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.