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Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio


Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Humans love stories. We love the ability of the narrative to unspool a single thread and weave it, subtly, into the tapestry of our collective existence. We love stories so much that we have built entire industries dedicated to telling them, reviewing them, and teaching us how to make them. We use words like “universal” to describe the best of them, implying that these tales have the potential to affect everything that exists. We recount nearly all of our day-to-day experiences, whether aloud to loved ones or silently, within the confines of our own minds, in narrative forms --- as stories. We are addicted to the telling, and to the hearing.

Which makes it all the more fascinating when we sit down to take a serious look at how stories function: How they are made, and of what, and how they are recounted to others. In OUT ON THE WIRE: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, comics artist Jessica Abel focuses on the tales that are told in the oldest form for telling we have as a species: Oral storytelling.

“This isn’t just an exploration of a rising medium. It’s a field guide for how to tell a good story.”

The work is a follow-up to a comic Abel produced in 1999 (included here as a preface) for the most dedicated listeners to Ira Glass’ now-iconic "This American Life." Here, Glass joins a pencil-and-ink Abel in serving as the reader’s guide through two of oral storytelling’s newest tools of communication: radio and podcasts. Yet OUT ON THE WIRE feels less like a follow-up to that work than a masterful explication of the art of the narrative. Abel’s toon self interviews representations of new radio’s rising stars --- everyone from Glass to Glynn Washington ("Snap Judgment") to Jad Abumbrad ("Radiolab"), and on, and on --- with a wide-eyed desire to learn not just how radio works, but how storytelling works, and readers come away reaping the benefits.

Abel’s handful of story examples taken directly from the shows she includes give the reader a feel for the types of topics podcasts cover. Yet of greatest value here is the advice these tellers have to give. The Transom Workshop’s Rob Rosenthal provides a formula for a great broadcast: “Somebody does something because ___ but ___.” Alex Blumberg of "Planet Money" extrapolates: “I'm doing a story about X. And what's interesting about it is Y.” Soren Wheeler of "Radiolab" takes it even further: “This happened ___, then this ___, then this ___, and then you wouldn't #$%&*! believe it but ___. And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking the face of the earth is ___.” This isn’t just an exploration of a rising medium. It’s a field guide for how to tell a good story.

It’s almost impossible to speak of graphic nonfiction dedicated to explaining how an art form works without mentioning Scott McCloud (and, to some extent, Will Eisner) --- and in some ways, the comparison is apt. Abel has previously written two books about making comics, in addition to her graphic novels and comics series, a biography quite similar to McCloud’s. And like McCloud, Abel is an exceptionally skilled cartoonist with an eye for the technical and the imaginative powers to transport the reader as effectively as her subjects do when they’re on the radio. Her panels don’t stay mired in recording studios or writer’s rooms. She provides metaphorical landscapes --- a thick forest representing the feeling of being lost in a story, the wide ocean to capture the complexity and depth of sound --- and illustrates samples stories during their telling.

But unlike McCloud’s forays into art explication, Abel’s work keeps her own character deceptively in the background. She facilitates conversations, asks questions, shifts the focus from one interviewee to the next as the evolving narrative demands, but it always seems as if these podcasters and radio hosts are the ones doing the narrating. And that’s what’s so brilliant about this work: Abel tells a story about telling stories without the reader ever feeling as if she’s telling a story of her own. She knows exactly how to present the material Glass and Co. provide her --- as a collection of voices interwoven, single strands woven into the whole. This book may not be universal, but it’s damn close.

Reviewed by John Maher on September 11, 2015

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
by Jessica Abel

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2015
  • Genres: Graphic Novel, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0385348436
  • ISBN-13: 9780385348430