Greatest Hits no 1: Home of the Brave by Scott Carrier

Greatest Hits is a new regular series where we’ll be picking out the audio that made us, both as a company, and as fans. This isn’t meant to be The Canon. Nor is is it a kind of …To Listen To Before You Die super-list. Instead, we’d like to think of its entries as telling a story: an alternative history of audio, if you will, An intimate tale of how we at Novel have been changed by what we've heard. just as surely as the world was never quite the same after “Teenage Kicks” or “Crazy In Love”. Each month we’ll pick a new Greatest Hit, and explain how it came to be made, why it’s beautiful and why, with hindsight, it altered everything. This month, Andrew Dickson kicks off by paying tribute to one of America’s most maverick and influential radio storytellers: the host, writer and producer Scott Carrier.

Scott Carrier in 2007. Photograph: Wickenden/Creative Commons
Scott Carrier in 2007. Photograph: Wickenden/Creative Commons

The legend goes something like this. In 1983, recently unemployed and in his mid-20s, Scott Carrier hitched his way from his home in Utah to Washington DC, with little in his bag other than clothes, a cheap portable recorder and a box of tapes. Carrier wanted to make radio features, and his plan was to record everything he heard on the road – folks he bummed a ride from, people he met at truck stops and in bars, anyone who would strike up a conversation. Genuine American voices: working men and women, people on the skids, drivers, drunks, drifters like him. He’d turn up at the headquarters of National Public Radio and see if he could get his interviews broadcast. A film-school drop-out, Carrier had never made a piece of radio before. He’d never even written a script. Calling it a plan doesn’t seem quite right.

The strangest bit of this story is that this is exactly what came to pass. Despite turning up at NPR on a Sunday morning when barely anyone was in the building, Carrier managed to blag his way in; even more astonishingly, a couple of producers agreed to listen to his tapes (as a joke, it later transpired). Most improbably of all, they liked what they heard. A little while later, the piece went out on NPR’s flagship evening news show, All Things Considered .

The tale – and from everything I’ve heard it’s true  – is related in an anniversary episode of the podcast Carrier has run, produced and hosted since 2015, Home of the Brave. Like everything that Carrier does, the show is both fearlessly independent and crazily freewheeling – a ragged stream of old-school “radio stories” weaving together different strands of the American experience. Sometimes it’s based on interviews with people Carrier has met and stories he’s dug up in his home state of Utah; elsewhere it ranges far more widely across the globe, from Ukraine to Afghanistan. “Sometimes I drive around the country and talk to people, there’s no law against it,” he declares in one episode, whose theme is asking some of those people what they think about the end of the world .

En route, Carrier explores everything from his own life to the rise and fall of Donald Trump to fishing trips to ideas about neighbourliness. It’s the antithesis of slickly corporate podcasting, not just because it’s sponsor-free and listener-supported, but because new episodes drop apparently at random (the last was in late March). A number are jewels plucked from Carrier’s own shimmering archive, including pieces originally made for NPR and This American Life. Indeed, Carrier actually plays that first ever radio story from 1983 , which is, of course, irksomely accomplished: 13 minutes of Kerouacian noir updated to the Reagan era, featuring a surreal collage of voices from the road, including a burnt-out medic drowning his sorrows and a born-again Christian railing against “stinking liberals”. Same shit, different day.

Home of the Brave is by turns dystopian, poetic, odd and profoundly humane. The connecting thread is Carrier’s own autobiography, and his voice – somehow both hard-edged and spaced-out, with a trace element of vulnerability, the hint that in telling the stories he tells he’s staving off a form of deep personal disaster. The great American poet Walt Whitman (equally obsessed by travelling, and by roads) called one of his poems “Song of Myself” ; it might be a tagline for Carrier’s Home of the Brave. Though these pieces are non-fiction and interview-based, they’re not quite reportage, not exactly journalism; magical realism, perhaps. Magical something. Despite the fact that they often circle around themes of loneliness, alienation and desperation, they’re coloured with something that approaches grace.

