'BackStory' Election Show Gains National Broadcast Traction

October 30, 2008 — Until Tuesday, one issue is center stage: the presidential election. Newspapers, radio, TV, blogs … they're all on it, including "BackStory with the American History Guys," a new public radio program that is produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and features three historians with University of Virginia connections.

Recently, "BackStory" produced a program on the history of voting in America, "Early and Often." In the show, the American History Guys — 18th-century expert Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor in History; 19th-century historian and former U.Va. dean of Arts & Sciences Edward Ayers, now president of the University of Richmond; and 20th-century expert Brian Balogh, associate professor of history — give a lively tour of how the fundamental right to vote has evolved over the course of American history.

They answer such questions as: How did Americans elect their leaders in the 1700s? What did the Founders think democracy entailed, and how have we tweaked their system since then? Have all the reforms really improved things? Why do so few people vote generally? And finally, what was the point of the Electoral College, anyway?

The show has proven quite popular and is finding broadcast traction nationally in major markets, according to Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Radio executive producer Andrew Wyndham.

On Oct. 19, WAMU in Washington aired the program at 6 p.m. — prime time for public radio.

Other major market stations beyond Virginia have featured "Early and Often," too, including WGBH in Boston and KXOT in Seattle. Connecticut Public Radio plans to air the episode Sunday at 8 p.m., and several others have licensed the episode for possible broadcast, including WDUQ in Pittsburgh and KUT2 in Austin, Texas.

Charles Lane, election curator for the influential Public Radio Exchange, recently posted a note on the organization's national listserv: "The dark horse (and public radio debutante) BackStory keeps getting better and better. It's playful, insightful, and the election special was a fascinating look at how modern elections really aren't that bad."

"Early and Often," developed by producer Tony Field with his associates, Rachel Quimby and Catherine Moore, is also available online at the "BackStory" Web site.

"BackStory" is also accessible as a podcast on iTunes. Field encourages those who want to support the emerging program to subscribe to the podcasts.

"As long as people keep spreading the word to subscribe and to leave a review of the show in the iTunes store, we should be able to keep our spot there on the front page of iTunes' history section," he said. "This is all part of the building process. We're excited to see where it goes."

The growing national response to "BackStory with the American History Guys" is in addition to the show's regular broadcasts by three partnering Virginia public radio stations: Radio IQ (Roanoke/Lynchburg/Charlottesville), WMRA (Harrisonburg, the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville) and WHRV in Norfolk, all of which start airing the show's fall series this week.

About "BackStory with the American History Guys"

"BackStory" is a call-in radio show that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us every day. Each week, renowned U.S. historians Ed Ayers (president of the University of Richmond and former dean of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences), Peter Onuf (U.Va.'s Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History) and Brian Balogh (U.Va. associate professor of history and co-chairman of the Governing America in a Global Era Program at U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs) tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths. Over the course of an hour-long show, the hosts are joined by fellow historians, people in the news and callers. Together, they drill down to colonial times and earlier, revealing the connections (and sometimes, the disconnections) between past and present. "BackStory" began airing in June.