Arts and Culture

Podcast Profiles: Paul Karolyi of Changing Denver

Changing Denver's third season premiered on October 2.
Paul Karolyi
Changing Denver's third season premiered on October 2.
The crown jewel of Denver's podcast scene, Changing Denver is a living chronicle of a city in flux. Host Paul Karolyi consults local artists, historians and other experts to trace the evolution of the Queen City's character, one neighborhood, landmark or personage at a time. Buoyed by Karolyi's NPR-worthy vocal timbre, Changing Denver examines how various places and people have come to define the character of the Mile High City. Karolyi also hosts the Denverite Now and Denver Pizza podcasts and is joining forces with a cadre of other local podcasters to prepare for the Denver Podcast Network Launch Showcase on Sunday, October 8, at Mutiny Information Cafe. Westword caught up with Karolyi to discuss his various endeavors, the aims of the Denver Podcast Network, and his opinions on Denver's best and worst pizza.

Westword: How's the third season coming? It's coming out soon, right?

Paul Karolyi: It's going well. I have a draft for the script of the first episode done, and we're going to record the voice-over next week and edit it all together. It's going to come out on the second of October.

But this one is like a "ini-season, right? It won't be as long as the first two?

Yeah, we've only planned four full episodes. Maybe five, depending on how things work out. But there will be some supplementary stuff in the middle there. But, of course, plans can always change.

Could you give a quick summary of what the podcast is all about for the uninitiated listener?

Sure. The tagline at the front of Changing Denver is that it's "a show about our city's physical spaces, how we make them and how they make us." But when I'm explaining it to people, particularly people I'm going to interview, I say that each episode highlights a neighborhood or some other made space around the city through a relevant political or cultural lens. For example, gentrification would be a political lens to approach stories in Five Points.

That was the first episode, right?

That was the third episode, I believe. But it was the first good one.

It was definitely the first episode I listened to, and it sounds like I made the right choice. Anyway, the format is changing a bit for this next season, right? Like more interview-focused?

Not necessarily more interview-focused. What I'm doing differently this season is that I'm not focusing on neighborhoods or spaces as much as I'm focusing on people. So each episode is a profile of someone, but the neighborhood episodes were always a lens to talk about bigger issues, and the profiles are, too.

Which two or three episodes would you recommend to help new listeners get into the podcast?

I think number one is "Lakeside in Winter," about Lakeside Amusement Park, which is actually a little bit outside of Denver, actually. But that episode has got everything that I think about when I think about doing this podcast. It has interesting interviews with people who have a unique perspective on the place; it's an angle on Lakeside that no one has done before, so you'll be learning something new when you listen. There's just a lot of really interesting history in there. I talked with a guy who wrote a beautiful book — David Forsyth, who wrote Denver's Lakeside Amusement Park: From the White City Beautiful to a Century of Fun — and he's such a great talker that the interview forms the backbone of the episode. I also have an opening that's sort of fiction, sort of non-fiction  – I like to play with that, too – and the episode is capped off with a short story that I asked my friend Rebecca to write, and she knocked it out of the park. She really captured all the themes that I was trying to go for and distilled them down into this really nice story about a relationship. So that's a good place to start. Also, I really like the music in that episode. I try to use local music in each episode, and that one really came together nicely.

"The Voice of Arapahoe Square
" is another good one. That came out of a partnership with the Denver Voice, so I was telling their story and using it to discuss broader issues of development in that neighborhood and how it's affecting the existing population, which is mostly people experiencing homelessness. That one's fun because I got to talk to City Council President Albus Brooks, and I had this crazy idea to ask him about the Woody Guthrie song "This Land Is Your Land" and the hidden verses in the song; then I asked my friend Jackie to perform those hidden verses, and how his answers juxtaposed with her performance is very interesting.

That's something I've noticed about the podcast is that you put more effort into production value than most local podcasts do. It's almost like a public-radio level of quality, with the running music bed and thoughtful editing.  Was that something you insisted on from the beginning?

