'BackStory' Receives Major Backing from National Endowment for the Humanities

March 16, 2009 — "BackStory with the American History Guys" — an innovative history radio show hosted by current and former University of Virginia faculty — has received a $74,990 development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

"We are tremendously grateful for the endowment's support, for their endorsement of the 'BackStory' concept and their enthusiasm for how the show is developing," said Andrew Wyndham, executive producer of "BackStory" and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities' media program director, noting that $75,000 is the maximum amount that the NEH gives for development awards.

The highly competitive award to "BackStory" was provided through NEH's "Grants for America's Media Makers" program, which supports media projects that explore significant events, figures or developments in the humanities in creative and new ways. 

In announcing the award, acting NEH Chairman Carole M. Watson said that "BackStory" has been designated a 'We the People' project. The initiative "encourages and strengthens the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation's history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America," she said. "I anticipate that your project will contribute significantly to this effort."

In each "BackStory" episode, world-renowned historians Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh, both U.Va. professors, and Ed Ayers, former dean of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences and now president of the University of Richmond, use a topic from the headlines to drill down into America's past. The hosts invite callers and fellow historians to the table, offering anecdotes, analysis and humor, providing multiple perspectives on a variety of critical and intriguing issues.

After only five months on air, "BackStory," launched last June, was awarded the 2008 Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The national award recognizes three outstanding humanities projects annually.

In addition to being syndicated in Virginia by three stations — Norfolk's WHRV, Roanoke's Radio IQ and Harrisonburg's WMRA — recent "BackStory" episodes have been broadcast, mostly in prime time, by 25 stations in 15 other states and the District of Columbia, including WAMU in Washington, D.C., WGBH in Boston, WNPR of Connecticut Public Radio, WNED in Buffalo and KUOW in Seattle.

Topics in the inaugural summer 2008 "BackStory" series included controversial wars, environmental crises, "family values," debt, the Fourth of July, punishment, transportation, racial "purity," leisure and outsiders in America. The fall 2008 series focused on voting, Thanksgiving, military veterans, alcohol and temperance, financial crises and energy.

Winter and spring 2009 programs have explored or will include presidential transitions, the state of the states and partisanship and the press, plus motherhood, death and mourning, and farming in American history.

"BackStory" was designed to provide "a means of more deeply examining how we as a nation got to where we are today — linking the present to the past, picking up where the news leaves off," Wyndham said.
Senior producer Tony Field and associate producers Rachel Quimby and Catherine Moore plan and create each episode.

The current program focuses on the role of the states from the founding period to the present, including the Civil War.

"The questions that defined Lincoln's presidency during that terrible time are still very much with us," said Field, "which is one of the reasons 'BackStory's current episode takes on the idea of 'federalism,' considering the ways that the concept has shaped and sometimes perturbed the course of American history."

"BackStory" is broadcast within Virginia on WMRA, WVTF/Radio IQ and WHRV. It is also available via iTunes as a podcast.

Additional funding for the project has come from the David A. Harrison Fund for the President's Initiatives at U.Va., The Perry Foundation Inc., the Miller Center of Public Affairs at U.Va. and from 19 individual contributions.

About the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is a non-profit educational organization and an independently governed state humanities council created at the University of Virginia in 1974 to enhance civic, cultural and intellectual life.