Pitch a Show (Fall ’09)

Published: June 23, 2009

"Sing for Your Supper," WPA Poster Collection, Library of Congress

BackStory invites you to propose a topic for our fall season below and let us know why you think it would make for a compelling hour of radio. Which concerns facing Americans today could use historical unpacking by the History Guys? (Or, thinking ahead, what do you predict will be on everyone’s minds when autumn rolls around?) What are the most important questions surrounding your proposed topic?

If you’ve never listened to BackStory, spend some time in our archive of past shows to get a sense of what we’re all about. Or, you can read what others have pitched in the past here and here. To find out how we use your input, check out this post. Basically, we’re looking for topics we can trace over the entire course of American history, rather than single episodes or chapters from history. So….

The Civil Rights Era = Bad Topic
The History of Activism = Good Topic
The Gold Rush = Bad Topic
Boom & Bust in American History = Good Topic

To suggest a topic, either “Join the Discussion” below OR send an email to backstory@virginia.edu.

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Comments (44)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Matt

    I heard a guy in his mid-20s on Talk of the Nation today bemoaning the state of the economy. He said something like, “we were told that if we stayed in school and played by the rules there would be jobs for us and we could support ourselves.” It seems to me this is a good premise for a show: “Promises of the Future” or “Lies My Father Told Me” or something like that…

  2. Rae

    There is a lot of talk about the environment these days. Some facts, some misinformation, some fear-mongering. What is the history of our relationship with our natural resources and the environment? What about environmentalism? What impact has the National Park system, the Clean Air Act had? What was the results of the 1970s oil crisis? How did we start on this path? What does the American culture and mindset have to do with it?

  3. Marc

    I suggested in an earlier post a show about the American flag and the history of “patriotism” and patriotic symbols (flag, eagle, pledge, bumper stickers and magnets…). How have these symbols been used and abused?

    Another idea would be for a look at the image and relations of various countries or regions of the world. What has Africa meant for Americans over history? How has the image of France changed over time?

  4. Marc

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2009/06/hear_paying_it_all_back.html

    On this NPR Planet Money podcast, there is a segment that would be perfectly at home on Backstory. It’s about a (difficult) search for a household that has actually paid off a 30-year mortgage, but it goes quite far in looking at the evolution of home ownership as a value in US history. I’d like an even broader look at the notion of home ownership, renting vs buying, mortgage debt, discrimination in housing, etc.

  5. jennie

    the supreme court nomination hearings coming up what about something on the supreme court?

    history of protest movements or impact/rise of lobbyists?

  6. DJ

    [quote comment=”5374″]There is a lot of talk about the environment these days. Some facts, some misinformation, some fear-mongering. What is the history of our relationship with our natural resources and the environment? What about environmentalism? What impact has the National Park system, the Clean Air Act had? What was the results of the 1970s oil crisis? How did we start on this path? What does the American culture and mindset have to do with it?[/quote]

    I second this, it’s a great show topic!

  7. DJ

    When I took American History (decades ago), it was impressed upon me that American history (and indeed world history) is shaped almost exclusively by economic factors. Social and religious movements, it was argued, simply respond to economic issues. Religion is a tool of the economy. I found that fairly persuasive, likely because I myself am agnostic. However, I’ve heard recently that there’s a changing tide among historians to argue that religion itself is an independent force that shapes history in its own right.

    I’m wondering, then, does religion shape history or is it simply a useful tool for economic interests? Cheers,

    DJ

  8. Matt Edmonds

    I recently discovered “Backstory,” and as a former student of the 19th century guy and the 20th century guy, I’m excited to go back and listen to some of these older episodes. One thing I’d like to hear the three of you discuss, though, is the idea of America as a “city upon a hill.” Although it originated with John Winthrop in the 17th, its meaning has changed significantly, and its influence certainly spans the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (not to mention the 21st–I believe both Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani referenced it last fall during the Republican National Convention.)

