then the second-most listened to podcast in Britain is his Zoomer cognate. Steve Bartlett is a marketing entrepreneur who flipped his social-media agency into big money ($660 million at its apex valuation) by the age of 25. This earned him a chair on Dragon’s Den. Now, in his twilight years (30), Diary of a CEO is solidly wedged at the top of younger listeners’ (17-34) playlists, as the Edison Research survey confirms.
First listens don’t immediately reveal its appeal. Like many other podcasts — The Lex Fridman Show, Sam Harris’s Making Sense, Hidden Forces — it takes the format of “slightly naive guy interviews top experts about big picture stuff”. Bartlett is obviously likeable. He comes across as humble, genuinely curious. He’s marketed the show well, and curated his guest list better. They all come with their A-game. Information, certainty, high performance. It’s not a giggly show for kicking ideas about: it’s an earnest attempt to mine their life’s experience for info nuggets. How to get your brain off porn. When to double-down on a job and when to quit. How to build resilience. Being consistent.
In DOAC’s world, almost every insight is usable; no part of the buffalo is wasted. The past decade has seen an explosion in media-savvy self-help gurus, whose profusion has sparked a quantum leap in just how well-adapted and productive the average person can be. Bartlett is at the forefront of that codifying impulse — the urge to absorb all of it. He has that kind of mind: the stone-cold work ethic of someone never truly at rest. The very first episode describes his entrepreneurial origin myth: aged 20, living in the worst area of Manchester, working every hour, so poor that he resorted to pinching food from empty tables in pubs.
Bartlett is unique in many aspects of his back story (he was born in Botswana to an illiterate mother, for a start), yet he also sums up a particular Geriatric Zoomer/Young Millennial way of engaging with the world. He’s the avatar of what they call hustle culture: the obsession with putting in the hours in your own business or scheme. Here, the ultimate aim is to achieve a kind of earthly perfection that previous generations might’ve looked at as square. This is the New Man. He’s neurotic but well-adjusted. He works hard. He does not play all that hard.
Bartlett’s “internet entrepreneur” origins speak to the core of that hustle culture identity. He’s literally on the board of Huel, the makers of a wildly popular Soylent-style meal replacement. The “complete nutritional shake” is fast becoming a lifestyle in itself to a certain kind of 20-something man, and for boys whose bedroom furniture comprises a single pair of dumbbells. They are the ones filing life down to a smooth nubbin, until it doesn’t contain anything that doesn’t add to some personal P&L account.
This, young men often mistakenly believe, is how you get girls. Being industrious. Having your shit together. Making it. In reality, this sort of monoculture is an instant turn-off. But the task of living fully can seem so daunting that it’s easy to double down on an internet grab-bag of tips and tactics and sheer Nietzschean will. Cannily, Diary of a CEO also styles itself as the antidote to the problems of this way of life. In his origin myth, Bartlett “thought he would figure it out” when he made his first million but he “quickly realised he knew nothing”. So it’s a show as much about how to sustain relationships, how to re-examine your old ways, how to work around the dreaded Mental Elf.
There are many overlaps between how Gen X men view the world, and how the younger generations do. Both Rogan and Bartlett believe religiously in self-improvement. Both think that life is a hackable system, and delight in finding the short-cuts. But Rogan’s top paradigm is still open-loop. It’s ultimately a shrug. Did the Mafia kill Kennedy? I dunno, but it’s fun to think about. Can the sulforaphane found in young Brussel sprouts reverse the aging process? Well that would be cool.
With Bartlett, there is a sense that he does still feel there is an ultimate answer out there. That you can clock life. It’s an almost spiritual impulse, a syncretic belief in something better. All this hustle, it’s just got to add up to something. And in the absence of greater meanings, many are working out at a gnostic temple of the perfectible self. Overall, it might be nice if the world knew what to do with its biggest audio show.
The idea that “we the people” condemned the “Nasty Noughties” and its toxic men to the trashcan of history is a top-down reading that doesn’t stack up. In truth, the bits of masculinity we’ve suppressed are just living in a thumb-necked mixed martial artist’s basement in Texas. And the bits of masculinity we can still tolerate are on Diary of a CEO. With the blizzard of entertainment options, “water cooler moments” in media are supposed to be over by now. But what the success of Rogan shows is that there is actually a giant water cooler out there, that is accessed by millions each week, who try not to talk to strangers about it. Somewhere, there is a fusion position.