Backstage at BackStory

40th Anniversary | History

In March 2014, the BackStory team posed with a Zeitfunk trophy, awarded by public radio distributor PRX. From left to right: Jamal Millner, Brian Balogh, Tony Field, Ed Ayers (on tablet) Peter Onuf, Andrew Wyndham, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Photograph by Jane Kulow.
In March 2014, the BackStory team posed with a Zeitfunk trophy, awarded by public radio distributor PRX. From left to right: Jamal Millner, Brian Balogh, Tony Field, Ed Ayers (on tablet) Peter Onuf, Andrew Wyndham, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Photograph by Jane Kulow.

You’ve heard the History Guys. Now meet the fresh and funny team behind their award-winning radio show.

By Donna M. Lucey

In March 2014, the BackStory team posed with a Zeitfunk trophy, awarded by public radio distributor PRX. From left to right: Jamal Millner, Brian Balogh, Tony Field, Ed Ayers (on tablet) Peter Onuf, Andrew Wyndham, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Photograph by Jane Kulow.
In March 2014, the BackStory team posed with a Zeitfunk trophy, awarded by public radio distributor PRX. From left to right: Jess Engebretson, Jamal Millner, Brian Balogh, Tony Field (holding an image of Ed Ayers), Peter Onuf, Andrew Wyndham, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Photograph by Jane Kulow.

The conversation was fast and furious and veered from mastodons roaming the American West in the eighteenth century (or so Thomas Jefferson mistakenly thought) to the Beverly Hillbillies’ oil fortune. I was backstage, so to speak, at BackStory, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ engaging weekly radio show and podcast that is broadcast on public radio in eighty-nine communities and 23 states. A group of young, vibrant producers sat around a horseshoe-shaped table for their weekly pitch meeting. They began by critiquing their previous show on extinction (“I wish we could have retained the caterpillar,” one producer lamented, while another waxed poetic about the segment on the snail darter), and then they batted around ideas for future shows (a proposed show about oil is where the TV hillbillies came in).

Listening to the show one might think, what’s the big deal? You take three distinguished, erudite “history guys” who can cover the territory—professors Peter Onuf, an eighteenth-century scholar; Ed Ayers, a nineteenth-century expert; and Brian Balogh, a twentieth-century historian—put them in a recording studio together, and just let them riff on any given subject. Not exactly. The shows have to be carefully thought out, researched, and structured before any of the hosts even enter the recording booth. That’s where the talented staff comes in. They suggest possible topics—a current list includes everything from “boredom” to “magic and superstition”—discuss the ideas with the hosts, and then start from the ground up. In-depth research is done on each idea: So how did boredom in the eighteenth century differ from boredom in the nineteenth century? Did the notion even exist back then? Staff members then track down experts who will be interviewed on-air. The hope is that the interviewee will be a “good talker,” that is, not pedantic, or, worse yet, boring—even if he or she has to talk about boredom. Potential guests are pre-interviewed to make certain they can convey complicated ideas in a comprehensible way. Because that is the point: this is a show designed for the public, so it must be accessible.

Get a Taste of BackStory

Here are some excerpts (3:00-5:00 min.) from recent BackStory episodes.

Each show consists of roughly half a dozen segments, covering different aspects of a single topic, and all of them have to be woven together with a narrative thread. Transitions have to be seamless. Sometimes that means a producer must rein in a host who inadvertently wanders off topic in the recording studio, or cut an extraneous pun or two. The guys are hilariously funny, and the joking among them is completely unrehearsed. There is an easy camaraderie and energy among the three scholars that is an important ingredient in the show’s success. The listener is entertained while being simultaneously spoon-fed dollops of fascinating information.

Tony Field, the savvy senior producer of the show, came to VFH in 2008 from On the Media, an award-winning NPR radio show based in New York City. He marvels at how BackStory manages to merge various production techniques into a single hour as the hosts interact with one another and with guests, as well as handling on-air questions from the audience. The public is encouraged to be part of the creative process by suggesting show topics and asking on-air questions. Field refers to the questions as “raw material for us to historicize.” The goal, he says, is to “give people new ways of thinking about the world.” Backing him up in producing the show are associate producers Nina Earnest and Andrew Parsons, assistant producer Emily Charnock, and technical director Jamal Millner. Kelly Jones will join the team as associate producer this June.

BackStory‘s creator and executive producer is Andrew Wyndham, director of media programs at VFH. Beginning with a dream of showcasing the intellectual dynamism of the three scholars “in a way that would win hearts and minds,” Wyndham worked with them for two years, creating pilot shows, raising funds, and then hiring a full-time staff. The producers experimented for four months before releasing a program that was broadcast on one lone station—WVTF public radio in Roanoke—in June 2008. BackStory has taken off since then, moving into major radio markets across the nation, and passing the 4 million mark for podcast downloads. When the show moved from monthly to weekly broadcast two years ago, Wyndham and Field assembled a dream team of co-producers who’ve migrated to Charlottesville from all parts of the country—and even one from Great Britain. The show is costly, but Wyndham has proved especially adept at raising funds from various sources, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, and a number of private donors, including one extremely generous Anonymous Donor, who is always referred to with capital letters. The “American History Guys” are the stars of the show, but as Wyndham points out, “without someone who can put it together we don’t have anything.” Pulling back the curtain, I was able to get a glimpse of the weekly marathon of work—the countless hours of pre-show preparation, the eight to twelve hours spent recording each show, and then the painstaking process of editing it down to a crisp hour. Wyndham praises the staff for its “incredible energy, commitment, and creative facility.” He might also have mentioned their stamina.

About the Author

Donna M. Lucey is the media editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. Lucey has written a number of books of history and biography, including Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.