Intro from Jay Allison: Scott Carrier is our first Special Guest. There isn't anyone else quite like Scott, but there are a lot of people who wanna be. He's a restless character, always looking for something. Not sure what. Sometimes we get to go along. If you haven't heard his work, and his mesmerizing, big-sky, flat-prairie voice, you should. Probably the best place is online at Hearing Voices or do a search on his name at the This American Life site. We also have an older piece of his in our Inspiration page. Scott should be along here in just a minute to get things going. Please welcome him when he shows up.
Scott Carrier’s Manifesto
Jay asked me to write a manifesto. I got so hot and bothered writing it that I haven’t checked the spelling or anything, and don’t want to.
One Moment, Then Another
My work in radio production has a history that can be traced to one particular moment when I was 21 years old, in college, sitting in an auditorium watching the Richard Leacock film Primary. I have not seen the film since then, so my recollection of what happened and why is somewhat blurry, but there is a shot, I think about half-way through the film, where Jackie Kennedy walks across a large hotel room. The lighting is dark, natural, and since this is 1960 the film is black and white and grainy. There are maybe 10 other people in the room, one of which is Jack Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy, and they are waiting on the results of the Wisconsin Primary. Leacock is sitting in a chair with the camera on his lap, and in the shot Jackie walks across the frame with a drink in her hand and then turns and says something to someone you can’t see. You can’t hear what she says, but you can see that she is flirting. The entire shot is not more than a few seconds, and Jackie’s turn is only that-a turn, a flirt, and she walks out of the frame. But in that one turn I understood why everyone goes nuts over her. Everything I’d ever seen of her up to that shot had been a frozen pose or a still photograph. I’d never seen her act naturally, and seeing her act naturally completely captivated my imagination. I had the experience of actually being there in the room with her. This experience is what put me on a path that eventually led to my working in radio.
After seeing Primary I knew that I wanted to make documentaries that gave the audience the feeling of actually “being there.” I realized that there are documentaries that only present the facts, and then there are documentaries where the audience suspends its disbelief, just as in a dramatic story, and enters into the world that is being presented. I also knew that the door to this world, in documentaries, was through the tape, the film, the record of the actual event, and that, in documentaries, the quality of the event depended upon natural behavior. First I studied documentary film, and then I went to a documentary film school, and then I realized that I would never have enough money to make my first documentary film. This was 1983, when digital video was not even imagined. And yet I did have a portable cassette recorder and an Electrovoice RE-50 microphone, and All Things Considered was playing stories produced by the Kitchen Sisters which were very much like cinema verite films in that they had no narration but sought to cover an event by the voices of those who were participating in it. I heard a couple of their stories and I had the same reaction I’d had with Primary. So I thought, that’s it, I can do radio instead of film.
Hitchhiking to Construction
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 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.
The Endless Struggle
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. Even more unfortunately, this type of story worked well in print, which pays much better than radio, and as a result I don’t feel like I’ve produced a real radio story in years.
The good side to this long slide is that I and a group of compatriot independent producers have been given a large grant from the CPB to produce basically whatever we want, or I should say, to produce the best stories we can. I don’t mean to sound flip about this. The CPB did just what it should do-give money to good producers to make the kind of stories they are good at, with as few restrictions and constraints as possible. I plan to go back to my roots, unless perhaps I am spoiled beyond use. I want to start a story by trying to get good tape, like the shot of Jackie, and then trying to figure out what happened and how to tell it. Enough of Scott Carrier.