Weekly BackStory Will Continue to Surprise
“If you listen to a lot of the NPR biggies, well this hangs with the best of them,” says a BackStory with the American History Guys fan who calls herself “Wikigirl” in her iTunes review of the show’s podcast. Describing BackStory as “meaty but not academic,” she says it reveals “ever elusive enduring American values.” That kind of enthusiasm, voiced for the show by its audience (and the product of no small amount of hard work behind the scenes), has helped this radio program earn a $350,000 weekly production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), with added support of $460,000 (and counting) from other sources. There’s also the fact that BackStory, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), has already been broadcast by more than 130 stations (including 29 in the top 50 markets). The show’s podcasts have been downloaded more than 1.3 million times.
The weekly funding, which has come through since last April, will enable BackStory to realize the full potential of its grounding concept, becoming a regularly scheduled program that takes topics from the headlines and shines light on their history in often-surprising ways. The show’s spirit of inquiry emanates from the hearts and minds of its genial hosts, who happen to be world-renowned authorities–University of Virginia historians Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh, and historian and president of the University of Richmond, Ed Ayers. Casting their minds across three centuries of American history–debating each other, engaging callers, interviewing guests and presenting features–they work with BackStory’s producers to create informative, accessible and entertaining shows.
The signature sound of the program reflects the unscripted brilliance of Onuf, Ayers, and Balogh–with a warmth and rapport that comes from being good friends. Their energy as hosts combined with a sweeping historical expertise in their respective centuries (18th, 19th, and 20th) distinguishes BackStory’s dynamic from all other programs on the air. Of exchanges between Onuf, Ayers, and Balogh, celebrated historian Eric Foner says that the way they handle history “points to contemporary relevance without sacrificing historical nuance and complexity. It brings up to date scholarship out of the ivory tower in way the public can appreciate.” Novelist Nicholson Baker has called the Guys, “three congenial, learned, funny men fly-fishing in the rock-strewn river of American history,” also describing BackStory as “a lovely addition to any radio listener’s life.”
BackStory’s weekly launch date is set for May 11. This will come after months of lab work on various aspects of the program (from show opens, to music, to the treatment of calls), including assessing and practicing possible new features (among these, a weekly news roundup and on-air explorations with segment producers). BackStory reruns and occasional new episodes continue to air widely, answering and whetting the appetites of listeners who have long asked for the show to be weekly. As the staff works to make this happen, they are testing a new production model, retooling and planning for the late spring re-launch. The atmosphere at VFH mixes anticipation with the sense of an exciting new challenge. Their eyes on the prize of national weekly broadcast, BackStory’s producers hope the prediction of one station programming director will prove true: That BackStory does for American history what Carl Sagan did for the cosmos.
For a visitor to BackStory’s home at the VFH in Charlottesville, VA, the staff’s sense of purpose is palpable: a newly-hired associate producer is cutting an interview with one of the first black football players at the University of Alabama; another new AP is on the phone with a librarian in Arizona, inquiring about the history of immigration legislation in the state; a third is in studio where she interviews a Civil Rights era photographer for a show on protests, guided by senior producer Tony Field, formerly of WNYC’s On the Media. Down the hall, BackStory’s creator and executive producer Andrew Wyndham, just off the phone about an upcoming live gig in Milwaukee, consults with the show’s new technical director over a question of sound quality. An hour from now, Onuf, Balogh and Ayers will take calls from listeners, coordinated by Field and other team members. Before day is done, the staff will brainstorm upcoming show themes and explore new segment ideas.
As Field says, “This process is all about process.” Working with Graham Griffith–former executive producer of The Takeaway and senior producer for On Point–Wyndham and Field adopted a development schedule that both reflects the future pace of operations and leaves space for evaluation and critique. As the BackStory staff hews to the plan, they store useful audio and bank evergreen shows in preparation for the launch. Meanwhile, Kerry Donahue, former executive producer at WNYC, is coordinating advisory listening groups composed of public radio program directors from around the country. And former WAMU Program Director Steve Martin of SFM Consulting is initiating BackStory’s weekly marketing campaign, reaching out to stations near and far.
The BackStory team aims to make the weekly show’s name a household word, with a reputation for what one listener has called its “challenging content but laid-back style.” A key to realizing this goal has been the recent arrival of four new supporting staff: Eric Mennel joined BackStory as an associate producer in October 2011 after a six-month stint interning at This American Life, having previously reported and produced as an intern for WUSF in Tampa; associate producer Jess Engebretson, who produced War News Radio while at Swarthmore, came in at the same time, following a year of teaching radio to aspiring young journalists in Liberia and Indonesia under a Watson Fellowship, also doing some freelance reports for PRI’s The World. Anna Pinkert arrived in December, fresh from producing at WBUR’s Radio Boston, following on course work at the Salt Institute and experience developing multi-media for museums; Jamal Millner, an accomplished musician–who has performed with such artists and groups as John Jackson, John D’earth, Taj Mahal, and the Dave Matthews Band–previously mixed and mastered monthly episodes of BackStory under contract, but became the show’s full-time technical director at the beginning of January 2012.
This team works with Field and Wyndham on details of the weekly production process, engaging a roster of show topics as diverse as childbirth, homeownership, college sports, philanthropy, protests, sugar, public health, farming, pets, guns, privacy, free speech, utopias, populism, exceptionalism, and the postal service. With listeners already tuning in across the country and on the web, the aim of the weekly show is to preserve its essential chemistry, inventively telling stories about America’s past–and how it affects our present–in ways that entertain, surprise and inform. Such a program, as a Tampa listener has said, “really satisfies a need” and BackStory does this “with a sense of humor.”