Book Review: Out on the Wire

Out on the Wire could easily be confused as something akin to a side project for cartoonist Jessica Abel, who was recruited years ago by radio host Ira Glass to document the making of his show, This American Life. That initial partnership led to the publication of 1999’s Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a work that focused exclusively on the minds behind TAL. After reading Out on the Wire, it’s fair to say that Abel’s curiosity got the best of her, because she ended up expanding the entire scope of her research. After years of research, the project has transcended its humble beginnings in audio and produced this graphic novel, a comprehensive work that captures the creative minds of radio’s best.

To finish her work, Abel recruited the staff of This American Life, Snap Judgment, Radiolab, Planet Money, Radio Diaries, 99% Invisible, The Moth, and The Transom Workshop. Abel interviewed most of her ensemble cast between 2012 and 2014, and the book is set in that period. In one early panel, she asks, “So what do these radio producers know that I don’t know?” By never wavering from this basic inquiry, Abel captures a behind-the-scenes look at the best-made narrative radio, a medium that is virtually synonymous with podcasting in 2015. There are some wonderful resources for radio—Transom.org being the best—but the field happily accommodates additional instruction, especially one that mines so many disparate talents for practical, take-it-with-you-wherever-you-go advice.

In retrospect, she captured radio on the cusp of podcasting’s headiest days. In some panels, it’s just as interesting to see where some of her subjects were a scant two or three years ago—and what that means for the colossal growth and myriad opportunities in podcasting—as it is learning to make radio. In the best scene from OOTW, Stephanie Foo makes a brilliant protagonist as she sits through grueling edits at Snap Judgment, only now she works for This American Life, as does Zoe Chace—formerly of Planet Money. Alex Blumberg works for Planet Money here, only now he left and founded Gimlet instead.

Despite the fascinating and unintentional where-are-they-now moments, this is a craft book first. It’s tempting to say this is an artifact for fans and radio hopefuls, but to glean the most from this work, you’d have to be an aspiring podcaster. Fans will enjoy the book, yes, but creators will want to carry it to their personal recording studio for future reference.

It’s an important distinction because OOTW shines as a collage of trade manifestos. Early in the book, Abel culls advice from showrunners on the essentials of story, and then juxtaposes their responses to explain the nuance between anecdote and story. Lead Transom instructor Rob Rosenthal shares his idea of the focus sentence, for example. “Someone does something because______________ but ______________” (e.g., A man works as a flight attendant because he loves to travel, but then he develops a paralyzing fear of flying). It’s the “but” that elevates topic into story. Glynn Washington demands something specific out of characters: “Somebody’s gotta want something.” And these examples merely scratch the surface—there are countless other wisdoms dispensed in the book.

As an aspiring podcaster and established cartoonist, Abel’s an ideal writer for a craft book, and her work pays off remarkably to that end. Her character is an outsider, but she’s inquisitive and tenacious in just the right mix to coax some great material out of her interview subjects.

Abel also wisely eschews autobiography for featuring the biggest names in radio. She’s present, but it’s never really about her. She’s a fill-in for us, the uninitiated. She talks to Ira Glass and muses with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Glynn Washington shines here as the stern editor and antagonist of my before-mentioned favorite part of the book—the surprisingly tense ending chapter that focuses on Stephanie Foo’s time in the editing room with the editors at Snap Judgment.

These scenes work because Abel did the dirty work of a good radio reporter. The only difference is that she works as a graphic novelist, not as a podcaster. Just as so many audiophiles have found that their voice best fits radio, Abel speaks as a cartoonist. It’s a lovely form, too. In one scene, she reconstructs a segment on Radiolab. It’s set on a river in Thailand, where a chorus of fireflies synchronizes its glow in silent harmony. In this quintessential moment, Abel uses her medium to explain the power of another artform. With ink, panels, and word bubbles, Abel makes you see how radio really sounds.

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Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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