What is the American experiment? How has it evolved? And will it survive?
These are among the questions Darin Waters and Marcus Harvey regularly discuss in their hourlong radio program, “The Waters and Harvey Show.” First launched on WRES as a live broadcast in 2014, the duo subsequently joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in 2017, where they’re nearing a milestone: the show’s 100th episode, set to air in either April or May.
Over the last eight years, the pair have invited listeners in as they’ve explored a wide range of local and national topics — from the Reconstruction era’s largely forgotten history to North Carolina’s jazz giants. Amid these talks, they have also continued to attract an impressive list of guests, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Blight, NASA engineer Christine Darden and William H. Turner, co-editor of the 1985 groundbreaking publication, Blacks in Appalachia.
The show’s scholarly pursuits are a natural extension of the hosts’ backgrounds — Waters holds a doctorate in history from UNC Chapel Hill, while Harvey earned his doctorate in religion from Emory University.
But their on-air discussions are a far cry from a dull lecture series.
“We try to bring a little soul, a little blues and jazz to the conversation,” says Waters. “We try to show that the life of a scholar doesn’t have to be — and isn’t — boring.”
Taking it to the streets
Prior to his 2021 appointment as N.C. deputy secretary for archives and history, Waters served on faculty at UNC Asheville and later as executive director for the university’s Office of Community Engagement. A native of Buncombe County, Waters says his 11-year tenure at UNCA was never part of his original plan.
“I left Asheville in 1985 and really had no intentions of coming back,” he says.
But in the late 2000s, as he researched his dissertation, Life Beneath the Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900, Waters began making frequent trips home to sift through primary sources at several local special collections, including the Biltmore Estate’s.
By 2009, he was teaching as an adjunct professor at UNCA — a role that later evolved into a tenure-track position, around the same time Harvey joined the university’s religious studies faculty in 2013.
“I didn’t know anybody in Asheville,” remembers Harvey, who arrived by way of Boston. “Darin was one of the first Black professors to reach out to introduce himself, even though we were in different departments.”
A friendship quickly developed. And as their conversations and intellectual debates evolved, Waters pitched Harvey an idea. “One day, Darin said to me, ‘What if we take this show on the road?’” Harvey remembers with a laugh.
Though neither had previous on-air experience (and despite Harvey’s initial reticence), they agreed to give it a shot in the name of public education. Meanwhile, leadership at UNCA, notes Waters, was immediately on board, viewing the show as a chance to further engage with local communities of color.
“It’s great to be in the classroom,” Waters says. “But there’s a limited number of people you can reach. And I’ve always had this passion for — to quote The Doobie Brothers here — ‘taking it to the streets.’”
Yin and yang
Along with engaging audiences in a variety of cultural and historical topics, the show also strives to model civic discourse.
“I think that’s particularly important in the current political climate,” says Harvey.
Furthermore, he adds, the program is an act of subversion, dismantling racist stereotypes that often portray Black men as criminal ne’er-do-wells. “We show up as everything but that,” Harvey explains. “We show up as two African American scholars.”
At its heart, however, “The Waters and Harvey Show” is about good stories and free-flowing conversations. And while the pair prepare for each recording with a script in hand, their reliance on the available text has eased over the years.
“In the earlier shows, we kind of obsessively outlined to avoid the dreaded dead air,” Harvey says. “But these days, I’m often reminded of what a professor at Emory told me as I prepared for my teaching career. She said, ‘Whether you realize it or not, you know a hell of a more than you think.’”
Along with their collective breadth of knowledge, the two hosts’ opposing outlooks further energize the program. Waters often operates as the show’s optimist, while Harvey gravitates toward a more pessimistic view.
“Marcus always forces us to deal with reality,” Waters says. “I’m always trying to bring that glimmer of hope.”
Yet, despite his own professed cynicism, Harvey is quick to note his admiration for Waters’ perspective.
“As a historian, [Waters] knows more about what has happened over the course of the American experiment than I do,” Harvey explains. “Meaning he has a more robust, deeper sense of what has been possible in years prior. So it makes perfect sense that he would have more of a sense of what could be possible going forward.”
The power of conversation
Waters’ idealism, however, is not without critique. Citing historian John Hope Franklin’s 2005 memoir, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, he notes there is a common fear across the nation to examine one’s self and the country.
“People are so afraid that they may not like what they see, so they don’t even look,” Waters says. “But you have to be willing to accept the flaws and blemishes and still be able to walk away from the mirror appreciating something about the image that was there. Only then can you say, ‘OK, I’ll do the hard work to try and fix the flaws as we move forward.’”
History, adds Harvey, requires an ongoing dialogue. “If you refuse to be in conversation with it, it becomes this kind of specter that you can’t outrun,” he says. “Americans are haunted by this stubborn, studied refusal to be in conversation with the past, because that conversation inevitably requires you to wrestle with what is going on in the present.”
These points echo topics regularly discussed on their show. And while their approaches and outlooks may differ, both scholars possess a deep faith in the power of conversation.
“I believe that American society can make each other better if we’re willing to have a conversation with each other and not come to it thinking we’ve already created a perfect union,” Waters says. “We have to recognize we are creating a more perfect union.”
This recognition, notes Harvey, can only come through continued engagement. And as he and Waters look ahead to their next 100 episodes, his hope is “The Waters and Harvey Show” continues to invite listeners into the conversation.
“I think what Darin and I model well is a commitment to lifelong learning and critical engagement with what is happening in society,” he says. “Not to be too philosophical, but I think a life well-lived is a life that is defined in large part by such commitments. And my hope is that our show will inspire people in these directions.”
For more information and to listen to past episodes, visit avl.mx/bb5.