'BackStory' Wins NEH Grant to Become a Weekly Radio Show

August 1, 2011 — The past is about to catch up more often with public radio fans who follow "BackStory with the American History Guys". The popular radio show and podcast, co-hosted by three widely published U.S. historians, two from the University of Virginia and one from the University of Richmond, will soon be expanding from monthly to weekly.

Thanks to a highly competitive $350,000 production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with additional contributions and commitments of $436,000, the show is hiring more staff, ramping up for weekly production, and will initiate a two-year pilot sequence of four broadcasts per month next spring.

Produced by the U.Va.-based Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, "BackStory" has already achieved wide airplay nationally and created interest online. Focusing on a spectrum of topics, hosts Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh of U.Va. and Ed Ayers of the University of Richmond have seen their program broadcast by more than 200 stations in 39 states.

In the last year, "BackStory" was featured by stations in 27 top-50 radio markets by population. During the same period, individual mp3s of the show were downloaded nearly 300,000 times. And in April, "BackStory," which has been regularly featured by iTunes and iTunesU, passed the one-millionth download mark.

The show's uniqueness, caliber of topics and popularity are reasons "BackStory" has received new funding from NEH, said Andrew Wyndham, the show's creator and executive producer, who directs media programs at VFH. The latest grant is a financial game changer for the three-year-old enterprise, he said.

"It will hopefully allow us to reach our goal of making 'BackStory' an essential part of public radio's line-up," he said.

NEH Chairman Jim Leach is a fan. He describes the program as "exploring and celebrating the story of America and its people from multiple perspectives." The show "offers an uplifting forum for connecting the past with the present," he said.

Part of the idea for creating "BackStory" came from the friendship that the history guys already had, Wyndham said. "You can't script the kind of rapport these hosts have with each other. Listeners recognize this genuine warmth and it draws them into the conversation." 

Each history guy specializes in a different century. Balogh, Compton Professor of History in the College of Arts & Sciences, who also directs the National Fellowship Program at U.Va.'s Miller Center, is the show's 20th-century guy. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and also a professor of history and former dean of U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, finds himself the man in the middle as the 19th-century guy. And Onuf, U.Va.'s Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History in the College and the show's 18th-Century guy, delivers reports from the Revolutionary and Federal eras.

On each episode, they take a timely topic, such as the national debt, Supreme Court nominations and the Fourth of July, and drill down into America's past. They also interview scholars and experts, present special features and engage listeners who call in to the show.

Of late, a three-part series on the Civil War, geared to the sesquicentennial, has proved especially popular with stations and listeners, as has a timely episode – "Borrowed Times" – on the history and significance of the national debt.

"BackStory" has won a national humanities award and been featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education and HUMANITIES magazine.

Wyndham attributes the success and rising interest in "BackStory" both to its hosts and to senior producer Tony Field. "Tony's superb production skills, intellectual abilities and perspective on developing the show, both as a major broadcast and online presence, have been a vital factor in 'BackStory's' growing success," Wyndham said.

He noted that since being offered the $350,000 NEH award, "BackStory" has secured a $100,000 production commitment from U.Va., a $60,000 pledge from Weinstein Properties in Richmond, an anonymous contribution of $50,000, a $40,000 sponsorship from History.com and other allocations, commitments and gifts totaling $186,000. To cover its initial two-year weekly production budget, the program still has to raise $312,000.

"Long term, we project that a diverse mix of corporate underwriting or sponsorships, foundation support, institutional grants, individual gifts and fees from stations will cover our production costs," Wyndham said. "We have been building towards this with grants, including a total of $150,000 from the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, a substantial sponsorship from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and institutional support from the University of Richmond, James Madison's Montpelier and the Miller Center, among others."

Listeners also support the program in more modest ways. When Field recently invited podcast listeners to send the show a dime for every year since the start of the Civil War, a stream of $15 contributions resulted.

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications