Positive streamers need a source of free electrons ahead of them to propagate. A streamer can supply these electrons by itself through photo-ionization, or the electrons can be present due to external background ionization. Here we investigate the effects of background ionization on streamer propagation and morphology by changing the gas composition and the repetition rate of the voltage pulses, and by adding a small amount of radioactive 85Kr. We find that the general morphology of a positive streamer discharge in high-purity nitrogen depends on background ionization: at lower background ionization levels the streamers branch more and have a more feather-like appearance. This is observed both when varying the repetition rate and when adding 85Kr, though side branches are longer with the radioactive admixture. But velocities and minimal diameters of streamers are virtually independent of the background ionization level. In air, the inception cloud breaks up into streamers at a smaller radius when the repetition rate and therefore the background ionization level is higher. When measuring the effects of the pulse repetition rate and of the radioactive admixture on the discharge morphology, we found that our estimates of background ionization levels are consistent with these observations; this gives confidence in the estimates. Streamer channels generally do not follow the paths of previous discharge channels for repetition rates of up to 10 Hz. We estimate the effect of recombination and diffusion of ions and free electrons from the previous discharge and conclude that the old trail has largely disappeared at the moment of the next voltage pulse; therefore the next streamers indeed cannot follow the old trail.