As famous and beloved as that theme has become, however, hardly anyone knows the man behind it. Composer Michael Karp has written music for NBC for three decades, including themes for “Dateline” and the network’s coverage of the Iraq War and Ronald Reagan’s state funeral. He’s a standout talent in the niche genre of television news music — the de facto soundtrack to politics and current events unfolding on our screens. “It’s really an emotional trigger,” the normally media-shy Karp explained to me recently on the phone from his New York apartment. “It really evokes something more primal in us.” Though most Americans don’t dwell much on the primal tug of news music, Karp says he has attracted a small band of “rabid fans” over the years — theme-music collectors who write asking where they can track down his most obscure compositions.
The modern era of news music began in 1985, when NBC grew tired of opening its “Nightly News” broadcast with the clack-clack-clack of a Teletype machine and commissioned new music by Hollywood composer John Williams of “Star Wars” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” fame. Amid a trend of electronic synthesizers, Williams insisted on recording with an orchestra, ultimately producing the iconic theme “Nightly” uses to this day. “It became an audio trademark not unlike the chimes,” recalled former NBC executive Tom Wolzien, who brought Williams on board. “Anything like that seeps into the consciousness.”
Williams’s work, which included themes for NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Today,” also became a touchstone for future news music composition. “I would tune in to the end of ‘Nightly News’ just to hear it,” says Matthew Kajcienski, who has written news and election themes for ABC. “It’s somehow a complete film score that fits into the news world. There’s never been anything like it. There never will be anything like it. It’s a snapshot of what news was for a long time.” Fellow movie composers James Horner and Hans Zimmer later wrote themes for the “CBS Evening News” and “ABC World News,” respectively. In the case of Horner, who died in 2015, the cinematic sound heralded an important cultural milestone: Katie Couric’s 2006 ascent to the role of first female solo anchor of a weeknight network news broadcast.
News music has evolved dramatically over the years. Victor Vlam, a Dutch journalist who catalogues news themes at the website Network News Music, told me the stylistic turning point arrived in the mid-2000s. Whereas election music in the 1980s and ’90s “used to be very solemn,” emphasizing patriotism and civic duty, many themes in the aughts started to sound like sports music, stressing “that there’s a fight going on.” Vlam gave the example of CNN’s percussion-heavy theme. “It might as well be something used on ESPN,” he says.
In fact, Vlam says that CNN’s overall packaging of political coverage — with its dramatic opening montages and voice-of-God narration — evokes a boxing match. “The way the fighters are introduced is exactly the same way candidates for the presidency are introduced when they’re doing a debate,” he observes.
This trend may be a natural reflection of the current political climate, where the stakes feel higher and conflict has intensified. Much of the genre today has taken on a more electronic, synthesized sound. “The idea of the soaring melody ... is not as popular right now,” Kajcienski says. “Whereas before, you might think more about something that can be reduced to playing it on the piano, you couldn’t play the first five seconds successfully of ‘Good Morning America.’ ” He sees this as reflective of “a more volatile, angry time in politics,” noting that he recently wrote an election theme in a minor key.
Another sign of the times is the music’s length. “An open for a broadcast ... has become much shorter,” says Vlam. While an open was 20 seconds a decade or two ago, now “they are usually just three, four, maybe five seconds. Everyone is trying to prevent people from clicking away, going to another channel, touching the remote.” (Which is not something a news music junkie like Vlam would ever do. He once ran a marathon with a news music playlist and even timed it so his favorite themes would play during the toughest moments in the race.)
Like Karp, Kajcienski has some experience with fervent fans, a subculture that he jokes is “as weird as comic-con.” Yet the composer undeniably appreciates the cult following. He once heard from a Midwestern high school quarterback who listened to his music as inspiration before games. Kajcienski was especially gratified that a “cool jock” would appreciate his work. “I was on the other side of the lunch table,” he told me.
Still, the Williamses of the world excepted, most news music composers will never be as well known as their work. Kajcienski and Karp are both Emmy winners — but Karp says he has never felt comfortable talking with the media and has given barely any interviews in his 45-year career. Though he’s “very flattered” by praise from the likes of Maddow and Todd, he’s never been in touch with on-air talent. He simply tunes in to their broadcasts from his apartment like any other politically conscious American. “I watch the coverage as a normal person would,” he says. “It’s great when I hear the music used well.”
Graham Vyse is a Post Magazine contributing writer.