You’d think that a podcast about Colorado’s tax laws would be a total snooze.
But Colorado Public Radio’s The Taxman is nothing of the sort; released November 13, the three-episode series deftly and entertainingly explores how larger-than-life Colorado politician Douglas Bruce led a crusade that resulted in one of the most remarkable — and controversial — tax laws in the United States: Colorado's "Taxpayer Bill of Rights," better known as TABOR.
Using This American Life-style narration and sensibilities, the podcast plumbs Bruce’s motivations while explaining the legacy of TABOR, passed in 1992, and what it's meant to require Colorado taxpayers to vote for any increases in taxes at local and state levels.
Given the enthusiastic response that the podcast has been generating — listen to it here — we reached out to the three reporters at CPR who put it together: Rachel Estabrook, Nathaniel Minor and Ben Markus. They told us what it was like working on the podcast and interviewing Bruce, and talked about the possibility of similar projects in CPR's future.
Westword: TABOR seems like such a difficult and technical subject for a podcast. What was your motivation to start this project, and why did you think it would work?
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Rachel Estabrook: I got interested because I produce a lot of the interviews that we do with Governor Hickenlooper, and TABOR comes up all the time. I didn't feel like a lot of people — even some people in the CPR newsroom — really understood what it was about. It felt right for a sort of explanatory piece, but then I started learning more about Douglas Bruce. He's such a fascinating character with so many twists and turns and complex motivations.
In September of last year...I was having lunch outside at a picnic table at CPR and told Ben [Markus] about my idea. He went and immediately found a Rocky Mountain News story from 1992 — a few weeks after the election when Douglas Bruce told state lawmakers about what this new thing called TABOR was.
When he found that news story, we thought, "Wow, there's a lot of drama here!"
Ben Markus: We had one of the most interesting characters in Colorado political history to help drive the story. It has to be people-centered. There has to be some reason for you to empathize with the subject or be drawn in. And that's how so many radio podcasts are produced: We build them around people, not necessarily ideas. But there are ideas behind that. So it's almost sneaky in the way that you can learn something from a podcast that can seem fairly simple on its face — built around people and their emotions and what drives them — but in the end, hopefully you come away with an understanding of some of the more complex policy angles.
Okay, before we get to Douglas Bruce, why should people care about TABOR? I know you raise the stakes in the beginning of the podcast by pointing out how Colorado has such low unemployment, the economy is booming, and yet we have these deficits in funding for things like schools.
Markus: That no government in Colorado can pass a tax increase without the vote of the people is something truly unique to Colorado. It’s one of the most important policies in Colorado, that still shapes the way the state operates today.
Nathaniel Minor: It's about who has power in the state. And it's so important to understand why this passed and what effect it has now. Because it's really limited what public officials can do, and it's put a lot of responsibility on taxpayers to go and make those decisions. When people move here from another state, they don't get a little card in the mail explaining to them that things are different in Colorado and now they have to decide these things. So we definitely had people like that in mind as we put this together.
Tell me about some of the considerations that went through your minds as radio producers after you decided to embark on making this podcast. With such an ambitious project, what are some of the logistics you considered to put it together?
Minor: First, it depends who you can get to talk.
But also in this case, we wanted to cover thirty years of history, so we built it around what archived tape we could track down…. We had some in our archives, but a lot was done by telephone, so it wasn't that compelling…. But when we went to the TV stations, they had a lot of stuff from the various election nights. We spent a month or more going to TV stations and digging around. There was some really good stuff in there. The first time he lost, [Bruce] went up at his election-night party and blamed the voters. And in 1992, when he finally won, you have this crowd of people in a hotel room and they're all excited. If we didn't have that...no amount of writing could bring that moment alive.
We built a lot of our first two episodes around those. We would piece together election night, and then we'd go ask people about that.... So the episodes are built around scenes and move from one scene to the next.
