By Monica Kristin Blair
I am a PhD Candidate at the University of Virginia and the Lead Researcher for BackStory, a popular weekly American history podcast produced at the Virginia Institute for the Humanities. Our goal at BackStory is to provide listeners with the history behind today’s headlines. Historian hosts Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly, and Joanne Freeman interview guest historians every week, and along the way they offer their own insights about the deep histories that inform current events.
Listeners and aspiring podcasters are often curious how we go about researching our podcast. What follows is a quick explanation of our process and my role in it as the Lead Researcher. BackStory is really a team project, and a lot of different people bring their expertise to bear on any given episode. We have eight behind-the-scenes staff members including three Producers, a Senior Producer (who is also a former Lead Researcher), a Digital Editor, a Technical Director, an Executive Editor, and eight interns who assist us with all aspect of the show. As Lead Researcher, my work often comes in during the early stages of episode development. I alert the team to important historical anniversaries, I write research preps for upcoming shows, and I also field specific research questions from other staff members. Together, we try to help listeners understand how the past has shaped who we are today.
Picking a Topic
BackStory features historian hosts who specialize in 18th, 19th, and 20th century history. We have a few different strategies for selecting topics that span their collective expertise. Historical anniversaries often provide the impetus for our shows. Each year, the lead researcher puts together a list of important historical anniversaries. Obviously, too many significant and interesting things have happened throughout time for us to highlight them all, but it provides a good jumping off point for the team to pick topics. I usually start writing my list by researching the milestone years – 50 years ago, 100 years ago, etc., to find significant events. For instance, November 2018 was the 40th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination, so we produced a show on Milk’s life and work and the longer history of LGBTQ activism in the United States.
At other times, the topic comes to us. We work with NPR’s Here & Now every other week to historicize recent events in the news. For instance, host Ed Ayers and our technical director, Jamal Millner, did a segment on the history of blackface minstrelsy after news broke in February that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page featured blackface and Klan costumes. We then extended the conversation though two BackStory episodes on the history of blackface minstrelsy in America. Podcasts are an excellent medium for quickly contextualizing these kinds of current events. A peer reviewed article would require a couple years to publish – a book a good deal longer. But with a podcast, you can quickly connect listeners to historians who already have a lot of expertise on the headlines of today. Responding to events that quickly is difficult, and it’s given me a renewed respect for journalists. Ultimately though, the effort is worth it because it’s also an opportunity for historians to inform the public about crucial issues like white supremacy in American history.
We also try to do light and fun episodes, and these topics can range from a history of solitude to the history of profanity. We did two episodes on whaling, “Thar She Blows” and “Thar She Blows Again.” When I start researching these stories, I’m always excited to learn about the novel side of history – those stories that seem too delightfully weird to be true. But often I find that even zany histories are full of deep meaning. Take the history of profanity, it’s not just fun with the bleep button (which we ultimately decided not to use, so listen at your own risk!). Instead, it’s ultimately a story of the First Amendment, race and gender, and the power of words to collapse the distance between the present and the past.
Doing the Research
Once we have selected a topic, I begin writing a research brief. A typical research brief is about 10 single spaced pages. I start by examining the historiography on a given topic. I search journals like Essays in History or the Journal of American History to see if there are any recent state-of-the-field articles or book reviews about the topic.
Once I have a sense of the important historiographic arguments, I start looking for compelling stories that illuminate those points. Radio and lectures are similar in this way. They are both based on storytelling. You can tell a student, “the Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in American history.” But students understand that anguish more acutely after you read them a letter written to Eleanor Roosevelt, begging for one of her cast off coats to keep away the cold. The same principle applies in podcast episodes. I find telling stories in both academic books and primary sources. Often the historians we interview on the show have their own historical stories to share as well, sources they found in the archives that really spoke to them. This combination: historiography and great stories, provides the foundation for my research preps.
Turning the Research into an Episode
After I’ve written the research prep, I send it to the BackStory team. Listeners will be familiar with the great work of our historian hosts, but BackStory is also comprised of a whole team of people behind the scenes who use their considerable expertise to turn this historical research into a podcast. Our producers pre-interview guests, shape show segments, and edit interviews. James Scales does dramatic readings of the primary sources. Jamal Millner directs the mic and ensures a clear sound. Diana Williams and our digital media interns write companion content like blog posts to provide readers with fresh insights into the topic. Our Executive Editor David Stenhouse pieces it all together with considerable grace. At each step of the way, BackStory team members are adding their own voice, research, and vision to the episode. Every person on our staff is intimately engaged with history, and each BackStory show is a testament to their collective efforts to help listeners understand the present by looking at the past. BackStory episodes generally take about eight weeks from idea to release, and we are always working on more than one episode at once. The production schedule also shifts around a fair amount so that we can quickly respond to current events. We publish our episodes on Fridays every week, and that is always a fun day for me because I get to hear how it all came together. As the Lead Researcher, I am often one of the first people to dig deeply into a topic. It’s great to return to it a month or so later and hear how the team utilized and expanded upon my research to tell compelling stories about American history.
I applied to work with BackStory a year ago because of my sustained interest in public and digital history. When I’m not conducting research for BackStory, I’m researching my dissertation, “From Segregation Academies to School Choice: The Post-Brown History of School Privatization.” I love doing academic research and teaching in college classrooms, but as a historian of education I am acutely aware of the fact that not everyone gets to experience college. In 2017, the US Census Bureau released data that 33.4 percent of Americans 25 or older said they had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Historically, that’s actually a huge gain in the number of Americans attending college! But that still means two-thirds of Americans haven’t had the same opportunities. Public history projects like BackStory allow us to chip away at that gap by making history free and accessible to the broader public.
Public and digital history also allow us to share the research we do in the academy with those outside the common college age demographic. You are never too young or too old to learn about history. I am particularly keen on efforts to integrate the latest historical research into K-12 curriculums. Podcasts are a medium that nicely translates to K-12 education, and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant is allowing BackStory to create a “Classroom Connections” series of episodes that have full lesson plans, episode transcripts, and primary source documents attached to them. Teachers are notoriously overworked and underpaid in American schools, and we hope our work at BackStory will help teachers and students access history in novel ways.
 Reid Wilson, “Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before,” The Hill, April 3, 2017, https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before (March 18, 2019).
Monica Kristin Blair is a history PhD Candidate at the University of Virginia and the Lead Researcher for the American history podcast BackStory. Her research and teaching interests include the history of education, public and digital history, the American South, and racial inequality in America. Her dissertation, “From Segregation Academies to School Choice: The Post-Brown History of School Privatization” examines the role of race, region, and capital in the movement to provide public funding for private education in the fifty years since Brown was handed down. Blair has collaborated on several digital and public history projects, including Jefferson‘s University—Early Life Project (JUEL), Participatory Media, UVA Reveal and, of course, BackStory. You can follow her on Twitter @monicakblair.