COVER- Wise guys: Ayers, Onuf and Balogh shed robes for radio
If you'd asked historians Brian Balogh, Peter Onuf, and Ed Ayers six years ago how they'd feel about becoming popular radio personalities, they would have laughed it off as a joke. Well, in fact, someone did ask, and they did laugh. Heartily.
At the time, all three were employed at the University of Virginia as accomplished colleagues who collectively had penned enough books to fill a small library and had garnered enough honors– academic and literary– to wallpaper any remaining walls in that library.
But host a radio show?
"I thought it was crazy," laughs Ayers, now president of the University of Richmond.
"I don't think history is funny," Onuf says he replied when the idea for what would become BackStory with the American History Guys was first floated past him following a history symposium at which he and Ayers had presented.
And Balogh says the idea seemed so terrible at first that, in a strange way, he couldn't resist.
"It was pitched in a way that made me laugh and convinced me it would never work," he recalls, admitting he agreed only because it sounded like it would be fun– at least until it failed. "How bad could it be to sit around and talk about history?" he wondered.
Since the first episode aired in June 2008 on a single station, the show has racked up rave reviews and awards from organizations such as the Federation of State Humanities Councils and Public Radio Exchange. Early on, it was singled out on iTunes as a "staff favorite," and the latest holiday show, "Naughty and Nice," held the front page of the iTunes Store's podcast page, leading to almost 90,000 downloads and helping the show earn sponsorship by the History Channel.
Perhaps more significantly, it's built an ever increasing listenership. The show's July 4, 2009 episode, "Independence Daze," aired on twenty-seven public radio stations from Cape Cod to Sioux City to San Francisco, and introduced listeners to the history behind America's most patriotic holiday and the traditions that accompany it. The show has been carried on 86 stations in 35 states plus the District of Columbia.
If the show's executive producer has his way, the "guys"– Onuf is "Eighteenth-Century Guy," Ayers is "Nineteenth-Century Guy" and Balogh is "Twentieth-Century Guy"– will soon be on air weekly in all 50 states, bantering, interviewing prestigious intellectuals and common folk, taking calls from listeners, and, most importantly, says Onuf, "having a ball."
The show's success has been surprising even to the man who first envisioned it as he was exploring opportunities in radio programming at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in the fall of 2004.
"I knew both Ed and Peter," says Andrew Wyndham, director of media programs at VFH and BackStory's executive producer. "They're both brilliant guys," he says, "and I thought, if these two came together, we could have the makings of an extraordinary radio show, given their chemistry."
After some initial good-humored resistance, in the summer of 2005 Ayers and Onuf agreed to give the show a try– but with one caveat.
"They both said we need a third guy who will be our twentieth-century expert," Wyndham recalls. Ayers and Onuf already had that expert in mind: their UVA history department colleague and Ayers's basketball buddy, Brian Balogh.
"I was a little worried about having three voices," Wyndham admits, but when Balogh arrived for a meeting with Ayers, Onuf, and Wyndham to discuss the idea, "it was obvious that they really set off each other's energy– it was happening right there in front of me," Wyndham says. "They were making quips, coming up with ideas, generating thought after thought."
Settling on the show's hosts, however, would prove to be the lowest hurdle to leap as the four worked to take the concept from inception to airwaves.
By spring 2006, they'd created a 30-minute demo called The History Guys, featuring questions from callers and several regular segments, including "Gear from Yesteryear," examining technology and tools from the past, and "Kidding Around with History," featuring children and teens. That first foray won them their first grant: $30,000 from UVA alumni through the office of UVA's president. A year later, an expanded one-hour prototype reaped even more money: $130,000 from another UVA fund, plus several individual donations.
But when they submitted their sample to various public radio stations for feedback, the reception, Wyndham says, wasn't as warm.
"They came back to us and said, ‘There's potential here, but it's not there yet.'"
Among the suggestions: that each episode needed a coherent theme and that the three hosts needed to "differentiate." And that wasn't all.
"The biggest suggestion was to have a dedicated staff of people who have experience in producing shows and who can make this sing," says Wyndham, who raised enough money to hire three full-time radio professionals, including the show's producer, Tony Field, in early 2008.
"The challenge with these guys has been working with them to find their voice as radio professionals instead of as professors," says Field, who'd been an associate producer at On the Media, a one-hour National Public Radio show offering media criticism and analysis. Since his hiring, Field also has worked to develop a vibrant and interactive web presence for the new show at backstoryradio.org. But there's a flip side to that challenge as well.
"A lot of exciting opportunities have presented themselves because of that," says Field, explaining that many of the intellectual powerhouses guesting on the show are lured in by the idea of being interviewed by fellow scholars instead of journalists and radio hosts.
"There's a little more spontaneity and a little more seriousness" in the interviews, says Yale history professor David Blight, an authority on the U.S. Civil War, whose interview on the "Independence Daze" episode covered Frederick Douglass's famed 1852 Fourth of July speech in which the freed slave offered his audience the scathing reminder that, because of his skin color, "the Fourth of July is yours, not mine."
