On Narration – by Scott Carrier
Commemorating Transom’s Tenth Anniversary, we feature notes from our first Guest ever, back in February 2001,
from Scott Carrier
For my first story I hitchhiked to Washington D.C., interviewing the people who gave me rides. On the trip I was able to get some good tape because people tend to spill their guts on long drives and because I’d practiced enough to know that I had to forget about the equipment if I expected the other person to forget about the equipment. I knew that I needed to listen and pay attention and ask questions that I really wanted to be answered. Luckily, I found that the interviewee is usually only self-conscious right at the beginning, and that the microphone can actually force people to forget “themselves” in order to organize their thoughts and speak clearly. And I found that (like Larry Massett says) after 15 minutes everyone sounds crazy.
I arrived in Washington with maybe eight or ten good interviews, and my plan was to edit them together without narration, like a cinema verite. But Alex Chadwick, who was kind enough to listen to my tape, said that I would have to write some narration. “This is your story,” he said, “and you have to tell it. Can you write?” I thought this was an affront to my artistic integrity. I took umbrage –– for maybe 30 seconds –– before realizing that I had never produced anything and therefore was not an artist and therefore had no artistic integrity that could be compromised. Plus, Alex had a good argument, which was basically that in order for the audience to listen to my actualities they had to be given a context, they had to be placed within a story; otherwise there would be no meaning. The short end of this argument is that reality does not happen in story form, it needs to be constructed. Even in [the documentary film] “Primary,” though there was no narration, there was a tight story form to it, provided by the primary election. I wanted the audience to listen to a string of interviews as if it was a random cross section of America, almost like a photo-essay book, and Alex wanted “Blue Highways,” where the narrator becomes the main character.
This problem, which presented itself within the first hour that I was in the NPR building, is still the basic issue I struggle with in producing radio stories. If the essential goal was to produce a sense of “being there” in the audience, then there was something to be said for the argument that some narration is necessary in order to describe the things that are not present in the actual tape –– the other things that people need to know in order to set the context. In radio, time is the critical constraint, and so the narration needs to do a lot with only a little, which for me meant that radio narration should emulate haiku poetry. I think this was and still is a solid approach, but, unfortunately for me and my objective, the audience often liked my narration better than the actual tape it was meant to set up. I found that I could produce a suspension of disbelief without any real tape at all.
Click here to read the rest of Scott Carrier’s 2001 Transom manifesto.