The people who kill off the National Anthem

Back in my earlier days — just before I moved to Minnesota in 1992 — I ran the programming at a small-market radio station in Massachusetts. It was a great little station that cared about the town it served, read the school lunch menus, covered the selectmen, broadcast live from charity events, and passed along the news that your dog was lost — all the things that people say now they wanted then but didn’t really want enough to keep from turning on the public radio station from Albany instead (we were eventually bought out by that public radio station, and the irony of that fact isn’t lost on me).

When I arrived there from New York City in 1986, I had a particularly challenging task: I had to kill the National Anthem.

It was OK to play it at sign-on (5 a.m.) and sign-off (midnight). The problem was that for some reason we played it at noon. Every day. I don’t recall why, but it had been going on for years, perhaps as a response to protests against Vietnam, or Nixon or who knows what? And therein lies one of the problems surrounding the National Anthem — it’s not a proper response to one side of a political debate. It belongs to all of us.

Those memories came flying back today while reading the Washington Post’s account of a little problem FoxNews has. It had started playing the National Anthem at 5 every morning, just like the old days (and chose the version that sounds like a dirge, for some reason). And then they stopped, or at least got inconsistent on it, columnist Erik Wemple says:

The daily tribute has gone a bit haywire of late. On many weekdays in June, the anthem doesn’t play at its appointed time, if at all. On weekends, it remains steady. It’s unclear whether Fox News is simply slotting the anthem at a different time or whether it has dropped it altogether on certain days: Fox News’s PR shop didn’t respond to requests for comment. Media Matters for America, which watches its share of Fox News programming, confirmed that the anthem didn’t run immediately before “Fox & Friends First” on several days in late May and June. Whatever the case, Fox News is drubbing its cable-news competitors in the category of early-morning musical displays of patriotism. MSNBC and CNN don’t do “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a regular thing.

Shoehorning Francis Scott Key into the daily rotation requires some work. Fox News’s version of the song, which is fronted on the screen by such tried-and-true iconography as the Lincoln Memorial, an eagle, a flowing U.S. flag, representatives of the U.S. armed forces and more, runs for nearly a minute and a half. That’s a fair chunk of broadcast real estate, especially when such products as SunSetter Retractable Awnings, the Pocket Lantern and the Handy Stitch need time to explain their wonders.

Of course, the reason the National Anthem was a staple of broadcasting way back when is because TV and radio stations signed off, and then signed back on again in the morning. That doesn’t happen much anymore.

I ended up killing off the noon playing of the National Anthem without much fanfare as it turned out. Got rid of John Wayne’s “America, Why I Love Her,” and Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” from the music playlist while I was at it, too.

A year or so after that, I fiddled a bit with the sign-off anthem, changing from the U.S. Marine Corps band version to the one from Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All Star game. I even tried Ray Charles’ America the Beautiful once, and found out just how many bigots listen to small-town radio at midnight.

The other day — Saturday night — I was sitting in the bleachers at Progressive Field in Cleveland for the Twins-Indians game. It was 15 minutes before the first pitch when we were invited to stand, remove our caps, and salute the flag during the National Anthem. The players were still in the dugout, which isn’t the way I remember it as a kid, when the last words of the National Anthem were “play ball.”

Everyone’s trying to ditch the anthem, it seems.

  • Joanna

    My father was in the Army, and I grew up on Army bases in the ’60s and ’70s. When we went to the movie theater, they projected a waving flag on the screen and played the national anthem. We all stood up and service members in uniform saluted. They also took down the flag at 5PM and shot off a cannon. We had to be home “by the cannon.”

  • Jack Ungerleider

    The use of Ray Charles’ America the Beautiful was inspired.

    Did they play God Bless America during the 7th stretch in Cleveland?

    • Bob Collins

      No, they played the anthem that god intended during the 7th inning stretch: Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

      • Bob Collins

        By the way, I’m posting this just to illuminate — in case it wasn’t obvious — that you can post images to the comments section now.

  • David Wilford

    I remember reading Jim Bouton’s infamous Ball Four and the part when Bouton and his son were at a rodeo where they played the national anthem, and the son said “Dad, they’re playing the baseball song”.

  • Ryan Rollinson

    Twins games at Target Field also have the National Anthem sung a decent amount of time before the game officially starts. I’ve sung with groups performing the anthem there before, and for a 7:10 game, for example, the anthem would be sung at 6:55. All of the ceremonial first pitches and other traditional pre-game stuff happens well before the game’s start time as well. Maybe it has something to do with TV/radio coverage?

  • Guest

    Fun story.

    I recall back when public TV still signed off they used one of the warhorses of classical music, like some famous overture. It was a refreshing change, but I wondered how they were able to “get away with it.” For a nation that prides its freedom, we certainly are demanding about public national obeisance. The introduction of the Pledge into public schools seems particularly totalitarian to me today, although growing up it was little more than a dirge to endure before assembly line “education” began.

    “Don’t ever do anything illegal…” Disquss says. wtf! (Was THAT illegal?)