The three hosts of BackStory "are taking talk radio and TV culture," says Blight, "and infusing it with some serious historical understanding."
Which isn't to say the guys understand everything. In that same July 4 episode, a caller asks why the 1812 Overture, by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, is associated with America's holiday.
"We looked at each other, pointed at each other," says Balogh, admitting the question stumped all three. "We don't pretend to be experts on everything under the sun." (It turns out that a July 4, 1974, performance of the overture by the Arthur Fiedler-conducted Boston Pops Orchestra, accompanied by cannons and fireworks, sparked the tradition.)
Although the history of holidays have anchored several BackStory episodes, other episodes take a ripped from-the-headlines approach including "Panic! A history of Financial Crisis," "From Whales to Wind: A History of Energy," and "The More Things Change: The History of Presidential Transitions."
But sometimes, serendipity creates its own drama. For Ayers, it was a surprise caller during their Mother's Day program.
"They said, ‘It's Billie from Kingsport, Tennessee,'" laughs Ayers. He admits it took him a moment to realize that the caller who asked, "What do three men know about motherhood, anyway?" was Ayers's own octogenarian mother, a retired teacher, who then discussed with the guys the merits of mothers working versus staying at home.
In the course of that program, the guys addressed a question from another caller, who was planning to conceive, and wondered when the societal pressure to be a perfect mother began. For the record, the guys agree that the pressure likely started in the nineteenth century, when a mother's role was essentially that of a "proto-Harvard business school"– raising boys into men who would be leaders in society. Girls, the guys noted, also needed an education so they would later be able to raise their own accomplished sons.
During the show's Memorial Day episode on the history of death and mourning, Ayers says, he visited a very special grave site: his own. The University of Richmond has a special plot for deceased presidents in historic Hollywood Cemetery.
"That's what I like about the show," says Ayers, a Yale graduate with a Tennessee twang. "It doesn't take itself too seriously."
Balogh, too, holds one show at least slightly above the rest: the Thanksgiving program in which he interviewed his sports idol, 1970s Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, to find out what it was like to have spent a decade of Thanksgivings on the gridiron. "I don't get to interview Roger Staubach every day," he notes.
For Onuf, the joy of interviewing guests is at least matched by the pleasure of the studio repartee, a pleasure that's obvious as the three men banter during a summer recording session, ribbing each other over whose century is superior until a producer reins them in.
"The thing I love most is when we surprise each other, including ourselves, with something weird, off-the-wall, some weird angle," Onuf says. "The times when we're doing our chops as historians. There's that kind of excitement."
Such chops are on display in a year-ago episode, "Black & White: The Idea of Racial Purity," when Balogh asks his two cohosts about the origins of the concept of race.
They trace it from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when ethnicity was a far more powerful defining force than race, through slavery and emancipation, and on into the twentieth century. They discuss the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which declared antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional, and note that themes of racial identity became increasingly common in works by twentieth-century authors, including William Faulkner and George Orwell.
Yet for all the intellectual stimulation the show offers its hosts, it places grueling demands on their time, particularly considering all three men are already gainfully employed. Eight to 10 hours of studio recordings are edited to fit into each one-hour episode; and there have been several times when it appeared the show might itself have become history.
Nearly three years ago– as they were struggling to retool the show's format– Ayers assumed the presidency at the University of Richmond following his tenure as dean of UVA's School of Arts and Sciences. The move and long hours at the new job threatened to derail the fledgling radio program. Onuf soon chimed in with some news of his own: He'd been offered a visiting professorship at Oxford University in England.
"I really thought that might be it," says Wyndham.
In stepped what might be considered "Twenty-first-Century Guy": technology.
Setting up home sound studios for Onuf in England and Ayers in Richmond allowed recording to continue. "I've been surprised," Balough says, "at how easily we adapted to being in three different places."
And with Onuf now returned from his year overseas and Ayers just an hour away from the show's Charlottesville home base, the future of BackStory, says Wyndham, looks especially bright. Various grants and donations have allowed the program to meet its current $190,000 annual budget, and the guys have taken the show on the road. Last June, they recorded before a live audience in Charlottesville, and since then have done live shows in New Hampshire, Richmond, and again in Charlottesville at Monticello, with an additional recording scheduled for October in Colonial Williamsburg.
Wyndham hopes BackStory will run weekly by next summer and that they'll be able to convince the eighty-six stations that have already carried at least one episode to sign on permanently, although he acknowledges the current economic climate means meeting that goal won't be a cakewalk. "It's a tough time to be breaking in a new show in public radio," he sighs.
For their parts, Balogh, Onuf, and Ayers seem to have made peace with their unexpected success– even as the show's growth may put increasing demands on their already limited time.
"I put that in the ‘trouble in paradise' category," says Balogh.
Six years after they were first asked what seemed to be a silly question, indeed, they are well on their way to becoming radio stars. And, to their great delight, all three guys are still laughing.
Hook senior editor Courteney Stuart originally penned a version of this story for the November/December issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities.