Jessica Abel

Out on the Wire

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The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Possibly the best guide to all kinds of writing published since Anne Lamott.   It focuses on This American Life and its ilk such as 99% Invisible
The Moth , Planet Money ,  Radio Diaries ,  Radio Lab , and Snap Judgement .

The care and attention to detail by the producers of all these programs is an inspiration. The techniques are spelled out by Jessica Abel, who manages to make an intelligent, fast-moving read out of the details of radio production of narrative non-fiction. The attempt here as with the best non-fiction is to present the truth, honoring those who are interviewed and whose stories are being told, in as dramatic a way as possible.   Abel is such an enthusiast for these programs that I hope she has not glossed over their failings. Reading the non-fiction graphic narrative that she has created it feels genuine.

This book grew out of a previous smaller publication Radio: An Illustrated Guide, that was written at Ira Glass’s request to be sold on This American Life‘s website in 1999.

The method that TAL  developed was to use storytelling technique to make non fiction radio essays.  According to Abel, what these shows have in common is that they ask big questions, concentrate on engaging characters with authentic voices and use a robust narrative structure with careful use of sound.  TAL has not just influenced radio but the state of written non-fiction and documentary film as well.

The structure idea is the sentence: “Somebody does something because_____________________ but______________________.  It is a story about_______________ and it is interesting because_____________________ .  After recording hours of interviews, many of these journalists plan their interviews, but still have to structure the story. Using different kinds of scenes, but each story is put together so that the listener always wants to know what is coming next.  On top of that the stories are driven by the journalist’s itches and interests , and structured and edited by the taste of the individual in agreement with the group.  The different programs have different styles some not using any commentary or sound.

.Also check out Transom Story Workshop  for more information on the technique.