I don't think of it as higher quality; I think of it as a different genre. Like on Jon of All Trades, Jon Ekstrom is a professional, basically. His show sounds perfect every time; he's so good. Same with J.D. over on Left Hand, Right Brain. Those guys are way better at the technical aspects of podcasting than I am. But what I'm trying to do is different. I'm folding in clips from different interviews together to tell a broader story, whereas they're focused on one or two people for the whole episode. So that definitely was the genre I was going for at the beginning. I think I've gotten better at doing it as I go along, better at telling stories with different types of sound. I like listening to a really good interview; it's just not what I wanted to make with Changing Denver. I do shows like that. Denverite Now is mostly just two people talking, though I do like to fold in some other stuff.

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Denver Podcast Network
I'll come back to Denverite Now in a minute, but what were some of the shows that inspired Changing Denver? Because podcasting is a lot of effort for a very debatable degree of reward.

Yeah, I know what you mean. My role models were – and still are, really – well, Anthony Bourdain is a big one. His show is an inspiration; he always seems to find the right person to talk to that can get to the heart of an issue. Benjamin Walker, his show, The Theory of Everything — have you listened to that show?

I haven't.

It's one of my favorite podcasts. What he does, mixing fiction and non-fiction, is what I aspire to do. It's my favorite podcast, and I always want to be doing more of that. His protégé is actually now more successful, I think: Andrea Silenzi. She's so good at this, such a smooth speaker, in a way I really aspire to be. Those are the big ones. I mean, Changing Denver is also definitely in the format of This American Life. I choose a subject and then have different types of stories on that theme. That's basically what I'm doing.

Okay, so I'll circle back to
Denverite Now: When did that get started, and how are the hosting requirements different as opposed to Changing Denver?

We started recording six months ago. It's totally different; it's a weekly news show inspired by the New York Times' The Daily. The goal for that podcast is to give people a fun look into a local news publication. So my goal as a host there is to allow the reporters and editors there to shine. To showcase their work. So I ask questions that will intentionally demonstrate how much they know, how much they've researched, to develop an individual rapport with people or even prompt them to say the funny thing. I'd say that was my requirement.

Tell me about the Denver Podcast Network. I know J.D. Lopez from standup, and he's told me a little bit about it, but help me fill our readers in about what your goals are as a collective.

Well, it's an ongoing discussion between all the members, but so far we've settled on a few parameters — like the podcast should have a minimum of ten episodes.

That's a good way to weed out all the dilettantes who get into podcasting.

Anyone can propose a new member, including the hosts of the show itself. Someone could ask to join us, and we'll have a vote based on a simple majority: one show, one vote, excluding the Denver Pizza podcast, because I also host that one, and I shouldn't have two votes. But, yeah, a simple majority vote is all it takes for a new podcast to get in. For me, while I may not love every show, what I care about is seeing that someone put a lot of time and effort into what they're doing because they love it. Especially if I can imagine an audience for it. That's the case for every show in the network, but I also happen to like all of them.

What do you think the benefits of the co-op have been so far?

Well, we've been doing a lot of cross-promotion. And that's important, because podcasting is still relatively new, and I don't think people – as far as a general audience goes – are at the point where they're at with beer and coffee as far as thinking locally. But it's just as important if you want to support the arts or journalism. What I'm trying to do is offer listeners a new perspective on some of the most important things in their lives. Their neighborhoods, the places they are every day. So anyway, the benefits of the network so far are definitely the cross-promotions we've all been doing. But we're planning an event on Sunday, October 8.

Okay, so tell me about the Denver Pizza podcast. That's a whole extra show I didn't even know about.

Yeah, my wife, Megan, and I do it just for fun. I don't promote it much or even tell a lot of people about. Maybe that's why not that many people listen to it.

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Denver Podcast Network

Well, this seems fairly self-explanatory, but what's it about?

"It's the only show hungry enough to review every pie in the Mile High."

That's a damn good tag line.

Yeah. So in every episode, we go eat at a pizza place with one of our friends, or someone who's excited about being on the show, and then afterwards, we'll review it. I concocted this elaborate reviewing system, so it's really fun.

Let's court some controversy here: What are your verdicts for the best and worst?

Oh, I think the best pizza  is at Cart-Driver. It's a little expensive, but that's just the type of place it is. The pizza is phenomenal. For the category, it is very strong. Megan and I have a long relationship with Sexy Pizza, because it's a block away from our house. It's probably the place we go to the most, even though neither of us like it very much. And the people who work there don't necessarily make the atmosphere hospitable.

