Collection of Radio Producer Jim Metzner Acquired by Library of Congress
Collection Documents Soundscapes from Around the World through Shows Aired on Public and Commercial Radio
For nearly 50 years, radio producer and sound recordist Jim Metzner has explored and celebrated the universe of sound around the world, most famously in his nationally distributed daily radio series “Pulse of the Planet,” which concluded a 34-year, 8,000 program run on public and commercial radio June 3, while continuing as a monthly podcast.
The Library of Congress has acquired the full body of Metzner’s work, including photographs, handwritten journals, podcasts, storybooks and, of course, his thousands of recordings. The acquisition commenced shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. In total, the collection holds approximately 28,000 mixed material items from the 1970s to 2019.
"We are excited to have Jim Metzner's remarkable recordings in our collection,” said Matt Barton, curator of recorded sound at the Library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. “They include soundscapes of every description from around the world and interviews with scientists, artists and indigenous peoples. Whereas many recordists focus entirely on a single subject — nature, music or science — Metzner's recordings convey a full spectrum of human experience accompanied by the vast array of sounds from the natural world.”
Metzner’s collection compliments the Library’s extensive radio collections and perhaps has the most in common with the Tony Schwartz Collection, which preserves the work of another audio and broadcast pioneer who explored the world in sound. Both Metzner and Schwartz lent ears and gave voice to the mundane and exotic all around them and masterfully intertwined interviews, soundscapes and narration in their audio essays. Fittingly, the Metzner Collection includes an interview with Schwartz.
As broad and encompassing a show named “Pulse of the Planet” has to be, it is informed by the ear for detail that Metzner developed working on more locally focused programs in the 1970s. He first made his mark with “You’re Hearing Boston” and “You’re Hearing San Francisco,” which evoked both the local and the universal in their sound portraits of these two cities and their citizens. The national series “You’re Hearing America” followed, and his reach expanded to include recordings of people, places and things in Alaska's Tulik Lake, Anza Borrego Desert State Park in California, Louisiana's Bayou, Sapelo Island in Georgia, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Crete, Cuba, Florida, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Mount Athos, Greece, Nepal, Switzerland and Turkey. As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, he is looking forward to working at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand as a Fulbright Specialist in Media and Communication, where he will record soundscapes with the help of local collaborators.
In a program Metzner produced on the work of scientist Katy Payne in 1999, listeners learn of her discovery of the infrasonic sounds of elephants and hear speeded-up recordings of their vocalizations. Other noted scientists in the collection include Jane Goodall, Stephen Jay Gould, Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson, Linsey Marr, Richard Evans Schultes, George Schaller, Ray Kurzweil, Max Matthews, Dean Kamen, Robert Wilson, Peter Marler and Lynn Margulis, along with indigenous spokespersons, prominent anthropologists, physicists, astronomers, archeologists, oceanographers, ornithologists, botanists, inventors and representatives of many other disciplines and specialties.
Metzner worked in all of the portable sound recording formats from the 1970s to the present and recorded over 200 reels of ¼-inch tapes, more than 2,000 audio cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s, more than 1,000 DAT (digital audio tapes) and digital Minidiscs in the 1990s, and has created nearly 100,000 sound files with the cutting edge digital recording gear of the last two decades. In addition to the local and national programs Metzner has created, the collection includes the unedited interviews and sounds he recorded to make them.
The digital preservation of Metzner’s work at the Library of Congress has only just begun, however, a finding aid to the paper portion of his collection has been completed, and it provides a general guide to the breadth and depth of the recordings that will eventually be available online.
Some recordings tell their own stories, unmediated and unedited, sounds that Metzner says he did not “capture” but rather were gifts to him and his listeners. One vivid example is the dawn chorus he recorded one early morning in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil. In it, macaws, chacalacas, parakeets, doves, cicadas, blackbirds and other wildlife all sing out at once in their own voices and with their own songs, a sonorous multitude making music in time and harmony. Sometimes though, a recording of a single creature is no less wondrous, such as the one he made in 1997 when Helen Hays, head researcher for the American Museum of Natural History on Great Gull Island in New York, guided Metzner and his young daughter to the hatching of a young tern.
He has traveled and recorded widely, documenting many soundscapes, individuals and events around the U.S. and the world, from a Berber wedding festival in Morocco to the Japanese Stock Exchange to New York's Saratoga racetrack. In Brazil, he recorded legendary capoierista Cobrinha Verde playing samba da viola, the first known recordings of this kind, according to Brazilian ethnomusicologists. At home in the U.S., he has launched a crowd-sourced “American Soundscapes” project, and is working on a new book, "Adventures of a Lifelong Listener."
"The incredible variety and beauty of the soundscapes of our world remind us that we are part of this chorus. We have a role to play as listeners empowered to act, to help keep the planet pulsing,” Metzner said. “I'm deeply honored that the recordings I've made over the years will be kept in perpetuity at the Library, so that a taste of the wonders of sound will continue to speak to present and future generations."
Metzner has received numerous broadcasting honors from such organizations as the American Institute of Biological Science, the National Society of Professional Engineers, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the American Psychological Association, the Broadcast Industry Conference and the Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation.
More about Metzner’s collection, including links to some of his recordings, are available here. In 2018, Metzner hosted a special evening of sound at the Library of Congress, and you can tune into it here.
The Library of Congress’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center was opened in 2007 in Culpeper, Virginia. It carries on more than a century of the Library’s efforts to preserve the audio-visual legacy captured on formats from wax cylinders to handheld digital devices, which have entertained and informed people and whose legacy forms the means of illuminating history and human experience.
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