Jessica Abel’s new graphic novel on the rise of narrative nonfiction radio (think This American Life and Radiolab) is a love letter from one blossoming genre to another.
Writing about music, the saying goes, is like “dancing about architecture.” In “Out on the Wire,” Jessica Abel attempts an equally unlikely trick: drawing about radio.
The Chicago-born graphic novelist and storytelling teacher is nothing if not ambitious, employing a medium commonly known for sight gags and superheroes to describe and deconstruct a new radio genre awkwardly labeled here as “narrative nonfiction.” While tough to classify (much less draw), this sort of radio is well known to the listeners of such program-slash-podcasts as “This American Life,” “Radiolab,” “Snap Judgment” and “The Moth.”
Going behind-the-mike at those programs and several others, Abel promises to reveal the “storytelling secrets” that make this new wave of radio so compelling, tips she promises in her introduction will benefit anyone called on to write a business report or make a sales call or even create a Facebook profile.
That general interest pitch is a stretch, like a line left over from a book proposal or marketing pitch. Mostly, it’s unnecessary — “Out on the Wire” is a terrific book for radio superfans and would-be producers, a niche audience that isn’t so niche anymore. With the breakout success of shows like “Serial” and the explosion in amateur podcasting, radio is undergoing the sort of DIY revolution that journalism faced with the advent of blogs. If “Out on the Wire” helps convince the legions of amateur podcasters that good radio is far more than recording hour upon hour of unedited gabbing, it will be not only useful and fun but that much rarer thing: a public service.
An early fan of “This American Life,” Abel was recruited by host Ira Glass to create a 1999 pledge drive premium called “Radio: An Illustrated Guide.” A portion of that comic is included here, which makes for some unfortunate redundancies but also serves to demonstrate how far Abel — and the form itself — have advanced.
Dark, sketchy and composed largely of rectangular panels packed with talking heads, Abel’s first attempt to explain narrative radio was comparatively flat-footed and literal. In the 16 years since, Abel has written five graphic novels and two comic textbooks, and her new work goes well beyond the pleasure of seeing caricatures of radio personalities emitting speech bubbles filled with edited-for-size quotes. In the new book, Abel transposes her real-life subjects into metaphorical landscapes, letting them loose in imaginary jungles and cityscapes and even dreamlike planes of consciousness that bring to mind the bright white stockroom of “The Matrix” or the Abstract Thought room in “Inside Out.” She also depicts actual stories produced by the programs she describes, intercutting a Israeli shootout and a Thai boat ride with story meetings where reporters and producers debate the minutia of creating that ineffable, magical thing they all aspire to: “great tape.”
The producers Abel features largely agree on what makes great tape great: “compelling” characters, “big” questions, “authentic” voices and “robust” narrative. Good sound also helps (producers describe sweetening their stories with sound effects, music cues and dramatic pauses). Most of the best stories follow a fairly standard dramatic structure boiled down to a seemingly simple formula. A character listeners identify with goes through a conflict, has a resolution and comes to an unexpected conclusion.
Simple, right? The big takeaway here is how difficult those elements are to generate and how long it can take to create the right mix. It may surprise listeners of “This American Life” to learn that stories on the program typically take four or five months to produce, with Glass admitting to spending four full days adding and subtracting the “ums” “ahs” and breaths in the narration of a six-minute story. Even a show like “The Moth,” which features stories told live without notes, workshops its pieces for months before tapings, reworking and refining the material over and over before recording.
And while the bulk of “Out on the Wire” is a love-fest between public radio idealists, conflicts do emerge. Abel dramatizes a few ferocious story meetings where junior producers face the criticism of senior staff. She also describes a fundamental schism between two schools of the genre, personified by the affable Glass and the more combative Glynn Washington, host of “Snap Judgment.”
In its most simplified form, Glass says the typical “This American Life” story follows a tried-and-true, even ancient formula: anecdote followed by reflection. First a story, then a moral. It’s a surprisingly strict rule on a show that seems resolutely casual and free-form: No story ends without someone — usually the reporter but sometimes the host — wrapping up the piece in a neat narrative bow. It’s usually so artfully tied that it doesn’t feel intrusive, but it’s nearly always there. Washington rejects that approach outright. The Oakland-based “Snap Judgment” strenuously avoids any sort of reflection from producers on the grounds that the subjects are the only people qualified to lend their stories meaning. According to Washington, radio storytellers are in no position to reflect: “It’s like, I’m Mr. Educated Public Media Announcer Guy, and I will sit back and interpret your actions for you to the rest of my knowing clan while we look at you as a specimen for our radio zoo project.”
Dustups like these touch on deep questions of narrative and would make for good fodder in any book — but they’re even more compelling rendered in Abel’s boundary-pushing comic, a love letter from one blossoming new media to another.