Then, clearly, we needed to get Mr. Bruce on board. We spent a lot of time with him. It was probably eight to ten hours over two different interviews. We asked him a lot of questions that weren't about TABOR but were about him: where he grew up, what his family was like — so that we could figure out how his past informed what he did with TABOR.
How did you first approach him, and what was his reaction when you said you wanted to do a podcast about this?
Estabrook: When we first called him, our working assumption was that he was still in prison and we were going to interview him there. But he was out only a couple months on parole.... We played phone tag for at least two messages…. What I remember clearly is a message he left me. He said, "Well, I'm willing to talk, but only over the phone, and it doesn't really matter if the sound quality is good, because this isn't going into the Smithsonian."
And I said, "No, no, the sound quality is very important!"
So I offered to find a space in Colorado Springs, and he eventually agreed to meet us at a studio.
Take us into that interview space. What was that like? I love the part where Bruce quizzes you about the beginning line of the Bill of Rights. Was he trying to disarm you and make you uncomfortable?
Estabrook: No, I don't think that was his motivation. The [Bill of Rights quiz] was about an hour into our first conversation, and it was when Nate and I were really trying to understand why he felt so strongly, and why he'd dedicate so much time and his own money and put himself out there three times to get this passed. So we kept asking the same questions over and over again to understand where he came from and he started talking about his love of the American Constitution.
Even during that first interview, did he understand that your project was as much about him as it was about TABOR? Did he get defensive when you asked him about his personal life, or did he understand why that was something you'd be interested in?
Minor: We talked about policy a lot. And he would say, "Oh, I really don't want to talk about more private parts of my life." But then he would go on and tell us about private parts of his life.
We spoke with him weeks before we put it out [on November 13] so that he wouldn't be surprised about anything. But really, I don't think he was very defensive or disarming.
Have you heard from him since you released the podcast?
Minor: We mailed him some copies, though, at his request. So he's heard it.
What's been the general feedback from listeners?
Markus: I think there's a hunger for longer-form, in-depth journalism. And with radio, it takes a lot of storytelling skill to pull that off. It takes a team of people, including fact-checkers, project managers, and [we had] folks from NPR’s Story Lab really helping us.
Comments from people show that they really enjoy hearing something longer than five minutes or fifteen minutes on something as complex and interesting as TABOR.
Do you have any estimate of the number of hours you've spent working on this since last September?
Minor: No, I don't want to know [laughs].
Estabrook: I think some of our spouses are joking that they sacrificed as much as we did.
There have been efforts to overturn TABOR over the years. Did you get any sense when talking to various politicians and political observers about how long TABOR might be around, or if it's a permanent fixture in Colorado?
Minor: There was a lawsuit against TABOR that was hung up in federal court for a long time, and it was heard this year. That challenge said that TABOR violated the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the Republican form of government. And that's been thrown out.
It's also a lot harder to convince voters to take away their power to vote than to give them that power. There's such a steep hill to climb to overturn it, I don’t think anyone we talked to saw it going away anytime soon.
Markus: Also, if you wanted to get rid of all the different parts of TABOR, some people say it'd take eight different ballot initiatives.
When you were producing The Taxman, did you have other podcasts that you took inspiration from?
Estabrook: I really like Reply All — the banter and style they have.
Markus: The [This American Life] episode "The Giant Pool of Money" gave us a model of a complex topic told in an entertaining way. I think I've listened to "The Giant Pool of Money" half a dozen times or more.
Estabrook: I'm glad you said that, Ben, because "The Giant Pool of Money" was what I had in my head when we first started this. They made fiscal policy entertaining, and that's what I wanted to do. Like the movie The Big Short, which was hugely successful, was basically just "The Giant Pool of Money" on screen.
Who did the music score for The Taxman, and was that an original score based on the narration of your podcast?
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Are you thinking of doing another project like this at CPR?
Minor: We're thinking about it.... Have any suggestions?
Estabrook: My hope is that some other reporters in the CPR newsroom will see this as an opportunity to explore something that they're really interested in.