Witty Professors

Think history is dull? You haven’t heard the three jaunty academics who’ve made Backstory a surprisingly engaging public-radio show.

Illustration by Kerry P. Talbott

Call it a historic comeback. After nearly shutting down a year ago, the public radio show Backstory with the American History Guys has roared back to life and stands poised to go from six shows a year to a weekly broadcast. The show, an intriguing amalgam of National Public Radio’s Car Talk and a college history class, features Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, both history professors at the University of Virginia, and Ed Ayers, history professor and president of the University of Richmond. Each has carved out an on-air persona; Onuf is the show’s 18th Century Guy; Ayers is the 19th Century Guy; and Balogh is the 20th Century Guy.

That engaging conceit makes the improbable premise—three college professors talking about American history on the radio for an hour—work. The hosts bring their own sensibilities to the microphone: Onuf is the quintessential professor, with a seemingly endless vocabulary and multi-layered answers to virtually any question; Ayers can be charming with his Tennessee drawl and eloquent, nuanced interpretations, and Balogh brings a bit of starch to the program with his quick, dry wit and penchant for science and politics. All have serious historical chops, with more than 20 books among them, and they have a genuine, boisterous chemistry both on and off the air, riffing off one another, trading barbs and working hard to one-up each other with unexpected historical interpretations.

The topics vary. Some of the shows are pulled from today’s headlines, such as the Civil War sesquicentennial, while others explore themes with a bit less gravitas, like motherhood on Mother’s Day. Ayers, Onuf and Balogh each analyze an event through the prism of his particular century. They also interview experts and take calls from historians and other listeners.

The one thing all three hosts agree on is that the show should have been a non-starter. When the show’s creator and executive producer, Andrew Wyndham, approached them with his idea in 2004, “I remember responding that ‘I don’t think history is funny,’” Onuf says, chuckling. Still, he and Ayers both signed on for the pilot episode, and then brought on their friend and colleague Balogh. He, too, was bemused by the opportunity. “I didn’t think there was enough interest out there in history. I agreed to do it because I didn’t think it would work.”

A pilot episode was recorded in the spring of 2006 and got a tepid review. The show got some traction after moving to the “18th, 19th and 20th Century Guy” conceit, and by early 2010, a full 200 stations had picked up at least one episode. But at the same time, funding took a nosedive. The program had nearly run out of money, Wyndham says, when the National Endowment for the Humanities came through with a discretionary $350,000 grant. There was also a $100,000 contribution from an anonymous donor, which was matched by the show’s primary supporter, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. With some additional donations, the show fulfilled its 2010 budget, and garnered nearly all the $1 million it needs to become a regular weekly production, says Wyndham. It’s a move he hopes to make this summer.

Sara Jackson joined the professors for an in-studio interview. Excerpts:

So, is history funny after all?

Ayers: I think we find [it] fun in a different way than most people. We find the fun in the surprising, big patterns—the surprising twist or turn that ends up resonating in our own minds or lives. So, we don’t come to it with a dirge-like “Here’s one more terrible thing our ancestors did,” but rather with a sense of the gravity of what was at stake.

Balogh: The magic is what happens when you look at a single issue or concept or idea from the perspective of three, three-and-a-half or four centuries of history. When you start adding in those different perspectives, it gets really interesting. I think a lot of people think about history as in “oh it’s time for a history lesson.” We don’t make those distinctions. I think the three of us really do live and breathe history. And I think if we can bring one thing to our listeners, it’s [that] luxury … they get to spend an hour where there aren’t these boundaries between the history lesson and what’s going on today.

How do you make an hour-long history show compelling?

Ayers: The thing is, I don’t imagine that there is a great hunger out there for what we’re doing. I think I would like it if someone stumbled across this show and didn’t turn it off. It’s a chance to talk in a public place about history the way that we feel it—with the weight and flow and energy that it really has, and that’s exciting. The idea that people who aren’t interested in history, or don’t think they are, can be conned into being interested in this. I think that’s what we’re doing—trying to surprise people with history.

Which shows, interview subjects, or callers stand out?

Ayers: I’ve enjoyed the live shows…[You] look out there and see that people are actually interested in what you’re saying. The spontaneity is turned up a couple of notches because there is no editing going on. After a [recent] show, someone came up to me and said, “You guys are just like a great band.” I love that. You look at each other and say, “It’s your time to solo … go!”

Balogh: Our second holiday show, Tony wanted to do a show on Thanksgiving. I said I would do it only if I got to interview [former NFL quarterback] Roger Staubach, because he had to spend every Thanksgiving away from his family, playing football. I never thought we’d get Staubach but we did … and I think it turned out to be a very good interview. He had some real thoughts about having to play on every Thanksgiving, [because] he’s a family guy. It was a thrill. I’m a sports junkie, and how many times am I going to interview somebody I worshipped growing up?

Onuf: The show has allowed us to reconnect with old friends. I got to talk with Steve Nissenbaum, who wrote a book about Christmas, which I had never read. I took the book out, read it, talked to Steve and recalled the good times we had had 20 years ago at a research institution where we worked.

How do you choose guests?

Ayers: We have the best historians in the U.S. who are eager to be on the show, and not just to push some book, [but] to come in and talk to us about the things they love, too. It’s one of the things I love about the show. We’re all hungry to share some of those great moments we’ve had in the classroom with a broader audience.

