Unbidden Radio

Listen to “Unbidden Radio”
Jim Metzner recording Kate Jackson and Elliot Gould on movie set
From “You’re Hearing Boston” days (circa 1978). I was walking through Harvard Yard in Cambridge, and ran into Kate Jackson (of Charlie’s Angels fame) and Elliot Gould in the midst of a film shoot — “Dirty Tricks” was the movie, I think. While interviewing them, someone took this photograph, ran to their lab nearby and presented it to me just as I was leaving! That’s a Nakamichi 550 slung over my shoulder, and a Nakamichi mike on a pistol grip of my own design. It enabled me to attach three microphones to it, a left and right for stereo and a center mike for the Nakamichi’s mono input.

Beginnings are scary, exhilirating — a step into the unknown. A fresh canvas, a grey screen, a virgin minidisc, the germ of an idea. And if you’re truly starting from scratch in the craft of sound recording or radio production, then you have a great advantage over us geezers in that you don’t have you worry about repeating yourself or re-inventing the wheel. You can invent it. When I got hooked into making field recordings I didn’t know what a mentor was, nor did it occur to me to look for one. There was something liberating about discovering my own Americas, and they seemed only as far away as pushing the record button.

I remember lying in bed in my apartment in Fenway Park, Boston, and hearing the echo of a horse’s hooves on the pavement outside my window. It was such an unexpected sound that it propelled me out into the street, recorder and microphone in hand, confronting a mounted policeman making his rounds. I don’t remember what I asked him or what he said in reply. What I DO remember was how amazed I was that he spoke to me at all. More than that he WANTED to talk to me, he expected it. Isn’t that what you do with someone who is carrying a microphone?

There had, of course, been other beginnings:

  • a hand-me-down Sony recorder with 3 inch reels, at age 15
  • at 16, a taped kitchen table conversation with my grandfather
  • listening through a stereo microphone and hearing the three dimensionality of sound, at age 26
  • self-publishing Sound Image – an LP of sounds with a folio of fine art photography, at 27

But it was the experience of interviewing the mounted policeman that inscribed the thought balloon over my head with the word RADIO. In 1977, I had no studio of my own, so working with a friend’s multitrack recorder, I put together a pilot for an idea I had for a radio series. You’re Hearing Boston would be a mixture of sounds and interviews — an audio portrait of the city. Armed with a Sound Image album I’d recorded in Brazil and a dub of my series pilot, I waltzed into WEEI-FM, a CBS-owned softrock station that had its offices on the top of Boston’s Prudential Center. Although stereo music had been well established, stereo field recordings were still a new experience for most people. So, sitting at his desk, when WEEI’s program director put on the stereo headset and heard a newsboy hawking the Boston Globe from the steps of Park Street station, he instinctively turned his head around to check for the sounds of people and traffic behind him. “Shorten the program length down to two minutes,” he said, “and come back with five pilots that we can give to our sales force.” A month after the pilots had been produced, I got a call from the station telling me that they had found a sponsor – a Boston bank. I’ve been working in radio ever since.

Although I’ve cringed when I listen back to the stiffness of the narration of my early programs, they were how I learned the craft of radio — by the seat of my pants. I made lots of mistakes.

Like what? Well, like recording the reenactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord with my tape recorder’s limiter on, reducing all that beautiful echoey musket fire into a series of pallid hand-claps. Like not using a good enough windscreen, and running out of batteries, and not bringing the proper cable, and on and on.

In the beginning, I had no models to emulate or imitate; it was all new. I had two minutes to do more or less what I wanted to, assuming it had something to do with greater Boston. I learned the power of a compelling question. I learned that sounds can take you to places where words can’t go. I learned that a tape recorder and microphone were magic keys that could open doors and memories. That an “interview” could be something more than just a gathering of information. That the well of sounds is bottomless, and you can return to drink from it at any time and there would be something new. I learned to respect the recordings, the sounds, the words — and regard them as gifts, gifts that needed to be honored and shared.

Perhaps the best advice I could give you about beginning is that the first impulse and exultation of it will only take you so far, so choose your path and your subject matter accordingly. If you’ve found something that you love to do, that love will likely sustain you through the periods of drought and resistance.

The next best advice would be to find your own voice, your own way of listening, your own particular way of telling a story. The rest is practice, perseverence, and being free enough to learn from what may seem like a mistake.

Over the years, the greater volume of my work has been in doing short format series, where one of the biggest challenges is finding the freedom within the restrictions of the form. It’s hard, but possible, to find the freshness of a new beginning, once you’ve created a format. To keep trying new ideas, I’ve kept up the practice of producing features for some of the public radio magazine programs, in addition to doing my own series. One of my favorite “beginning” features came, as it were, without a plan. I just headed out of the house, microphone in hand, in the midst of my daily life, trusting that an idea would present itself. The result was a somewhat subversive story that was, on the one hand, about buying flowers on Mother’s Day, and at the same time about the very process of coming up with stories.

What I like about the piece is that it arrived unbidden, out of just being open to the possibility that something new would come. Perhaps that’s what beginnings are all about. And you can start at any time.

Jim Metzner

Jim Metzner

Jim Metzner has been producing sound-rich radio programs for the past 25 years, beginning his career with a piece for NPR's Voices in the Wind - the predecessor to All Things Considered, followed by his first short format series - You're Hearing Boston, produced for CBS station WEEI-FM. Metzner's other award-winning series include You're Hearing San Francisco, You're Hearing America, The Sounds of Science, and Pulse of the Planet, now it in its fourteenth year and 2700th broadcast. He's received major grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his work has been featured in Wired Magazine, the New York Times, Audio Magazine, National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal and on CBS television. Metzner has recorded all over the world and produced features for public radio's Marketplace, All Things Considered, and The Savvy Traveler. He regularly appears as an "ambassador to the natural world" on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. In 2002, he launched a new radio series, Voices of Innovation, with the support of the American Association of Engineering Societies and NASA. In the spring of 2003, he'll be teaching at Vassar College. Jim Metzner Links: Pulse of the Planet, Voices of Innovation, National Geographic.


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