Air apparent: 'History Guys' prep for weekly launch
Seven years after the idea for a radio show featuring "The American History Guys" was first floated in Charlottesville, the "Guys"– a dream team of two UVA history profs and a well-known college president– can boast that their program has beaten the odds in tough economic times, with six stations signed up to carry what is about to become an every-week broadcast.
"It feels really wonderful," says executive producer Andrew Wyndham, who conceived the show back in 2004. He says that Backstory with the American History Guys goes weekly May 11.
For those who haven't heard of the show– which launched as a monthly program on just a single station in 2009 before spreading to 130 public radio stations across the country– the concept is simple, even if the topics are complex.
Sometimes the subjects are "ripped from the headlines" Law & Order-style, including an upcoming episode on American homeownership– history of subprime mortgages, anyone? Another upcomer is "childbirth in the U.S.A.," particularly timely given recent "war against women" headlines. Special guests and callers with questions add spice.
"There are public radio stations all over the country that try to launch shows, and they fail primarily for budgetary reasons," Wyndham notes. "We're very lucky we've made it to this point."
Thus far, iTunes users have downloaded more than 1.3 million podcasts. And generosity of donors seems to have played a role in helping launch the History Guys into the rarified company of other weekly programs including Car Talk, This American Life, and A Prairie Home Companion. A $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities makes up a large part of the approximately $530,000 annual budget, which pays six full time staffers as well as a part-timer and several consultants.
The History Guys are UVA professors Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf and former UVA history professor and current University of Richmond President Ed Ayers. Wyndham notes that while it's a big commitment, the Guys "do it for the love of history."
They must love history a lot, given that a weekly program means a pile of research, writing, and recording on top of their full-time jobs. To make an hour-long show, they do twice-weekly early-morning recording sessions, from 7am to 9:30am and then a couple of evenings. If that's not enough, sometimes they'll reconvene on Sunday. Fortunately, a live video feed means that the Richmond-based Ayers doesn't have to commute. Ditto for Onuf, who'll spend this summer in Maine.
"It's working well," says Wyndham, noting that they began producing weekly shows since January in order to build a stockpile of the 36 episodes that will air each year.
The only step left is convincing stations across the country to clear an hour for the new episodes. Public radio stations in Norfolk and Northern Virginia have already done so, and Roanoke's Radio IQ will broadcast on Saturdays at 7pm and WVTF on Thursdays at 7:30pm. (In Charlottesville, Radio IQ broadcasts at 88.5, and WVTF is 89.3 on the FM dial.)
The first West Coast station to sign up for the weekly slot is Tacoma's KXOT, and Wyndham says he's in talks with several other stations in multiple states that he hopes will soon commit.
"It's a great challenge, but really exciting," says Wyndham, citing financial support from numerous foundations and individuals that will continue to be critical to the show's survival.
"We take that very seriously," he says, "and want to make it a great success."
Correction: Peter Onuf will spend this summer in Maine, not Oxford, England. –ed.