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Backstory with the American History Guys
November 17, 2012 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Hosted by three professors of US history (one a specialist in the 18th Century, one in the 19th, and one in the 20th), each episode of the radio show and podcast Backstory takes a subject from the news and looks at the American history behind it.

The hosts:
Peter Onuf (18th Century Guy) is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author/editor of eleven books, including most recently, Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War.


Ed Ayers (19th Century Guy) is President of the University of Richmond. Previously, he served as Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. The author/editor of ten books (including the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies), Ed also directed the online history project “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War.”


Brian Balogh (20th Century Guy) is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and Director of the Fellowship Program at Governing America in a Global Era Program at UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. His third book, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America, was published in 2009.
posted by ocherdraco (34 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have to say, I was on a long drive last summer when this came on the radio, and for some reason expected to dislike it, but found it very enjoyable and informative.
posted by 4ster at 6:51 PM on November 17, 2012


They do NOT make it easy to subscribe via iTunes, do they?

Completely not searchable within iTunes, and when you click the link you have to navigate through three pages, then scroll to the bottom of the page where there is a cryptic message about getting "more information about how to subscribe". Which then leads to a long page full of text, wherein the iTunes link is hidden in the middle of a paragraph.

That said, this is right up my alley, so thanks for posting this! Just when I was getting bored with the How Stuff Works family of 'casts and running out of In Our Times archives.
posted by Sara C. at 6:54 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can also click the podcast symbol under the heading "Podcast and Social Media" which appears on every page of their website. That takes you to their podcast page where iTunes is the first link.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:00 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always really liked the idea of this show, and I've enjoyed a few episodes. NHPR has been broadcasting it for a few years. But there's a lot about it I don't like.

First, the all-guy format. They even call them the "Guys." It's not that guys can't be good historians, but I'd really just like to see it not be an all male show. Historians today come from all walks of life - how did this show end up casting all white men?

Second, the chronological approach. They set themselves up as "Nineteenth century guy," "Twentieth Century guy," etc. All well and good, but it sidesteps the more interesting things you can get to if you look at history topically - like, I'd love to hear a show with a social/popculture historian, a labor historian, and a political historian, for instance. I think that would be a lot more provocative.

It's one of those things where I really honor the impulse to try and make history interesting to a popular audience, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. And if I don't like it, I wonder about the whole crafting and conceit of the thing - I am totally geeky about history, I work in the field, and have been dying to see some imaginative ways of having history reach a contemporary audience better. This isn't it, though. I think the problem is that it really isn't different enough - it's still a handful of older, white, establishment-type guys droning on about fairly standard history topics. I like that they enjoy it and find it fun, and those of us who already like this stuff can get something out of it, but this isn't the really fresh approach to public history that we need and could use right now.
posted by Miko at 7:04 PM on November 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ha, ocherdraco, I really fail at the internet sometimes.
posted by Sara C. at 7:07 PM on November 17, 2012


Ha, ocherdraco, I really fail at the internet sometimes.

iTunes is what fails at the internet.
posted by srboisvert at 7:22 PM on November 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


Finally downloaded and saw the full list of episodes. A history of heating and cooling? Man, it's like these guys live in my brain!

(Why, no, I didn't have a lot of friends in high school. Why do you ask?)
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 PM on November 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


How this show got to be a show.

If you like this you'll probably also like the Talking History podcast.
posted by Miko at 7:40 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hah! I knew if I procrastinated about posting this podcast to the Blue for long enough, someone would beat me to it!

Excellent excellent show, cannot recommend it highly enough.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:56 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


To each his/her own, but I've listened to Backstory for a few years now and I've always thought it's exactly the kind of approach to public history that we need.
posted by RabbleRabble at 8:14 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like Backstory. I have to admit that I'm mildly surprised to hear your critique, Miko, because as a history layperson, what frequently strikes me about it is that they are pretty anti-establishment in their discussions of history. (Some might call this just "being realistic", I guess.) But whenever there's an episode tangentially related to the old South, it's pretty fascinating to hear how they are pretty... I mean, there is no glorification of anything related to that system. In one of the episodes about the Civil War, they're interviewing some guy who's like a Son Of The Glorious Dead or something, and the professor asks him something about how he feels about revering a system that oppressed Black people, and the guy starts to drone on about how MANY MANY BLACK PEOPLE FOUGHT WITH THE CONFEDERACY, and the professor (whichever the most southern-sounding one is, Ed Ayers?) just cuts him off. "No, sir." and won't let him talk And in a polite, Southern-gentleman way, it's a smack in the face.

