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David Reynolds' attempt to tell the history of America in 90 episodes in the landmark Radio 4 series, "America, Empire Of Liberty" set Cambridge's Professor of International History all sorts of interesting challenges. As he revealed to his audience at Hay, it also forced him to adopt a refreshingly story-based approach to one of history's most epic tales.

I started with the hypothesis that for every sentence I wrote, someone else had written a PhD thesis

David Reynolds

When Professor David Reynolds told people he was making Radio 4's flagship history of the United States, America, Empire Of Liberty, one of the first questions they usually asked was how many episodes long it was going to be. "Ninety," came the reply. There would be a pause. "Nineteen?" they sought to clarify. "No," said Reynolds. "nine-zero".

"There would be an even longer pause," he added. "And then they would start to talk about the weather."

Ninety episodes certainly sounds like a lot, but, as Reynolds quickly worked out, when attempting to cover the entire history of America, it amounts to very little. "I started with the hypothesis that for every sentence I wrote, someone else had written a PhD thesis," he told his audience at Hay. "There was no chance that I could produce a definitive piece of work. But that is a term I despise. Nothing in history is definitive, it is always a part of our personal engagement with the material which is available."

What sounded like mission impossible soon became liberating, however. Reynolds was forced to accept that in producing the programme and subsequent book (recently released in paperback), he would of necessity be compelled to offer his own insights while at the same time accepting that the views of others might be entirely different.

What he calls the "contours" of the series were easy to define. "I had a sense of the overall pattern," he said. "I also had a fairly sharp sense of the themes I wanted to address." These were three paradoxes he regards as central to the American story. America is, he says, a modern Empire whose founding fathers rejected European Imperialism. It proclaims fundamental principles of liberty but was founded on human bondage. And while it also proclaimed fundamental principles of remarkable religious toleration from the outset, its politics have been animated again and again, for better and for worse, by evangelical Protestantism. "This is a secular state energised by Godly ambition," Reynolds succinctly put it.

So far, so good in his 90-episode distillation project, but the real challenge was how to grab the attention of his audience and keep it. Reynolds realised that he had no idea about whom he would be trying to address during the course of his series. With the help of his producer, he started to thrash out a portrait of the demographic. Each 15-minute episode, broadcast at 3.45pm, would be tuned into by a combination of mums on school runs, commuters stuck in traffic jams and a surprising number of people on tea breaks. Each Friday, an audience would also tune into a longer omnibus edition, compiling that week's broadcasts. "I quickly learned that particular audience would be unwinding at the end of the week over a glass of wine, so the main challenge there was to stop them from falling asleep," Reynolds said.

He realised that the best way to convey the scope of American history to this diverse group of listeners in the time and space available was to focus on stories. "You can't produce a lot of facts," Reynolds said, "because people will doze off. And unlike television there are no images. I began to realise that I had to supply the images and find things to say that would trigger pictures in people's minds."

Although Reynolds believes that the professionalisation of history has, for the most part, been a force for good, he does think that this art of storytelling has to some extent been lost in the process. "Storytelling is a slightly unfashionable way of doing history," he said. "I think that's a pity because they are a part of history. In most of the Romance languages, the word 'history' and the word 'story' are closely related. Stories that place these events in time are fundamental to what it is for us to be human beings."

Using a combination of online resources and those held at Cambridge University Library, Reynolds found the snippets, quotations and anecdotes that he needed to bring his radio history to life. He played just one back to his audience this morning - an extract from one of many letters written by Abraham Lincoln to the relatives of soldiers who had died in battle during the American Civil War. "I could have gone on for a long time about the anguish that Lincoln felt about the men he was sending to their deaths and the families he was bereaving," Reynolds said. "But that letter reflects more about the President than anything I could have written. It still moves me listening to it now."

Turning the series into a book was liberating again in its own right. While retaining the episodic character of the radio broadcasts, he found that the written form allowed him to throw in some of the facts and statistics he had previously been asked to axe by his producer. Population history and more studied approaches to economic history both flourish in the book where for radio listeners they might well have proven soporific.

Reynolds remains enthusiastic about combining different forms of history for the sake of conveying it to as wide an audience as possible and feels he learned much from his Radio 4 experience when it comes to grabbing the attention of listeners. His next project, "Nixon In The Den" will be broadcast on BBC Four (the television station) in the near future and explores "the darker side of Richard Nixon" over the course of a single programme. As for his 90-part marathon on the history of America; Reynolds is currently listening to Radio 4's History Of The World In 100 Objects and feels he got off fairly lightly. "I reflect that this series has just 100 episodes to tell the story of the entire world," he said. "I feel I was pretty lucky to get 90."

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