Balogh: We choose people to interview whom we really think—rightly or wrongly—are the best person to interview on a topic. We’ve interviewed senior, famous scholars like Eric Foner [of Columbia University] about the Civil War and Lincoln’s role in freeing the slaves. But we’ve also interviewed people from the University of Northern Florida because we knew that they were the best scholars in their field. We can draw on our knowledge to get the right person, not the person at the biggest-name institution, or the person whose book has just come out.

Onuf: The knowledge that we bring to the interview is unparalleled in the business. So when I talk with Pauline Maier [of Massachusetts Institute of Technology] about the Declaration of Independence, we’re having a genuine conversation, and she says she’s never had a better interview.

Have you ever been stumped by a caller?

Onuf: We don’t claim to be a Google machine that you can just push buttons and get facts from. That’s easier for you to do on your home computer and save us the trouble of doing it for you. What we bring to the microphone is a broad understanding of the period we’re talking about. We get the big picture. I can only remember one phone call about Indian burial practices in 17th-century Virginia that had us stumped.  

Backstory recently did a three-part series on the Civil War to commemorate its 150th anniversary. There is this dichotomy between people who romanticize the war and the battles, and people who are focused on the slavery issue and the African-American perspective of the conflict. How do you see that coloring the Virginia legacy?

Ayers: People imagine a legacy as being just the parts of the past that you want to pass on, but we leave as a legacy everything that we do. We inherit all of the Civil War, not just the parts we want to call honor and glory. The Civil War was a profound shaper of contemporary Virginia. We imagine it being bounded off in the manicured battlefields that we visit. But the Civil War still pulses through the daily life of the Commonwealth. The emancipation of half a million black Virginians, the largest number of any state in the nation, is still a drama that’s playing out. [It’s] multi-faceted. In one way, [the war] is a major tourist draw and source of revenue for the state. At the same time, it’s a source of continuing bitterness and sense of loss. Most people I speak with are looking for a new language to talk about the war. People within Virginia are eager to confront this. We’re actually doing more to engage the Civil War in all its dimensions than any place in the country. We’re showing what an inclusive story can look like.

How does a city like Richmond, with a majority African-American population wanting to move into the 21st century, handle its identity as the former capitol of the Confederacy?

Ayers: What I think people ultimately accept is that there is no way through this except through it. You can’t go around it. You can’t just pretend that it didn’t happen. The fact is that here in Richmond, we call it Civil War and Emancipation—it’s two sesquicentennials at one time. The Civil War isn’t a white thing, but [an] all-consuming force that swept up everybody—black and white, immigrant and native, male and female, soldier and deserter—into its vortex. All those identities and roles need to be looked at honestly, with no current-day political objective except to see the past clearly so that we can see the present and future clearly.

It did take some persuasion with some of my African-American friends, who said “Oh God, I can’t believe we’re going to talk about this again.” And it has taken some persuasion with some people who have a more traditional view of [the war], to make them see that emancipation isn’t just some politically correct thing to throw in the mix. There’s no understanding either half of the story without understanding the other half.

Is Virginia a good place to be a history guy?

Balogh: When I interact with people, I’m amazed at their interest in history. Whether that’s because they’re Virginians or not, I can’t say. But I’m very grateful for the kind of institutional support that Virginia provides to historians, and the degree

to which there is interest in making history accessible to non-historians and non-scholars. That does seem to be particularly valued here.

What event from your century most surprises you?

Onuf: I’m broadly in the business of what we call “the Founding.” It’s an enormously protean, powerful moment that constantly demands revision and where we’re almost as likely as in the Civil war to get stuck in conventional understandings that serve our present-day purposes. This is a constant struggle … [deciphering] what American independence was all about. It was probably stupid for Americans to break with the British Empire in terms of material self-interest. It took until 1800 or so before the economy reached levels it had enjoyed before the war. The key thing about that entire period is that everything depended upon the British and European markets. And that means that well after nominal independence, the American states are still dependent. We were post-colonial society, but still dependent upon European markets.

Balogh: One of the most surprising things about the 20th century is how civilized we believed ourselves to be, compared to how incredibly violent that century [was]. On the one hand, we’ve become much more sensitive to the rights of all American citizens; more than half of Americans who were disenfranchised when we started the century­—women, African-Americans and others—can now vote and participate in politics. We’re much more inclusive and by many standards are more civilized. But we also have the ability to kill each other with great efficiency, epitomized by nuclear weaponry. We’ve honed these destructive powers, and unleash them periodically with very destructive results.

How does Virginia stand out as a state in the 20th century?

Balogh: It’s one state that brought together many of the different trends that were beginning to emerge in the 20th century. The best example is integration. The first school [system] to implement Brown v. Board of Education from 1954 was New Kent County, which is a very rural area. It happened in 1968 that New Kent County ruled that integration had to move forward. Within four to six years, all of the desegregation cases were taking place in Northern cities. Something that looked like a very Southern, and Virginian, problem in 1968 turned out to be the model for large parts of the [country].

Any other ways?

Balogh: The university system in Virginia is pretty extraordinary. In the 20th century, especially after World War II, Virginia benefitted from an infusion of federal research money into medical schools and science. For example, NASA came to the Hampton Roads area, and also poured large amounts of money into the University of Virginia’s engineering school. Originally, most of this funding was targeted toward elite schools in the Northeast, or big public universities like Stanford and Berkeley out west. [In the 1960s], though, under Democratic presidents like Lyndon Johnson, they argued for getting away from just funding elite schools like Harvard and Yale, and spreading that largesse more generally. It definitely moved more to state universities, and it’s that funding that Virginia universities have benefitted from. It helped [them] compete against the Harvards and Yales of the world. In exchange, improving the university system helped build Virginia’s high-tech economy.

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