The story of radio storymaking–with cartoon illustrations


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

Back in 1999, cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel  wrote a slim but very interesting graphic novel-like book–maybe you’d call it a nonfiction comic book–about how the radio show This American Life creates its often irresistible stories, stories that lead to “driveway moments” where you’ve arrived home but can’t get out of the car because you must hear how those stories end. I’ve treasured my copy of Radio: An Illustrated Guide for years and now Abel has written a greatly expanded update.  


At 200+ pages Abel’s new book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, includes other American radio shows with high quality narrative nonfiction, shows like Snap Judgement, Radio Lab, Planet Money, The Moth, 99% Invisible, and Radio Diaries. The people who work on these shows are characters in the “story” of how they put together their various radio pieces, and Abel uses graphic images in ways that I didn’t expect but that really work well on several levels.


She shows herself interacting and  in conversations with many of the radio people she interviewed for the book, creating  dialog and  pictures that give a sense of the personalities involved while also conveying  information about the sometimes varied story processes the shows use–Snap Judgement and This American Life have very different  philosophies for instance. Some of the picture panels are set in radio offices, meeting rooms, or broadcast areas, but Abel also puts her characters in a myriad of other more dramatic locations, including wandering around lost in a dense “German forest” and scaling a treacherously steep a rock cliff, images that vividly and charmingly illustrate the creative steps the characters are struggling through.


It’s both amazing and fascinating how much goes into making these shows as compelling as they are–it might take hours or even a whole workday to get 20 seconds right. I’m a big fan of radio, I think it’s natural for a bibliophile to treasure a medium where words play such a key role, so I already loved many of the radio shows in the book but I’m listening now with a lot more alertness and insight into the techniques behind the finished products.


The book is broken into chapters that explore how to: come up with story ideas that will work, find the right characters and voice, structure the story’s components, use sound and music to create images and scene breaks, and edit hours of tape (they still call it that, even in the digital age) into a tight radio segment. I think anyone interested in radio, the creative process, or what it is that makes stories riveting will find this book as fascinating as I did.


I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the website LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

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