Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Catholic Podcaster's Bible? I review; you decide.
by Jessica Abel (Foreword by Ira Glass)

A visual book about an audio medium? Bizarrely, it works.

I jumped at the opportunity to get a review copy of this visual “textbook” on radio storytelling. First of all, it's about media (so it meshes perfectly with our Pauline vision of things)—and it's accessible. My Pauline sisters listen to lots of podcasts, and we're constantly talking about getting into podcasting, so I thought, “You know what? This book might make that happen.” (As soon as I finish writing this review, the book is going into Sister Marie Paul's open hands.)

Basically, Out on the Wire is a big fat comic book full of storytelling tips from the people who tell the stories that we love to listen to on This American Life, The Moth, Serial and even Planet Money. Author/illustrator Jessica Abel set out to learn how the producers of today's phenomenally successful narrative radio shows ply their craft.

As someone who grew up when the great Paul Harvey was on the air (I can still hear his rich, mellow voice and signature "Good Day!" emanating from my grandmother's back room), I was able to recognize the techniques that Ira Glass and his fellow broadcasters have rediscovered and mastered for the digital age. Good stories (and we're talking non-fiction here: real people's stories) don't just happen; they are pursued and they are crafted, and it's a team effort. Abel shows us how.

The book originated from a week Abel spent with the This American Life team back in 1999 when the show was broadcast with live introductions and the bulk of the story played from a tape machine. Through interviews, “you-are-there” retellings of some of the most outstanding stories, and illustrations (this is a comic book, I mean graphic-novel-style treatment, after all), the, er, “reader” learns, among other things:

  • Where the best stories come from
  • How to build a story (Glass compares the structure to that of a good sermon!)
  • How to build a show
  • The Art of the Interview (including preparing for an interview—Glass will go to an interview already knowing the two or three points he is looking for), or rescuing an interview.
  • Pacing, music and sound effects (this has a good bit of the technical in it; helpful sources for audio clips are given)
  • Editing (the pain and the value of taking away all that takes away from the heart of the story)

Most interesting (to me, at least!) was Glass' remark about the balance of music, voice and silence. “If there is music under a person speaking, and then it stops, whatever is said next is really powerful, it sounds more important. It's like shining a light on it.” In other words, radio is a peculiarly visual medium.
I highly recommend this book not only to would-be broadcasters, but to anyone who wants to become a more effective storyteller. In particular, this could be a kind of “Podcaster's Bible” for evangelization. That's how I see it being put to use in my community!

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