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What Boston sounded like in 1980

Old recordings of WEEI-FM’s ‘You’re Hearing Boston’ offer a sonic portrait of the city as it was 40 years ago

A man sporting a festive hat during the North End's Feast of St. Anthony in 1978.
A man sporting a festive hat during the North End's Feast of St. Anthony in 1978.Ted Dully, Globe Staff

When Boston turned 350, the city’s birthday celebrations included the unearthing of a time capsule from 1930 and the burial of another time capsule, from the Boston of 1980 to the Boston of 2030. As for what should go in the capsule: Jim Metzner, the young host of “You’re Hearing Boston” on WEEI-FM, took his recorder to a busy street and asked the city. The ideas included a pair of Nikes, a bagel, a Boston city tax form, a watch, a rose from the Victory Gardens, and Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler’s baton.

One man slyly suggested restaurant menus. “Put them in with a little note saying ‘this is how difficult it was to get basic sustenance in this time . . . you couldn’t eat unless you had a $20 bill!”

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That time capsule has another 10 years to go before it pops, but Metzner’s show is a time capsule all its own. And now that Metzner’s lifelong archive has been acquired by the Library of Congress, his immersive sonic portraits of Boston will soon be available for anyone to dive into. ( He’s posted a selection on his personal SoundCloud.)

“I still remember the first time I held a stereo recorder, put the earphones on,” he said in a Zoom interview from his home in the Hudson Valley. “It was a revelation. It was like ‘holy smokes, why isn’t everybody on the planet doing this?”

Metzner’s career in radio took him all over the world; he hosted the widely syndicated shortform segment “Pulse of the Planet” for decades. But Boston is where he learned the craft and took his first job in the field after stints as an actor, an aspiring folk singer, and a substitute teacher, and for that reason the city has a special place in his heart.

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What’s more, he found that when he carried his mic around, even infamously rude Bostonians wanted to say their piece. “It was like this magic wand that you can wave and people will just talk,” he said.

Over the course of about two years, Metzner recorded around 250 two-minute “You’re Hearing Boston” segments, each one the distillation of “hours and hours” of raw tape. He was given total creative freedom to choose his subjects, and he ranged widely, capturing Celtics and Patriots games, concerts at Emmanuel Church and Ryles Jazz Club, feast days in the North End, a Cambridge Christmas fair, person-on-the-street interviews, and on and on.

“Everyone else was interviewing Mayor White. They didn’t need another guy to interview the mayor,” said Metzner.

Many of the traditions and institutions Metzner captured have endured into the present day, such as the Boston Tea Party reenactment and the declamation contest at Boston Latin School. But the “You’re Hearing Boston” trove also memorializes those who have passed; tap dancer Leon Collins, Chelsea street photographer Harry Siegel, and Harvard Square storyteller Brother Blue all have featured episodes.

The clips also preserve sounds that have vanished into the past as the digital age rolls on: a bustling, buzzing room of switchboard operators at the New England Telephone Company, and the rhythmic clicking of teletype machines as photos were transmitted over wire services at the old Boston Globe offices on Morrissey Boulevard.

People called Metzner an innovator, but he wasn’t trying to be one, he said. “I was just trying to do what I thought was cool to do, and loved to do,” he said. “It was great for me, but the stuff that I got, the recordings were sort of gifted to me, by being lucky enough to record them . . . it represents a real audio snapshot. This is the soundtrack of what Boston was really like in the ’70s.”

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The thick Boston accents in some of the interviews may also be a rarer sound these days, but one thing hasn’t changed, as demonstrated in episode 144, “Asking Directions:” You can’t get there from here. “My advice to anyone new in town is ‘get a map,’” one man said frankly.

Wise words then, still wise now — even if the maps are on our phones.