The American Historian

History in Audio: The BackStory Experience

Ed Ayers

To our perpetual surprise, I and my friends and fellow historians Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf find ourselves co-hosts of a nationally syndicated weekly radio show, BackStory. For the last six years the three of us, who specialize in different eras of American history, explore a particular topic for an hour, interweaving interviews with other historians, journalists, and eyewitnesses with calls from listeners as well as produced features. We are broadcast in more than one hundred communities from Long Island to San Francisco, from Texas to Alaska, and appear in several of the top markets in the country, including Washington, D.C., and Chicago. We have performed live shows at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting and at the Smithsonian Institution.

BackStory is also finding audiences through social media and a rapidly growing online audio medium. Podcasts—audio files available at any time on the Internet—allow us to reach people regardless of whether their local stations carry our show and of what time they get up in the morning. This medium, expanding and developing over the last decade, allows people of any background to produce shows of any length and to reach listeners without the intermediary of radio stations. It holds great promise for history.

BackStory took the long way to this point. The show began when Andrew Wyndham, a program director at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, heard us on a panel and thought we could translate our conversations about history to a radio audience. We were skeptical of our untested abilities but had little to lose and enjoyed thinking and talking about history with each other. We stumbled around for quite a while, trying out different formats and strategies, broadcasting mainly on stations in Virginia. We did know from the outset that we wanted to make a show that tackled big and sometimes difficult subjects, and not just for history buffs.

We discovered that there was an audience for history beyond the polished documentaries and the often unpolished book talks found on television—an audience that wanted to interact with our show by calling or writing in. We quickly banned certain words from our on-air vocabulary—“historiography” being the first—and policed each other for opaque references or arcane information. We set out to engage nonspecialists with interesting scholarship to demonstrate that historians deal in patterns as well as facts. We relished placing the experiences of nonacademic guests, ranging from an African American Santa Claus to a prison warden, in broader historical contexts. We discovered that many of our fellow historians, including some of the biggest names in the field, were happy to join us to talk about the American past. Since 2008, we’ve had two hundred historian guests on the show, many of them relatively junior, and we find that our colleagues are good at talking to general audiences.

BackStory was fortunate to come along when it did. The show takes its current shape, and frankly, many of its better qualities, from our senior producer, Tony Field. Tony, who came to us from a well-established program in New York in 2008, began producing versions of our shows as podcasts even as he also oversaw more professional radio production and the development of our web and social media presence. Even as radio struggles to define a future in the era of the Internet, on-demand audio flourishes. Unlike radio, podcasts can be time-shifted, paused, skipped through, and listened to in binges. Apple produced the first widely available portable device for listening to such files, the iPod (thus the somewhat anachronistic and ill-fitting name for the medium), and then developed the iTunes store to distribute, categorize, review, and rate such files. There are now many such services and the files are often referred to now simply as “sounds,” “tracks,” and “audio.” They can be heard on smartphones and tablets and can now be streamed in modern automobile sound systems.

BackStory has more than eighty-five shows available on iTunes, ensuring that the work behind each show lives on after its weekly debut. We have registered more than 4.25 million podcast downloads and more than 3 million streaming plays, with the number of our weekly subscribers increasing more than 70 percent in the last year. The show reaches people whose NPR stations do not carry the show or who live outside the United States. Indeed, about a sixth of the traffic on our website emanates from abroad, with listeners in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Egypt, and Japan the most frequent visitors. The show is also available on streaming audio sites such as SoundCloud, where we have more than eight hundred thousand followers./p>

BackStory regularly finds itself among the ten highest-rated history shows on iTunes, with a five-star rating and several appearances in the iTunes Society and Culture category top ten. That is surprising because our show is an outlier—it is hosted by academic historians, it is devoted entirely to American history, and it deals with challenging and sometimes unpleasant and contentious topics for nearly an hour. By contrast, the top history show is Stuff You Missed in History Class, part of the HowStuffWorks commercial family of podcasts, video, and blogs; it is light and entertaining as well as informative, and half the length of BackStory. The second-place show is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. As that show’s homepage puts it, “the very unconventional Dan Carlin takes his ‘Martian,’ outside-the-box way of thinking and applies it to the past. Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolf Hitler? What would Apaches with modern weapons be like?” That podcast often runs for three or four hours. Other successful history podcasts include The Memory Palace and Radio Diaries—brief, appealing vignettes from the past—and the BBC’s In Our Time, which deals with the history of ideas.

With such a broad range of competition, we feel fortunate that our show is downloaded more than 45,000 times per week. There is no way to know how many people actually listen to the shows they download, of course, just as there is no way to know how many people are actually paying attention to our shows in their cars, homes, or workplaces—although we do our best to make sure they do. What we do know is that the people who listen to us on demand, perhaps not surprisingly, are our most engaged listeners. They call in with questions and write in with suggestions (and the occasional corrections) more often than our on-air listeners. They may be more engaged simply because they have preselected themselves by going to the trouble of downloading the show or perhaps they are more engaged because they control when and where and how long they listen to us—and some of that time may be near a keyboard or smartphone, so they can easily connect with us.

Time-shifted audio presents producers with major advantages over radio. It is hard to get an hour on public radio, with popular national shows consuming most of the available airtime, and it is expensive to produce radio of a quality that can compete for that airtime. The amount of work behind the scenes in BackStory is immense, with four full-time producers, a research associate, and interns locating the best people to interview, determining the ways most likely to connect with a nonspecialist audience, and editing into fifty-two tight minutes the hours of talking that Peter, Brian, and I do each week. Raising the money to sustain such an enterprise and working to promote it is the work of Andrew, our executive producer and the creator of the show.

Given these challenges, it is interesting to speculate whether BackStory, if it were starting today from scratch, might have begun as a podcast and then reached out to radio audiences. As much as we have learned from our colleagues and audiences in radio, we could certainly have begun the show more cheaply and more easily as a podcast. History is a wide-open field for on-demand audio and we encourage anyone with an inclination to experiment with the medium to do so. Professional historians talk with nonspecialist audiences every day and so we are well suited to connecting with broad audiences. Any historian can identify a topic that interests people and share his or her thoughts in concise, engaging, and informative pieces that respect people’s curiosity. On a podcast, the host can talk as long as the subject dictates, without worrying about filling an hour or fitting into a slot of other programming.

As for BackStory, we will continue to do everything we can to build our presence on the air and online. Thanks to recent developments, we find ourselves able to do things we could not have imagined when we began, able both to broadcast and to narrowcast, to reach general audiences and niche audiences with the same show. Radio gives us a chance to talk to people regardless of age, income, or education, while on-demand audio gives us a chance to connect to those listeners most likely to engage and respond. Improbably enough, in other words, the Internet age is giving audio, the oldest form of electronic broadcasting, a second life. A historian has to appreciate the irony. In fact, maybe there’s a show idea there . . . .

EDWARD L. AYERS is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. Recipient of the 2013 National Medal for the Humanities from President Barack Obama, Ayers is the author of several books, including In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (2003), which won the Bancroft Prize and the Beveridge Prize. He was named National Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, cohosts the nationally syndicated radio show BackStory, and is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.