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.