  9. mjj

    I was thinking of proposing a show on the history of athletics in America, but didn’t think there would be much to talk about prior to the very late 19th century. Then I learned that the sport Lacrosse was first played by Native Americans. I also learned that Jefferson’s Rotunda included an area known as the gymnasium. I was curious because what often began as simple games or a way to prepare for battle have morphed (in cases like football or fitness) into billion dollar industries and had a huge effect on our culture. Athletics have even been a political tool (olympics) and a force for equality (the breaking of the baseball color line and Title IX).
    Just curious if this could be a topic worth exploring.

  10. Steve

    Three years ago, I became interested in beekeeping as a hobby. I took a class from a local beekeeping association and decided to give it a go. I have two hives in my backyard and just harvested about 30 pounds of honey from one of the hives. Learning about bees and beekeeping has been fascinating and with the recent (last year or so) publicity about the problem of colony collapse disorder, and the addition of a beehive on the White House grounds, perhaps your listeners would enjoy learning about the history of beekeeping in America.

  11. Marisa

    I agree! A lot depends on this little creature. Weren’t honeybees imported into the US? Have there ever been other threats to the honeybee or other pollinator populations like colony collapse disorder?

  12. Annie

    With the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the scandal of the Domelights blog in my hometown, Philadelphia, I would love to hear a show on the (often troubled) history of policing in America. While the two examples I cited are rife with implications on the state of race in the US, a topic you already explored wonderfully, there are so many dimensions to the history of policing/law/order in this country. If anything deserves the BackStory treatment, it’s this!

  13. Brenda Trickler

    You might be able to bank this one (for a headline peg is bound to crop up again): privacy, or more precisely, the boundary between the public and private spheres.

    You touched on this a bit in your show on voting when you covered the period before the adoption of the secret ballot. It comes up in a great variety of ways. Where I live, there was a recent dustup over the adverts bought by a group of freethinkers; they appeared on city buses until some people complained, but since the same company had previously accepted ads from religious groups, the freethinkers seem to have grounds to sue (as happened in Indiana under similar circumstances, I believe). A major aspect of the question is the notion of public spaces, partly because of the nature of advertising and partly because the bus service is a quasi-governmental entity. Some people seem to claim some right not to be offended, or assert that their morals are or should be tantamount to public morals. How do we negotiate this tension, which is inherent in our republic, between the various viewpoints?

    Twentieth and twenty-first century is of course a rapidly evolving survey on this subject, the evolution being propelled primarily by technology. What relevance do “community standards” have when people can get materials directly in their homes (films when the Supreme Court addressed the topic in [i]Stanley v. Georgia[/i] forty years ago)? What of the young people who are surprised to learn that potential employers are viewing the photos on their Facebook pages–including the ones from inebriated spring breaks–and holding the images against them? Of what use are anti-discrimination laws when employers and others can learn facts about people (marital status, sexual orientation, religion) behind the anonymity of the Internet?

    Bear in mind that technology isn’t the only way our private selves spill out into the public sphere. I presume that those of you who are married make no secret of the fact, openly wearing wedding rings, talking about your families, maybe even displaying a framed photo on an office desk. Such social public trappings can ring hollow for those people who cannot display them (gay couples in many states), busy as some of them still are deflecting questions or changing pronouns in watercooler conversations. The distinction can be particularly galling when foes of gay rights decry analogous displays by gay couples as forcing their “lifestyle” on others. Where is the line between public and private? It doesn’t seem to be hard and fast, at least not on equal terms.

    For earlier periods, how do the frontier and the small town figure into the question? The dangers of the frontier would seem to present a disincentive for reclusive natures (no knowing when you might need to have the help of neighbours) as well as an opportunity to indulge them. As for the small town, well, the cliche of the close-knit, even gossipy community life in small towns has become proverbial for a reason. Just how private a private life can anyone in a small town enjoy when everyone in the town knows everyone else? Is it unusual for anyone in such a case to expect to do so?

  14. Ryan

    I just discovered your show after reading about it in the Chron. of Higher Ed — so exciting to have something like this! All my favorite shows rolled into one: Car Talk meets History Detectives meets The Splendid Table. (Yes, I’m boring.)