For topics I know something about, the episodes are not super satisfying to me, because they have to kind of skim over the top. (Like the episode about childbirth.) But for things I've never thought about, like the episode about heating and cooling in America, it's pretty fascinating stuff. I guess I can see that if you're a historian, maybe this show doesn't really work for you, but I'm not, and it totally does. Together with Radiolab (yes, even after the Yellow Rain debacle) and 99% Invisible, it forms my trifecta of Interesting Things.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:21 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, in the runup to this recent election, I felt like I was kind of losing my mind about how America is full of total idiots, we can't be trusted to govern ourselves, what is wrong with us! And then I would listen to Backstory, and invariably discover that Americans have always been idiots about exactly these same things. In a weird way, I found this to be extremely soothing.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have to admit that I'm mildly surprised to hear your critique, Miko, because as a history layperson, what frequently strikes me about it is that they are pretty anti-establishment in their discussions of history

It may be that I'm comparing them to other people in the discipline, and not comparing them to the seriously lame talk about history you hear from people outside the discipline. You're right, most Americans are historically fairly illiterate, and so it's surprising to hear any serious and informed talk about history. So it's not hard to do better than most Americans' high-school or maybe one-semester of college experience of the study of history. No historian worth his or her salt, for instance, would have entertained racist arguments about the Civil War. It's not anti-establishment to reject them; it would be insane to accept them. I know that it still seems like it's historically controversial that the war was fought over slavery, because so many laypeople argue like it is, but from a serious academic perspective it's absolutely not controversial. So that's not something I would have found surprising or particularly admirable - just expected and responsible.

I'm not trying to say they are inaccurate or anything. They're obviously highly accomplished, though not radical or even especially adventurous, historians doing their jobs well. They're good; but just not really that different from the last generation of talkers about history, not breaking new ground in any way other than taking inspiration from today's news.

What saddens me sometimes is that I know that there are far more interesting, refreshing, provocative, funny, and well-spoken personalities in the field, and those haven't found an outlet like this yet. This is still a watered down and sort of bland version of what historical conversations can sound like. But if you go to an American Studies conference, just the hallway conversations are a lot more exciting than what you hear on Backstory, and I wish more people could have access to that sort of conversation. The field of public history is sort of plagued with a bit of a foot-dragging nature about bringing history content into media in accessible and fresh ways - that's sort of what's going on here, but it's still pretty old-school stuff. And yet there are amazing people at work.

Finally, just as with RadioLab, regardless of how solid the ideas are there's just part of me that gets tired of the same kinds of people - the "guys" - being the explainers and hosts all the time.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


That interview with the head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is amazing. I expected Ayers to let the guy have his say, and then to follow up after the interview to clarify the facts (like I'm used to with most radio journalism) but Ayers just shuts down that line of conversation, and asks his question again. I was super impressed.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:33 PM on November 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


tl;dr it's good, I just wish it were better still.
posted by Miko at 8:37 PM on November 17, 2012


I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, HUGE relief to find out that, despite all being from Virginia, they are pretty modern and normal about Civil War stuff (and presumably Civil Rights stuff and Did Thomas Jefferson Fuck Sally Hemmings stuff, and on down the line.

On the other hand, I think Miko is right that there should be more non-white non-dudes doing this sort of thing, and it continues to be disappointing when the faces of "History" to the public are pretty universally white dudes talking about white dude stuff. It's why the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast is pretty cool, even though the (female and currently not entirely white) hosts stick pretty closely to the conventional script. Just the fact that they're women and like to do women's history stuff is a start -- they're the first place I heard about Ada Lovelace, for instance. And, yeah, obviously there is a TON of more interesting stuff you can do, podcastwise, with people who specialize in different things and take different approaches.

That said, A) haven't actually listened to it yet because I'm too busy mouthing off here, and B) I think it's great that there is more that can be done with the History Podcast medium. We should have this AND something about labor history or culinary history or cultural history or history as it interacts with other disciplines like geography, archaeology, or art history.
posted by Sara C. at 9:00 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


HUGE relief to find out that, despite all being from Virginia, they are pretty modern and normal about Civil War stuff (and presumably Civil Rights stuff and Did Thomas Jefferson Fuck Sally Hemmings stuff, and on down the line.

Sigh...Not to pick on you, Sara, but I think this is maybe one shining example of how historians have failed to get their points across to the public in the last 40 years, and highlights the need for this show.

This is why I'm upset when people rave about The People's History of the United States but haven't read a book from the last thirty years and realize that history from "the bottom-up" is fairly normal for this generation.
posted by RabbleRabble at 9:19 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I know it's normal for this generation.

That's why I'm relieved to hear that these guys are legit about racial issues within an American history context. Because there are still some people who aren't, and moreso there are people who are all "Look At Me, I'm Being All Egalitarian And Shit" just by acknowledging pretty basic stuff that is in no way controversial.

With podcasts, you never really know what you're going to get.

You could get really amazing historians who are doing great work.

You could get some adjunct at a directional university with a really whacked perspective. You could get some guy who's been doing the same set of lectures since 1975 and is not with the times at all.

You could get people who aren't historians but journalists and don't really know what the current standards in the field are (which is a problem I often have with the How Stuff Works folks, though I think their history podcast handles it OK).

You could be listening to something from another country where they have their own weird regional biases about what history is worth talking about. Which, as much as I love the BBC, they have HUGE blind spots about that.