The first Carrier story I ever heard, “The Test”, also makes an appearance in this feed ; it’s one of his most famous. Originally made for This American Life in 1996 and aired a number of times since (I first heard it roughly a decade later, when podcasting meant copying mp3 files to your iPod), it revists a period when Carrier took a temporary job interviewing men and women who were under treatment for schizophrenia. The deal was that Carrier would travel out to each patient – they were spread right across Utah – and interview them about their symptoms. Carrier had no psychiatric training; the interviews were done according to rigid clinical questionnaire, in order to get “clean data”. Carrier had been hired, he tells us, because he was a good listener.

What biographies they are. One patient frets about his urge to get down on all fours and chew grass. Another believes, heartbreakingly, that she is responsible for all the evil in the world. Another was sent to the doctors by pastors in her church who were anxious about her claims to have had sex with the archangel Gabriel. It transpires that, for herself, the patient enjoyed having sex with the archangel Gabriel, and had stopped taking medication hoping that he might visit her again.

Carrier is understandably disturbed by what he hears: these stories invade his dreams, make him sob. “The people I interview are all so sad, so lonely,” he tells us. “A person’s soul should be like an ocean, but a schizophrenic’s soul is like a pool of rain in a parking lot.” Gradually, it becomes clear that everything is not well in Carrier’s own life; a whole sea of troubles is just over the horizon. Administering these tests “seemed somehow predestined, a karmic response that could not be avoided,” he says. “I took the job and did the job, and my life will never be the same."

Scott Carrier (right) with his friends Paul Brennan and Creighton King at Green River Lakes, Wyoming in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Scott Carrier
Scott Carrier (right) with his friends Paul Brennan and Creighton King at Green River Lakes, Wyoming in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Scott Carrier
Larry & Bo Chasing Stories, circa 1984 © Scott Carrier
Larry & Bo Chasing Stories, circa 1984 © Scott Carrier
Scott Carrier (right) with his friends Paul Brennan and Creighton King at Green River Lakes, Wyoming in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Scott Carrier
Scott Carrier (right) with his friends Paul Brennan and Creighton King at Green River Lakes, Wyoming in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Scott Carrier
Larry & Bo Chasing Stories, circa 1984 © Scott Carrier
Larry & Bo Chasing Stories, circa 1984 © Scott Carrier

Another famous This American Life story to be found on Home of the Brave, “The Friendly Man” , is subtle but wounding satire, dressed up as a confessional based on Carrier’s first years as a radio reporter. Commissioned by a nameless commercial show that specialised in heartwarming, Norman Rockwell-ish stories from the American heartland, Carrier went on the road to record some , but wound up confronted by a series of disconcerting truths. A feelgood piece about a city basketball programme designed to cut crime falls apart when Carrier has his bag (and tapes) stolen; a report on a charity scheme within a senior community turns out to be something far weirder. The bigger themes – that you can’t believe anything corporate media tells you; that educated white folks are most racist when they believe they’re doing good – are so gently placed it’s easy to miss them.

There’s something about the way Carrier unspools narrative, lazily at first but with escalating intensity. His scripts are minimal but beautifully written (far rarer than you’d think). Music and tape is placed sparingly but subtly; the unadorned This American Life style – one voice, a little background accompaniment – has rarely been better deployed. All these stories are based on reality, we’re led to believe, which is to say they’re presented as true. Yet their trance-like momentum, and Carrier’s own hypnotic delivery, makes them seem stranger than any fiction. He lets interviews run, the people he talks to have their say, get out whatever is on their mind. Always Carrier is listening, listening: we all need to listen harder, he seems to say. And he knows what all the best podcast hosts know: that there’s a precious intimacy between the written and spoken word, and that you’re whispering in your listener’s ear, not shouting.

No more spoilers. The best way to explore Home of the Brave is by rootling around and seeing what’s there. You could turn up a story about immigration from Guatemala ; it might equally well be a piece about waking up next to a field full of alpacas. Happy hunting.

Listen out for: “My Trip to Palestine” , a deadpan, dry-as-dust account of Carrier’s ill-starred attempt to play at being a Middle East correspondent.

Hit replay: The achingly gentle segue into Marianne Faithfull’s “Don’t Forget Me” at the conclusion of “Searching for Amnesia” , Carrier’s singularly odd investigation into whether the condition actually exists.

File under: This American Life, S-Town.

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