    Anyway, I’d be interested in a show about the shrinking of small towns in America. I have no real data to support this idea, but living in Nashville, I see small communities in more rural parts of the state that once held a modicum of sway — politically, financially, socially — that have really become shells of their former selves. Al Gore Sr. and Cordell Hull, for example, were from around the same area in Tenn., but good luck finding anybody like that around those parts these days. They’ve all moved to more urban areas.

    This trend seems to be especially true in the Midwest, in places like Missouri, where once-thriving small riverfront towns have completely collapsed. Maybe it’s Wal-Mart. Maybe it’s the decline of American manufacturing. But I’d be interested in learning more about how these towns cropped up, more about what they were like at their peak, and what the main factors have been in their demise, not to mention when, exactly, it happened.

    Just a thought — and thanks again for a great show. I heard my first episode today and am already a big fan.

  15. Vero

    I’m new to Backstory. But it seems to appeal to me. I’ve even come up with what I think would be a great topic: the history of the American citizen: How his life changed from mainly being agricultural to having digital stuff nowadays at his disposal. Or you could also pick a special interest group: for example the history of the US familiy, how family values changed etc.

    Or how about a history of controversial elections, like George W. Bush’s and other close calls.

    Another interesting one, I think, would be the history of Native Americans: How they did back than when they had to move west to make place for new settlements and how they are doing now; whether there has been any improvement etc.

    What also sounds good to me would be a history of characterizing events and their impact on America (from the colonial era till now)! Sounds like a challenging one, but I’m sure you would get it done (after what I saw in the archives :)

    By the way, while I’m writing this I’m listening to you guys and I already love it.
    And reading other commenter’s posts, a lot of them seem to be first time listeners.

    Great show and I love your humor :)

  16. Rachel (BackStory Assoc. Producer)

    [quote comment=”5598″]I’m new to Backstory. But it seems to appeal to me. I’ve even come up with what I think would be a great topic: the history of the American citizen: How his life changed from mainly being agricultural to having digital stuff nowadays at his disposal. Or you could also pick a special interest group: for example the history of the US familiy, how family values changed etc.

    Or how about a history of controversial elections, like George W. Bush’s and other close calls.

    Another interesting one, I think, would be the history of Native Americans: How they did back than when they had to move west to make place for new settlements and how they are doing now; whether there has been any improvement etc.

    What also sounds good to me would be a history of characterizing events and their impact on America (from the colonial era till now)! Sounds like a challenging one, but I’m sure you would get it done (after what I saw in the archives :)

    By the way, while I’m writing this I’m listening to you guys and I already love it.
    And reading other commenter’s posts, a lot of them seem to be first time listeners.

    Great show and I love your humor :)[/quote]

    Hi Vero! Thanks so much for the post– we love new listeners (we love old ones, too). The topics you suggest are excellent. Re: history of contested elections– we did a “Presidential Transitions” show back in January or so (http://www.backstoryradio.org/2009/01/transfer-your-power/ ), and we did a show on voting (http://www.backstoryradio.org/2008/10/early-and-often-voting-in-america-2/ ) before that. There’s some contested elections stuff in there, for sure, but a whole show about it would be fun. We’ve also been interested in doing more topics related to American Indians– “displacement” is definitely a rich subject, and an interesting counter to the notion of “westward expansion.” Thanks for listening, and keep the ideas coming!

  17. Kristine Gustavson

    Americans spend significant amount of money on their pets. What about a history of pets in America? How did dogs move from the farm and field to the apartment and condo? What role do pets play in the daily life of people today? How did the keeping of pets differ from our experience in the 17th, 18th , 19th and 20th centuries? and what about the animal rights movement?

  18. Jason Smith

    Hello from Japan,

    I’ve really enjoyed the podcasts and being able to keep in touch with my home country. I enjoy the format of the show and the presentations from different time perspectives. Since you did the Fourth of July episode, I would like to pitch running a series of holiday specials. . . one for Halloween/All Saints Day (maybe a bit late); Thanksgiving in America (not well recognized in other countries); Christmas, Hanukkah (Chanukkah), Kwanzaa, or other winter traditional celebrations; New Year’s Eve/Day; Easter. . . I think you get the idea. Sound good?