And, I mean, keep in mind what dreck the so-called History Channel produces, these days.

So in the grand scheme of what Backstory could be, I'm really impressed. I mean, I just listened to the Gun Ownership one, where they actually talk about the Black Panthers as good faith political activists who were doing stuff for reasons. Which is relatively rare in the popular media.
posted by Sara C. at 9:49 PM on November 17, 2012


Oh, holy fuck.

They've been doing this since 2008? I've got four years of archives to lull myself to sleep with for the next several months?

Can I marry this podcast?
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is bizarre, I was listening to Backstory last night and thought, 'hmm, this would make a great FPP.' I do agree with Miko's criticism of how Backstory could potentially be. At the same time, it's entertaining and you learn something without being misinformed, which is more than you can say for a lot of media.

By the way, the episode on the Emancipation, called Thenceforth and Forever Free I found really interesting. What I like about them that came through in this episode in particular was that while they are white and academic and experts in a very conventional way, they don't so much preach as they do explore and discuss and bring in a lot of guests.

Also, their voices are great radio voices.
posted by undue influence at 11:41 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko, if you were to put together a podcast with a bunch of topical historians about, well anything, I would listen the fuck out of that podcast.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:00 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


The archives, they are deep. Anyone have any particular episodes to recommend?
posted by Zed at 5:19 AM on November 18, 2012


I sometimes time the drive home from doing yard work at my dad's just to listen: I really, really enjoyed their history of the U.S. Post Office, and the show tracing the history of the phrase "City Upon a Hill" with reference to American exceptionalism.
posted by steef at 6:16 AM on November 18, 2012


In addition to the episode on veterans and coming home from war mentioned above, I really enjoyed their episodes on voting and on historical reenactment.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:28 AM on November 18, 2012


it's entertaining and you learn something without being misinformed

Totally true.

Miko, if you were to put together a podcast with a bunch of topical historians about, well anything, I would listen the fuck out of that podcast.

Oh man, that would be such a fun project. I've actually done a small smidge of radio and really enjoy it, and I have an idea for an hour-long documentary project - but even that's on the back burner. Life is choices and I hate that sometimes. Job #1 right now is finishing my degree and associated writing...otherwise stuff like this would be my true calling at the moment!
posted by Miko at 7:23 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another nifty thing about Backstory y'all should be aware of: crowdsourcing. You can incite them to investigate angles they might have missed on their planned topic, or even tell them what that topic should be. People whose ideas are used also get incorporated, by telephone, into the on-air conversation
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:41 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Miko and Blasdelb, it's funny you say that, because after seeing a (now closed) job posting on Backstory's website for an associate producer, it turns out I have all the qualifications except for experience with ProTools.

Also, I love the on-air callers so much. At first I was worried that they would be all cranks (especially since the Gun episode was the first I listened to), but it's often exactly the sort of people Miko wishes had their own podcast -- history professors with specific expertise who have questions/comments for the "Guys". I especially liked the woman writing a book on Laura Ingalls Wilder who called in on the Fourth Of July podcast.
posted by Sara C. at 10:55 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Backstory is one of my mainline culture podcasts. It makes for fine driving across New England, along with Dan Carlin, Norman Centuries, and In Our Time.

I don't know the 20th and 18th-century guys, but Ed Ayers impresses me very much. He's behind the awesome Valley of the Shadow project, helped get digital humanities going, co-authored a fine scholarly article in hypertext (and got it peer reviewed, and published, in a mainstream history venue), while somehow becoming a university president.
posted by doctornemo at 11:47 AM on November 18, 2012


Just saw this because it's on the show's Facebook. Obviously, I'm a fan. And I'm pretty sure I found it from an ask about podcasts. For those looking for highlights from the archives, I recommend Love Me Did and Monumental Disagreements.
posted by Xalf at 5:44 PM on November 18, 2012


I'm a big fan of this podcast, and I'm glad to see an FPP on it. It's not just that they talk about a historical topic, but they talk about the context of it, the changing meaning and interpretation, and they definitely tend to approach it from a humanist view. It's also really well-done radio.

And yes, that interview Ed Ayers did with the Confederate Veteran guy is great. Just superb.
posted by X-Himy at 6:27 PM on November 18, 2012


I was too harsh on it, you're all right. I spend too much time thinking about making history more accessible, and I'm comparing something very good to an ideal that doesn't exist yet.
posted by Miko at 7:12 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just saw this because it's on the show's Facebook.

Hah, they quoted my "trifecta of interesting things". I am famous to an extremely small number of people! :\
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:39 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I was too harsh on it, you're all right. I spend too much time thinking about making history more accessible, and I'm comparing something very good to an ideal that doesn't exist yet."

Incidentally, if you ever get around to having the time to produce such an ideal, I would totally love to join you in a history of biological science podcast.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:41 AM on November 19, 2012


Noted!
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on November 19, 2012


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