Produced as a series of monthly specials since 2008, the show will relaunch in May with new segments exploring historical themes suggested by the week’s news events. With three historian hosts billed as “the American History Guys,” BackStory makes a nod towards the wisecracking Tom and Ray Magliozzi of Car Talk, known to public radio listeners as “the car guys,” and there’s certainly joviality to their banter with each other and listeners who call in. But BackStory takes its history seriously. Andrew Wyndham, executive producer and media director for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, prefers an analogy made by a station program director who said BackStory could “do for history what Carl Sagan did for science.”
Each of the show’s hosts brings special expertise to the subject: Peter Onuf, a professor at the University of Virginia, specializes in 18th-century American history, and Brian Balogh, also of U-Va., is an expert on the 20th century. Ed Ayers, a history professor and president of the University of Richmond, covers the gap between them, 19th-century America.
On a warm summer day in 1946 I find myself, somewhat improbably, at the helm of a U.S. Navy ocean tug, threading through a crowded, palm-fringed Pacific atoll called Bikini. We stay only long enough to anchor the derelict ship we’ve towed here from the Philippines. Several days later, making slow progress east to Honolulu, we learn that the wreck we had pulled into that pristine island sanctuary had been obliterated — along with everything else in the lagoon — by two atomic bombs. More than a few of my shipmates are bitter that, unlike others, they had been denied an extremely close look at the destruction. But for most of us it is simply an isolated event, one among many in those rather bewildering post-war days following the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The makers of Liberty!, which airs Nov. 23-25 on PBS stations, are trying nothing less than to renovate the dusty reputation of the country’s founding fathers and their revolution. “People sort of consider it inherently boring — long-ago, far-away people in funny wigs, saying profound things you don’t quite understand,” says Ronald Blumer, writer and co-producer of Liberty! Not so! The producers summon up Ben Franklin to look viewers in the eye, and dozens of his contemporaries to admit they don’t know what will happen next in this Revolutionary War.
Current: There was a long period when TV critics regularly wrung their hands over the death of the long-form documentary. Now PBS has several strong documentary series, and documentaries are the basic material of several cable networks. Some documentaries like Hoop Dreams have been hits in theaters. Should we stop wringing our hands now? Judy Crichton: The truth is there was always an enormous appetite for nonfiction television, and we now know how to do these films a great deal better than we ever knew before.