    Loyal fan,
    JWS

  19. cm6ay

    [quote comment=”5613″]I would like to pitch running a series of holiday specials. . . Sound good?[/quote]

    Sounds great! In fact, we’re already on it…Several of our shows have been inspired by American holidays, including our History of Motherhood, History of Veterans, History of Death & Dying (Memorial Day), History of Unemployment (Labor Day), and of course the History of Thanksgiving (which we’ll re-air in November). You can find them all in our archives, and of course on iTunes. We hope you’ll check them out! I love the idea of a Halloween-y episode: history of superstition? Famous ghosts in American history?

    So Jason, when is BackStory going to be “big in Japan”??? We’re counting on you to spread the word…

    Catherine Moore
    Assistant Producer

  20. Chris

    I was thinking, while watching American Dad oddly enough, that it might be interesting to hear about the history of Civil War reenactments, or war reenactments in general. What is the fascination with reenacting the Civil War?

  21. Tony (BackStory Producer)

    [quote comment=”5615″]I was thinking, while watching American Dad oddly enough, that it might be interesting to hear about the history of Civil War reenactments, or war reenactments in general. What is the fascination with reenacting the Civil War?[/quote]

    Chris — We agree that the fascination is fascinating. Stay tuned for an episode on historical re-enactments, currently planned for early next summer…

  22. odysseus

    How about the history of people like Limbaugh, Beck, and Father Charles Coughlin. They seem to crop in American history in one form or another and it would be interesting to know about their influence and history before the last 50 years.

  23. Nathan

    I’m actually surprised there hasn’t already been a Backstory on food, in general, in particular, just. . . food. I’m no historian, but somewhere between college and grad school I read Sindney Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power,” and thought it was just about the most eye-opening “history” I’ve ever read.

    But maybe that’s because Mintz is an anthropologist. Is there a radio show where three cultural anthropologists sit around and talk about stuff? (Just jokin’, I love me some Backstory!)

  24. Jason Smith

    [quote comment=”5614″][quote comment=”5613″]So Jason, when is BackStory going to be “big in Japan”??? We’re counting on you to spread the word…

    Catherine Moore
    Assistant Producer[/quote]

    Hi Catherine,

    I’ve been doing my best to promote a radio program about American history here in Japan, but as you can imagine. . . it might be better to start a radio program about Japanese history instead.

    Anyway, I just thought of another pitch for you diligent folks there at Backstory. As the seasons change from warmer temperatures to colder ones, so do articles of clothing. How about a history of fashion in America? You know, how spats faded out and parachute pants faded in. . . how swimwear, which once looked like striped inmate clothing now barely covers all essential (or e-sensual) extremities? How did the baseball cap come to the game of baseball? Why did knickers loose their gather at the knee and end up on NBA players? When did cotton officially take over for polyester? I think you get the idea. . . it might be that I’m in a Halloween costume mind set right now, or I’m not sure how else such a trendy idea would fit in with your current schedule.

    Just a thought,
    JWS

  25. Rachel (BackStory Assoc. Producer)

    [quote comment=”5620″]I’m actually surprised there hasn’t already been a Backstory on food, in general, in particular, just. . . food. I’m no historian, but somewhere between college and grad school I read Sindney Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power,” and thought it was just about the most eye-opening “history” I’ve ever read.

    But maybe that’s because Mintz is an anthropologist. Is there a radio show where three cultural anthropologists sit around and talk about stuff? (Just jokin’, I love me some Backstory!)[/quote]

    Hi Nathan- We here at BackStory love the “food” idea. We pretty much love food in general. We’ve been considering shows about farming and food ways, but personally, I’ve been pushing for “MEAT: A Rare History, Well Done” since last spring. Our ’08 Thanksgiving episode features a great interview about the differences in European and Native food ways (and how grossed out each group was by the other), and callers ask about the history of turkey and pork and bean soup, if memory serves…

    Food production & consumption is a rich historical vein. We’re with you on this one, so stay tuned (and stay hungry!)

