Meet the Guys
When the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded BackStory with the American History Guys one the largest radio grants in recent years, one thing was for sure: At the top of the list of reasons for supporting the show’s transition to weekly production were its accomplished scholar-hosts, Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers, and Brian Balogh. The Guys’ style and substance have prompted individuals ranging from novelist Nicholson Baker to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner to praise the program. And the hosts are why so many stations around the country have repeatedly scheduled BackStory since its launch as a monthly in 2008. Stations and their audiences, as well as a universe of podcast listeners, are drawn to BackStory because of the voices and reflections of Onuf, Ayers, and Balogh. People are inspired by what they say, the connections they make, and the insights they communicate—by their level of thoughtful engagement with past and present.
Between them, Peter, Ed, and Brian have written enough books to supply a modest library and penned enough articles to wallpaper the University of Virginia’s historic Rotunda. And yet their appeal is far from “ivory tower.” The rapport among the three, and their warm and convivial banter, makes it clear from a first hearing that they aren’t merely accomplished scholars. Their humor and humanity permeate their commentary, enticing listeners to gather around the metaphorical kitchen table, exploring what has changed and what has stayed the same.
When the three get together in the studio to do what they do so well—talk history with each other, guests, or callers—their goal, Peter playfully says, is to channel the spirit of John Muir—to be “forest people, not tree people.” What he’s saying is that the Guys explore far-reaching connections, rather than focusing on minute details or dates. Their goal is to frame the big picture (be it about motherhood or Independence Day or home ownership), rather than chopping history up into a collection of data. The point actually seems to be to use what they know about time, rather than letting time use them. And this approach, linking up and tracing change between eras, allows them, Brian says, to shine a signature light on America’s past.
As Brian readily admits, “A recording session rarely goes by when something Peter or Ed says doesn’t blow my mind.” All three understand that history has a reputation for being dry or dense, and they are working to prove that wrong. Spontaneously sharing their perspectives as they talk together, often with callers and fellow experts, they enjoy making history unfold in ways that even they don’t expect. The pleasure comes both from the discussion, which they relish, and from knowing that they are making history appealing and accessible for large audiences.
The Guys are as down-to-earth in person as they sound on the air. Pass Peter on the street and you might never guess he is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Every day, he rides his bike to the studio, arriving in full yellow rain gear with water dripping off his moustache when the weather is bad. He is one of the preeminent scholars of Jefferson and the early American period, known for such books as The Mind of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, but when he was growing up Peter had no intention of becoming an 18th-century U.S. history scholar.
After spending a year at the American University in Cairo, he planned to study Middle Eastern history, but met a roadblock when he realized he found “Arabic really boring” and discovered that “I’m not good at languages.” After graduating from college, he tried journalism, spending time in his home state of Connecticut, writing obituaries, covering education, and trying to save enough money to hitchhike across the country to California, Kerouac-style. It was the Sixties, after all, and Peter wanted to see the country. It wasn’t until he’d spent a couple of years in journalism and begun to tire of the daily grind that he returned to Johns Hopkins for graduate school. The rest—as they say—is history.
Ed, who is both a professor of history and President of the University of Richmond, also initially thought he wanted to pursue journalism. The so-called “New Journalism” was flowering at the time, and Ed “wanted to be Tom Wolfe.” Like Wolfe, Ed is a Southerner—he’s a native of Tennessee. The connection may seem obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t until he started graduate studies at Yale that Ed took a course in Southern history and discovered the regional focus that would shape his life and career. Living among the Yankees in New Haven, he was aware for the first time of his own regional identity and how it defined him in the eyes of the country. The realization was life changing.
Ed’s roots are evident in the prize-winning scholarly books he’s written, among them In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 and The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. In fact, ever since that graduate class, his work has been about a region coming to terms with its past. This crucially important focus is also at the heart of his acclaimed digital project, The Valley of the Shadow, which follows life in two American communities—one Northern and one Southern—from 1859 through Reconstruction. It is also central to his work at the University of Richmond, where his aim is to foster a progressive school in what was once the capital of the Confederacy.
Brian, UVA’s Compton Professor of History, took a more circuitous route to the BackStory microphone than either Peter or Ed. His dream job was to be the “Deputy Mayor for Operations” of a large city, and that was the career he pursued throughout his first decade after Harvard, working as budget analyst in Boston and then as an advisor to a New York City Council member. After ten years as a bureaucrat, however, he began to realize that, though he initially loved all his jobs in government, “as soon as I figured out what I was doing, they were much less interesting.” It occurred to him that what he really wanted to do was to study how big corporations intersected with and influenced government, rather than acting—as he had been—as one of many players in the political drama. He thus entered graduate school thinking he would later return to politics as “the world’s most historically enlightened deputy mayor.” But that was not to be: Brian both caught the teaching bug and found scholarship, writing and editing books such as Integrating the Sixties: The Origins, Structure, and Legacy of a Turbulent Decade.
BackStory’s 20th-Century Guy still cops to a perennial soft spot for history’s bureaucrats. His heroes, for example, include the first administrators of the Tennessee Valley Authority and NASA. And his third book, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America, focuses on the ways in which government non-bureaucratically used subsidies, the law, state and local governments, and other third parties to shape the developing nation.
A major market program director has written of the BackStory Guys’ ability to do “deep dives,” while keeping their thoughts “down-to-earth,” not taking themselves too seriously. Another commends “the way in which BackStory provides historical context for current events.” Because the Guys are not only hosts, but also have the respect and admiration of leading historians, they constantly help their producers draw on diverse scholarly resources from all parts of the country. Their goal of bridging the gap between public and scholarly interests will be on display during a live televised show at this April’s conference of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee.
For the future, however, the Guys’ main focus is on the production of radio. Their knowledge, talent, flair, and capacity for sharing the fun and significance of history via broadcasts and podcasts have left listeners asking for more. Luckily for their fans, Peter, Ed, and Brian will soon be back on the air. On May 11 they will launch BackStory as a national weekly—bringing the past alive, taking listeners on fascinating excursions into realms of historical investigation.