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Radio’s Star-Spangled Controversy

How radio has shaped the conversation around America’s national anthem

The author’s new book “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem” is published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” turns 200 this month, and throughout the song’s modern history, radio has helped spread the tune around the country. It also served as a conduit for controversy.

When Francis Scott Key wrote the song in 1814, it became instantly popular, outlasting all rivals over the years, yet it took 117 years for Congress to ratify the song as the national anthem.

At first, word of mouth — aided by the printing press — spread the tune throughout Baltimore, after the city’s defenders fended off a massive British land and sea attack during the War of 1812. Then newspapers, sheet music, magazines and books spread the lyrics across the country. After the Civil War, improvements in brass instruments and the craze to own pianos further disseminated the future anthem throughout the young nation.

By the 1890s, the armed forces singled out “The Star-Spangled Banner” as their song of choice, but confusion reigned over whether Key’s creation, “Hail, Columbia” or “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) served as the people’s anthem.

President Woodrow Wilson made Key’s creation the official song of the armed forces in 1916; but confusion continued to cloud the larger debate.

ACCEPTANCE

The advent of radio in the 1920s played a pivotal role in the development of rituals surrounding the song and helped to reinforce it as the preeminent patriotic ode. Along with patriots in Maryland, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (founded in 1899) and the American Legion (which dates to 1919) lobbied Congress on behalf of the tune in the 1920s, despite the rise of a new rival, “America, the Beautiful.”

A century after the battle that inspired Key’s song, Fort McHenry, site of the stand against England in 1814 and the place where Key saw the flag “still there,” lost its strategic military role. The federal government decommissioned the fort and turned it into a park. On Flag Day, June 14, 1922, the government dedicated a statue to honor Key and his tune. President Warren Harding lauded the song in a speech, and this was the first time an American president addressed the public over the airwaves.

In the 1920s, patriotic Americans attempted to institute rituals to honor the flag and the anthem. These were summarized in the U.S. Flag Code of 1923. Some patriots attempted to require Americans to stand and remove their hats wherever they happened to be when the song aired on the radio.

Even after Congress designated the song as the official national anthem in 1931, debate continued over its suitability. In 1936, the NBC Radio Network bolstered the anthem’s standing when top brass decided to play it several times a day, in part to mimic the practice in England of singing “God Save the Queen” and also to “let the world know that Uncle Sam has a national anthem” (New York Times, April 19, 1936).

TRUE PATRIOTISM

Shedding light on the prominence of radio in everyday American life during this time period, Queens, N.Y., housewife Elizabeth Faff wrote to then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City in 1938, inquiring about the proper protocol for standing when the anthem played on the radio. “Having a patriotic husband who thinks that everyone should stand during the anthem, I found myself out of bed” when it came over the radio, she wrote. “It is rather upsetting to have to make two attempts to get out of bed — one at 10 p.m. and the other at 7 a.m.”

Marc Ferris Washington Post columnist H. I. Phillips claimed that Faff “caused quite a controversy all over the country by a simple little question” and created “great uneasiness among millions of Americans who listen to the radio after they go to bed.” He joked that “the whole problem can be disposed of by the simple business of turning the radio off after climbing into the hay.”

In the same year, as World War II loomed, the anthem faced a challenge when “God Bless America” rose to popularity through Kate Smith’s radio presence. Smith’s counterbalance came from Lucy Monroe, the “Star-Spangled Soprano.” She became the nation’s preeminent anthem singer. Monroe’s voice boomed from radios and she was featured during a “Star-Spangled Banner Day” celebration at Fort McHenry, broadcast nationwide in 1942.

The establishment of Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network in Berlin in 1942, along with Radio Free Europe in 1949, beamed “The Star-Spangled Banner” into homes and public squares abroad.

In 1948, chemical engineer Louis Schweitzer bought WBAI, an FM station in New York City. When he began playing the anthem during sign-off time, he discovered that only low-fidelity shellac discs existed and that a recording by the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble was the only one by an American band that he could locate. Schweitzer established a grant, administered by the American Heritage Foundation, to produce high-fidelity versions of the song on 78 RPM discs recorded by various orchestras, including the San Francisco, Chicago and Boston symphony orchestras, which he distributed gratis to 3,775 radio and television stations.

Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song at Woodstock in 1969 created a tempest after its popularization via the concert film and its soundtrack. But blind singer and guitarist Jose Feliciano had caused the first real-time uproar over an individualistic take of the tune at the 1968 World Series, carried live on both radio and television.

President Warren G. Harding addresses the crowd during the Orpheus statue unveiling at Fort McHenry.
Courtesy: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, National Park Service
During the 1970s, radio broadcasts played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every ballgame; but over time, as commerce triumphed over patriotism, producers began to cut to commercials in favor of the anthem.

Another anthem controversy occurred in 1990, when Irish pop singer Sinead O’Connor refused to go onstage if the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., adhered to its policy of playing the anthem prior to every show. When officials caved in to the singer’s wishes, radio programmers across the country moved to ban her songs from the airwaves, trumpeting their actions as “Sinead-free radio.”

In 1996, after Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem before games, two jocks at KBPI(FM) in Denver Aurora, Co., donned mock turbans and walked around a local mosque playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a trumpet and a bugle, generating a backlash that almost got them fired.

Radio represented a pivotal medium for reinforcing “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” exalted status after Congress designated it as the national anthem in 1931. Nonetheless, the medium has also reflected the controversies surrounding this symbolic and emotionally stirring composition.

Marc Ferris is account manager at Giles Communications and represents the Yamaha Corporation of America, among other clients.

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