Are you talking about the Capitol Hill location?

Yeah. I hadn't been to the one on South Pearl until recently, and it's so different.

The Jefferson Park one is nice, too. Honestly, as a comedian, those are fighting words. I freely admit that they've essentially prevented me from starvation numerous times. I've eaten an absurd amount of Sexy Pizza in various green rooms, and I have been grateful for every damn slice.

I know. They do so much for the community; I have reservations about saying how little I like the actual pizza.

But that's your vote for worst, eh? You're throwing down the gauntlet?

Definitely bad, but I do think we've had worse pizza. Like a slice from Anthony's downtown was pretty bad. Also, we went to Black Sky Brewery, and it was great, but when we followed up another time, it was terrible. So that's a consistency issue.

Pizza heresy aside, you've been working on a fourth project that you've been pretty reticent about as far as details go.

I've teased it.

Do you want to reveal anything now, or if not, could you explain why you're reluctant to reveal anything now?

Sure, I don't want to reveal much. I'm not going to give you the subject matter. It's a story that I stumbled across about a year ago. I mean, the world knows about this thing: I just think I've stumbled onto an interesting angle on it.

But there's a local angle?

It's a local story. And it's coming from my perspective. It'll be a series all about one subject. I've plotted out seven episodes so far. But I'm following a story that's still unfolding, so I'm going to be producing it next year, as soon as the third season of Changing Denver wraps up. And the goal is – and I don't know if you saw this or not – but I recently partnered with Denver Public Library on a grant.

I had not seen that; please tell me more.

The Library and I applied for an Imagine 2020 grant from the city, and we received it. The program is called the "Podcaster in Residency" at the Central branch of the public library staring in February. It's a three-month program, and so that money is going to support the creation of the fourth season. And there are going to be some public-facing events that we can talk about as that all gets closer. It's pretty exciting, and I consider it to be an incredible opportunity.

Okay, is there anything you wanted to be sure to mention before we wrap up?

The big things that I think people should know about Changing Denver are that it gives you a new way to think about a place you've known for a long time; we feature local music in every episode.

Who made the theme song again?

Felix Fast4ward. And I have to say, it really sets the tone for the whole show. Also, Jeremy Zornow; he recently moved away, but he was the technical producer for the first two seasons, and he was great to bounce ideas off of. He also voiced all the old racist historical documents — of which there are many — so if anyone out there wants to take over that role, I'm actively looking for a replacement.

I want to ask one final question about Phil Goodstein. He's a local treasure whom you've had on several episodes.

I think he's been on four episodes. And he's going to be on even more!

If you're willing to deal with a bit of surliness and you want to know about Denver history, there's really no one better to talk to. Not the most responsive emailer, though.

He does not love email.

How did you first come across his work? Because his books and brain are an invaluable resource to anyone trying to learn about Denver.

Oh, Phil is amazing. I don't know where I first came across his work; probably an article in Westword. I distinctly remember seeing a picture of him and associating it with "Denver's Spookiest Historian," which I now think is a bit of a reductive way to refer to him. And he doesn't love talking about the ghost stories, I don't think. He wants to talk about labor wars and the history of unions, and stuff like that. But anyway, the value of Phil Goodstein and why he's so special is that he's just a font of information. You could ask him about any esoteric subject in Denver history, and he's got like a twenty-minute lecture ready to go. With jokes and bits! Yes, he's got an interesting way of speaking, and I imagine it could be disorienting for some listeners of the podcast. But I think as soon as you get on his level, as soon as you start getting a feel for his rhythm, it is eminently rewarding. Which is why I keep coming back to him. I love listening to him.

I get it. He speaks with almost Christopher Walken-like cadence. But it's very hard to be that concise yet that thorough while still being entertaining.

The other thing about Phil is that he's got such a strong sense of what's right and wrong that you know his politics immediately when he starts speaking. And I think that it really helps you understand something you know nothing about if you can see it through a perspective that you do understand. Because he's so clear and consistent in his critiques of overreaching politicians, corruption, greed and mismanagement of public funds, you almost trust him more.

Check out the third season of
Changing Denver, and go see the Denver Podcast Network Launch Showcase, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway.