May 27, 2008 — Take a headline from today's news, add three prominent American historians, give them each a microphone, and listen to their lively conversation as they provide the context that helps you understand just how we got from there to here.
That's the premise of a new public radio show from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, based at the University of Virginia. It's called "BackStory with the American History Guys," and it begins airing June 1.
When Andrew Wyndham first conceived of a history-based radio show, he knew its success would hang on who hosted it, and he knew just whom he wanted — American historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh.
When those three came together in the studio, "BackStory with the American History Guys" was born. "It was like electricity," said Wyndham, media program director for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
"Sometimes academics can come across as ivory tower-type presences," he said. "But these guys are approachable and have a really good vibe because they are friends. The show is basically three guys sitting around the kitchen table, talking. It's an invitation to pull up a chair and join in the conversation. They may know a lot, but they come across as real people who have a lot to share with you and hope you will share with them."
In each hour-long episode, the program explores the historical context of current events. The hosts take an issue and explore the connections between past and present through interviews with historians and newsmakers and call-ins from listeners. Twelve episodes of the program will begin airing weekly on Virginia public radio stations in June, with 12 additional episodes airing in the fall — and public radio content providers are reviewing the show for national distribution. Among the first topics covered by the program are newcomers in American politics, environmental crises, debt, the American family and controversial wars.
Together the hosts provide a comprehensive and passionate understanding of American history. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia, is an expert on the federal period. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a scholar of 19th-century U.S. history, was the former Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History and dean of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. Balogh, associate professor of history at U.Va., studies the 20th-century experience in America and is co-chairman of the Governing America in a Global Era Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Despite the hosts' distinguished academic credentials, the radio show is more a conversation with friends than a lecture. The "BackStory" guys approach the study of history with intelligence, but also a refreshing amount of irreverence.
The distinctly unpredictable and unreserved style of the hosts was evident at a recent recording session. Amid light-hearted verbal jabs, the three discussed controversial wars in American history. As the "BackStory" guys compared public opinion of the Iraq War with home-front attitudes during previous American conflicts, the discussion led to some surprising suggestions and questions: Has there ever been a non-controversial war? Was American participation in seemingly justifiable wars, such as World War II, ever divisive? Why are some wars remembered with nostalgia and others with disdain?
Improvisation is a common theme in the studio, as the American History Guys resist their scripts and, on occasion, direction from the show's producers.
"What I love most is I never know what is going to happen, aside from some technical problems which are becoming pretty predictable," Balogh joked during a break in recording while producers adjusted the volume level in the hosts' headsets.
"The camaraderie and opportunity to question easy assumptions about history, in a public context, really drew me to this project," said Onuf. "First, we do no harm — and, who knows, we might even do some good. In any case, it's a lot of fun to tease out the present meaning of the past with these guys, our producers and callers."
While "BackStory" producer Tony Field and associate producer Rachel Quimby often end up the targets of the History Guys' banter, they also bring considerable radio experience to the program and have turned the idea of a history-themed radio show into a reality.
"The two of them have the production skills, creative brilliance and intellectual commitment to take the 'BackStory' project to a whole new level," Wyndham said. "And they are doing so with aplomb, developing the program with a richness and variety that will make it highly appealing to public radio programmers and listeners."
Field worked as an associate producer at NPR's Peabody Award-winning show "On the Media," based at WNYC Radio in New York City. He has also produced for NPR's Radio Lab and WBUR News in Boston and has edited The New Yorker magazine's "Campaign Trail" podcasts. Quimby, who when she was a student created "Grey Matters," a half-hour program on psychology-related issues, for Columbia University's WKCR-FM, recently completed her study of radio production at Maine's Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. New to the staff is research assistant Catherine Moore, a recent graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program in creative writing who has worked in archives at Harvard University, the University of Montana and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
According to Field, "BackStory" brings something new to the public radio content due to its unique premise.
"Public radio and television have good historical specials, but there isn’t really any regular space in the programming lineup to pause, look backward and ask, 'How did we get to this point?'" Field said. "And I think that’s something people are hungry for, wherever they fall on the ideological spectrum. We’re a nation of forgetters, and we know it."
Ayers, who has written and edited 10 books, including "The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, stressed the importance of exploring the present through the perspective of the past.
"If you only know what's on the front page today — if you have no idea what the backstory is — you're like flotsam, just pushed by whatever currents come along. You don’t have any perspective, any farther point on the horizon to triangulate your position. You're lost. This is really a way of giving depth to the things we are dealing with today," said Ayers, who also created The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, a Web site that has attracted millions of users and won major prizes in the teaching of history. "
"BackStory" will air at 3 p.m. on Sundays on Radio IQ (starting June 1), and at 3 p.m. on Saturdays on WMRA (starting June 7). By the end of the year, the show will be aired nationally on a number of NPR stations, according to Fields.
Although "BackStory" will not be broadcast live, the producers encourage listeners to participate as callers on the program. Upcoming topics are posted on the show's Web site (www.BackStoryradio.org). Listeners can also subscribe to the show's weekly podcast.
"It is going to be pretty heavily Web-based," Quimby said of the show. "We are developing interesting ways to engage the public online."
Individuals who e-mail the show's producers with reactions, observations and questions on the issues may be invited to share their comments on the air.
Major production support for "BackStory with the American History Guys" was provided by the David A. Harrison Fund for the President's Initiatives at the University of Virginia; the Perry Foundation Inc.; Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown Jr. Charitable Foundation; Caroleen Feeney; Marcus and Carole Weinstein; Trish and David Crowe; Jay M. Weinberg; Dr. Anna Magee; and an anonymous donor.
NOTE TO REPORTERS: Contact Andrew Wyndham at 434-924-6894 or at email@example.com for MP3 files of several programs soon to be aired. Tony Field and Rachel Quimby may be reached at 434-924-8922 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and 434-243-5530 (email@example.com).