When the true-crime podcast Serial dropped in October 2014, everyone, it seemed, suddenly became a fan of narrative radio. But cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel was hot on the trail long before Sarah Koenig became entranced by Adnan Syed; in 1999 she was commissioned by Ira Glass, the king of audio storytelling, to depict a day at This American Life in comics. Abel hasn’t been able to shake her obsession with the medium, and her new graphic nonfiction book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, goes deep into what makes modern narrative radio so great.
Abel breaks down the process of aural storytelling into five parts: ideas, character and voice, structure, sound, and editing. She follows along as stories are developed for shows such as Radiolab, Snap Judgment, and Planet Money, deftly illustrating every detail. At times it feels like reading a textbook for a class on narrative journalism. But it’s the kind of textbook that when I was in college I would have read in its entirety in one night because it’s so—to borrow a word Glass uses throughout the book—compelling.
What makes the work especially fascinating is its use of visuals to represent an aural form; not only are we reading behind-the-scenes stories of what we eventually hear, but we get a rare glimpse of what the people and places in them look like thanks to the not-often-enough-used comics journalism. In a time when anyone can blabber into a microphone and record an audio story, Abel vividly captures the people who are “making gold” in a medium overpopulated with aluminum.