An award-winning radio series on the history of America, by leading international historian David Reynolds, has made its mark as a masterpiece of broadcasting.

There is very little indeed which made me more proud at Radio 4 than this series

Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4 (2004-2010)

Through a landmark BBC radio series, Professor David Reynolds of the Faculty of History has brought to life the history of modern America for British audiences.

On the basis of his 20 years of research and teaching on American history and international relations, Reynolds was invited by the Controller of BBC Radio 4 to write and present a series of 90 programmes. These were broadcast over 18 weeks in 2008-9, and drew audiences of over half a million listeners.

The programmes scored exceptionally high ratings on the Radio 4 Audience Index, and regularly topped the popularity listings for programmes across all BBC radio stations.

As well as garnering high praise from listeners and media professionals alike, the series also won the Voice of the Listener & Viewer Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, and was nominated for a SONY Radio Academy Award.

Added to this, Reynolds was short-listed for the Orwell Journalism Prize, given to those who are judged to come closest to George Orwell’s ambition of making political writing into an art.

Vivid human stories

In 2008, when the US was in the process of electing its first non-white president, Reynolds’ fresh and incisive take fed into a growing awareness and interest in the history of the world’s most powerful country. And it chimed perfectly with BBC Radio 4’s ambition at the time to commission an academic but accessible radio series to rival historical documentaries on television.

Without any visuals, Reynolds had to use words to bring history to life in listeners’ imaginations. So he built his fifteen-minute episodes around a few vivid human stories, illustrated with readings from historical sources. Some came from famous names like George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt but many of his ‘voices’ were those of ordinary men and women such as Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier of the Civil War, or Nancy Shippen, whose heartrending story of an arranged marriage highlighted the limits of liberty in a pre-feminist age.

Empire, liberty and faith

Reynolds’ book America, Empire of Liberty, on which the Radio 4 series was based, looks at the richly varied history of the United States of America through the lens of three major themes.

Reynolds starts from 1776 when the US became the first country to break from the British Empire. As an emerging independent state, the US saw itself as the embodiment of a New World freeing itself from the corruption of the Old. Yet by the 20th century it had become a superpower far exceeding the influence of the empire it sought to escape, tainted by the same moral compromises.

Although the young nation did offer liberty and opportunity far beyond what was available in Europe at the time, its growth was nevertheless dependent on crushing the rights of Native Americans and exploiting the labour of black slaves. This legacy is one that America still grapples with today.

Faith, for Reynolds, is the third pillar of modern America – the evangelical Protestantism that animates much of US politics and culture and also the popular faith in America as the land of the free and the home of righteousness. This zealous nationalism has driven America’s imperial encounters with the wider world.

These three themes, separately and entangled, were used by Reynolds to explore the past of a country at once very familiar and yet deeply foreign, one that matters perhaps more than any other for the prosperity and security of our contemporary world.