Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Have you ever wondered just how people like Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, and Alex Blumberg really make their unforgettable stories? How they make them feel so urgently necessary? And if the story isn’t over when we arrive at our destination, what makes us spend those precious extra minutes sitting in our car or on a park bench listening to how things turn out, rather than arriving at our destination on time?

Have you ever wished you could learn their secrets?

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio book cover

Out on the Wire is an investigation into the narrative techniques and ideas of the new generation of great American journalists/storytellers on the radio and podcasts. Inside, you’ll discover the nitty-gritty of how shows like This American Life, Radiolab, Snap Judgment, Planet Money, the Moth Radio Hour, Radio Diaries, and 99% Invisible weave their magic spell.

Not only that, but it’s graphic nonfiction (that’s comics to the layperson…), which means you get to actually see these producers grapple with the big issues of story, and work them through, step by step.

Praise for Out on the Wire

“A boundary-pushing comic, a love letter from one blossoming new media to another…Out on the Wire is a terrific book for radio superfans and would-be producers, a niche audience that isn’t so niche anymore.”
—Los Angeles Times

“One of fall’s coolest graphic reads…Consider the 240 pages a documentary comic and Abel your host.”
—Marie Claire

“A richly engaging graphic narrative about radio storytelling and storytelling in general…A spirited work whose readership should not be limited to those who make radio narrative or love to listen to it.”
—Kirkus Reviews [starred]

Read free excerpts online

Check out this selection from the chapter “Keep or Kill: Story Structure” on LitHub. 

Read about how reporters give “big idea” stories emotional weight using framing at Nieman Reports. 

…And of course, sign up for my newsletter and you’ll receive a 9-page excerpt that gives you tools to test your story ideas! We’ve got a lot more about that, too, in the second episode of my new podcast.

Featuring producers from

This American Life (Ira Glass and others)

Snap Judgment (Glynn Washington, Stephanie Foo, Mark Ristich, Pat Mesiti-Miller, Julia Dewitt)

Planet Money (Adam Davidson, Alex Blumberg, Chana Joffee Walt, David Kestenbaum, Robert Smith, Zoe Chace)

Radiolab (Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, Sean Cole, Soren Wheeler)

The Moth Radio Hour (Jay Allison and Catherine Burns)

99% Invisible (Roman Mars)

…and more.

These people are pretty much the smartest, coolest people out there in any art form (other than comics) and they know their stuff. I have done my best to draw together their insights and knowledge in a way that will be useful to storytellers in all media.

They also have a LOT to say, more than I could fit into the book, so…

Check out the podcast

Out on the Wire: the Show is a podcast that examines storytelling through the lens of what I learned through researching and making Out on the Wire (the book).

Using the tape from my interviews with New Masters of Radio, my own experiences as a cartoonist and writer, and the help of radio producer Benjamin Frisch we’re making a  show that breaks down storytelling step by step, week by week.

we are all storytellers

And here’s the kicker: every episode we give listeners (that’s you!) a project to complete that will help them build a narrative. And we don’t leave you out in the cold to do it, either. We have created a collaborative space where listeners can post work and support one another. And every other episode, we will choose some of the best work from the community and discuss it in live-taped workshop episodes!

Sign up to get notification of new episodes, and to get access to our private group where we’ll discuss your story projects, in any narrative medium.

And I’ll send you a free 9-page excerpt from Out on the Wire!

Go behind the scenes of our most ambitious radio programs and witness an intensely creative moment in a medium that’s changing the way we tell stories. 

Every week, millions of devoted fans download or tune in to This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, Planet Money, Snap Judgment, Radio Diaries, 99% Invisible, and other nonfiction narrative radio shows. The compelling stories they produce are almost cinematic in scope and approach—intricately weaving sound into robust and engaging storytelling. A lot goes into making the shows we love. Anchored by surprising characters and big questions, their stories are tightly structured, edited, and soundtracked, and they introduce us to authentic voices from every walk of life.

Radio and podcasts today are entrepreneurial and DIY; there’s a can-do, collaborative spirit that characterizes people working in this field, fearlessly breaking new artistic ground. And more than ever, given the excellence and explosive popularity of shows like Serial, it’s clear that the creative producers working in this medium hold the key to storytelling secrets that the rest of us must learn.

Out on the Wire, a documentary comic, literally illustrates those secrets, gleaned straight from those on the frontlines of radio’s revolution. With the help of This American Life’s Ira Glass, cartoonist Jessica Abel uncovers just how producers construct a story, spilling some juicy insider details along the way. Jad Abumrad of RadioLab talks about chasing moments of awe with scientists, while Planet Money’s Robert Smith speaks candidly about his slightly embarrassing strategy for putting interviewees at ease. And Abel reveals how mad—really mad—Ira Glass becomes when he receives tough edits from his colleagues. Informative and inventive, Out on the Wire shows us the magic that makes these shows great and why we can’t stop listening to them.