  26. Tony (BackStory Producer)

    [quote comment=”5623″][quote comment=”5620″]I’m actually surprised there hasn’t already been a Backstory on food, in general, in particular, just. . . food. I’m no historian, but somewhere between college and grad school I read Sindney Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power,” and thought it was just about the most eye-opening “history” I’ve ever read.

    But maybe that’s because Mintz is an anthropologist. Is there a radio show where three cultural anthropologists sit around and talk about stuff? (Just jokin’, I love me some Backstory!)[/quote]

    Hi Nathan- We here at BackStory love the “food” idea. We pretty much love food in general. We’ve been considering shows about farming and food ways, but personally, I’ve been pushing for “MEAT: A Rare History, Well Done” since last spring. Our ’08 Thanksgiving episode features a great interview about the differences in European and Native food ways (and how grossed out each group was by the other), and callers ask about the history of turkey and pork and bean soup, if memory serves…

    Food production & consumption is a rich historical vein. We’re with you on this one, so stay tuned (and stay hungry!)[/quote]

    Here’s a little morsel to chew on — I’ve just discovered a fabulous food history site [hat tip: common-place.org] with resources from all over the web. Check it out:
    http://www.foodtimeline.org/index.html
    Also — that interview that Rachel mentions above can be found here:
    http://www.backstoryradio.org/2009/05/no-thanks/

  27. MARILYN VOGELGESANG

    Dear friends from the Dakota’s and Minnesota have told me stories about the orphan trains in the early 1800’s that use to bring orphaned children from New York to the mid-western states. Some had no relatives to take them in, many who’s parents were immigrants and had no relatives in the U.S. The trains would stop at rural stations on their westward journey and people looking for children to adopt as their own, and/or as extra farm hands would be there to choose a child.

    The other thing my friend from Beulah North Dakota use to tell about the “Baltic German’s” in Beulah who had earlier settled in Russia to farm, but after the Czar & Czarina were murdered by the Bolsheviks in early 1900’s, escaped and came to America. They had so many stories of people who were barely educated who made good. They also brought with them some great recipe’s. There are so many interesting stories of the settlers of rural America that never get studied in our history–eg. The Irish Gypsies in North Carolina, the Moravian’s in North Carolina, and in Ohio who came to teach the Indians. The small islands off the outer banks in North Carolina who were settled by run-a-way slaves, many who are their descendants still living there. The Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio & Indiana. I know there are many more who make up the fabric of rural America, and their stories would be great fodder for your forums

  28. Nathan

    [quote comment=”5623″]We’ve been considering shows about farming and food ways, but personally, I’ve been pushing for “MEAT: A Rare History, Well Done” since last spring. [/quote]

    Meat is a great topic! But personally, if I were a member of your staff, what I would be pushing is a history of fat. One of the first mass-marketed fats was Crisco, introduced in 1911 by Procter & Gamble. They were using cottonseed oil to make candles, but with the emergence of electricity the market was dwindling. So they decided to whip their surplus oil into a food. The only problem is, cottonseed oil is actually poisonous, unless it goes through a chemical process. The story behind the whole thing is fascinating, and a little scary; it’s really the story of how the industrial revolution first entered the American kitchen, and how it’s basically stayed with us. (Crisco is still made with cotton seed oil, but if you look under ingredients it will just say “vegetable oil.” Cotton is, technically, a vegetable, after all. . . just not an edible one.)

    Anyway, good luck and thanks for the excellent work to all of you!

  29. Rachel (BackStory Assoc. Producer)

    [quote comment=”5627″][quote comment=”5623″]We’ve been considering shows about farming and food ways, but personally, I’ve been pushing for “MEAT: A Rare History, Well Done” since last spring. [/quote]

    Meat is a great topic! But personally, if I were a member of your staff, what I would be pushing is a history of fat.

    Ah, Fat! It’s funny you should mention that all-American nutrient. We recently wrote a long show proposal for “Weighty Issues: A History of Fat,” but ours was less about cottonseed oil and more about Jesus & Jazzercise… (there’s apparently a whole industry that uses God as a weight-loss motivator– I think it’s called “Get Slim for Him” or something). Anyway, while we were writing, we found these books especially enlightening: “Fat History” (http://tinyurl.com/yke3hje) and “Born Again Bodies” (http://tinyurl.com/yzjdnug ). I think we should do a whole series on Fat, covering its solid and liquid, animal and vegetable forms. How is it you know so much about cotton’s inedible by-products?

  30. Nathan

    Rachel, you’re really getting at my one and only criticism of Backstory: I wish there were more of them! If only those UVa History Boys could be compelled to do an hour on whatever topic you dictate. (I know, Ayers is president at Richmond now, but in my heart he will always be dean.)

    Like I said before, I’m no historian, but I do know a lot about the history of advertising. I used to work at a now-defunct place called The American Advertising Museum. The Crisco thing is a watershed moment in American consumer culture. It was one of the first occasions of a highly perishable local product, like butter and lard, being replaced by something cheaper and with a far longer shelf life, and therefore capable of national distribution.

    It strikes me that cookbooks might be a possible entry-point into a discussion about food. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the most popular cookbooks were published by companies like Procter & Gamble — with the idea of introducing the public to ingredients (like Crisco) they’d never heard of. Unlike today, the cookbooks were less about selling copies of the book than selling the ingredients themselves. And Crisco does, after all, make a mighty fine pie crust!

  31. Nathan

    Hmmm. . . after having written all that, it occurs to me that advertising isn’t such a bad topic for a show. It wasn’t invented in America, but it was definitely perfected here. And having spent some time in the University of Pennsylvania library looking at ads penned by Ben Franklin himself, I can attest to it being a centuries-spanning phenomenon.

  32. Tait

    In celebration of Ken Burn’s release of “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”, along with the various recent controversies over nat’l park land management (pine beetles, N. Rockies wolves, etc.) why not have an episode on our beloved parks?

  33. Rae

    I was thinking about the new Ken Burns documentary, too. Maybe a history of our relationship with the land and our attitudes toward it, including the formation, expanding and controversies of the National Parks.

  34. cm6ay

    [quote comment=”5635″]I was thinking about the new Ken Burns documentary, too. Maybe a history of our relationship with the land and our attitudes toward it, including the formation, expanding and controversies of the National Parks.[/quote]

    Rae & Tait,

    You’ll both wanna check out our “Environmental Crisis!” show, which gets into some of the issues you mention. On that show, there is a great feature by radio producer Jesse Dukes about the controversy surrounding the founding of Shenandoah National Park–people were forcibly removed from the area to make way for “wilderness.” Plus, the environmental historian Bill Cronon talks about Americans’ changing relationship with “nature.” It’s a fascinating interview that you won’t want to miss. We love your feedback, so let us know what you think!

    http://www.backstoryradio.org/2008/08/the-history-of-disappearing-nature/

    Happy listening,

    Catherine Moore
    Assistant Producer

  35. Centaurea

    I’d love to see a show exploring how corporations came to have such power in the US, rather than being institutions in service to the needs of the people, as they were originally intended – particularly the way in which court decisions have undermined our democracy by granting corporations the constitutional rights of ‘persons’.

  36. Jason

    Hi Centaurea,

    I’m not meaning to detour away from the Backstory show. . . and, not sure if you’ve seen this film or not, but it’s worth a watch if your interested in corporate power and development. There are 23 chapters on YouTube. . . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pin8fbdGV9Y (Chapter 1)

    They also have a website. . . http://www.thecorporation.com/

    Or, you can watch it entirely online. . . http://freedocumentaries.org/int.php?filmID=102

    Enjoy!

    [quote comment=6289]I’d love to see a show exploring how corporations came to have such power in the US, rather than being institutions in service to the needs of the people, as they were originally intended – particularly the way in which court decisions have undermined our democracy by granting corporations the constitutional rights of ‘persons’.[/quote]

  37. Centaurea

    [quote comment=”6291″]
    I’m not meaning to detour away from the Backstory show. . . and, not sure if you’ve seen this film or not, but it’s worth a watch if your interested in corporate power and development. There are 23 chapters on YouTube. . . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pin8fbdGV9Y (Chapter 1)…
    [/quote]

    Thanks, Jason, I’ll check these out.