DSC05613.jpg{By my calculation, this is the 17th day of Lent. And the 17th mug I’ve pulled from the Kellam kitchen cupboard. We’re not even halfway through the season. Will I have enough mugs to write about until the day before Easter? As we used to say in radio, stay tuned.}

I was on the radio in Richmond, Virginia from 1966 to 1993. One would think that I had scores of radio station promotional mugs. I’ve had tee shirts galore, but mugs? Not so many. This one conjures very fond memories, as does “live” radio itself. But lest I become lost in nostalgia about the good old days of AM radio, I’ll change this dial to something else suggested by this coffee cup.

What this particular station was noted for in addition to its entertainment value was something simply called service. The old FCC rules dictated that anyone with a license to operate a broadcasting station had to do so “in the public interest.” There was a time, before deregulation, when stations promised to air a certain amount of news, public affairs, and public service programming. The airwaves belong to the public, it was declared, and, in theory, while the populace knew that radio and television stations were for-profit commercial enterprises, station owners and management had to commit to serve the public.

This particular station WRVA, “The 50,000 watt Voice of Virginia,” was known for its service to the Central Virginia community. In its prime, the station was a 24/7 source for everything from found pets, school closings, drive time traffic copter,  weather, farm reports, and news. Man, did they have news for you! I can still remember the busy newsroom, staffed by six or eight men and women who covered city and county news, as well as news from the Virginia State Capitol, the complex in view from the Philip Johnson-designed WRVA building on Church Hill.

Former News Director John Harding has written a first hand account of WRVA (and its sad demise) in his memoir Radio Ingleside. The news staff were professional journalists, not rip-and-read announcers. (Rip and read = ripping what was once called wire copy, stories printed by teletype machines, and reading that copy or script cold, with no actual reporting or writing involved.) WRVA listeners were informed. And they were informed by people they trusted, people who lived in their neighborhoods, shopped in their malls, and sometimes went to their churches. Yes, this served the public.

At Christmastime, the long-time (almost forever for many listeners) morning announcer was Alden Aaroe. It was so many years ago that I don’t recall the origin of the campaign, but Aaroe (who served on the Presbyterian committee that sponsored my media ministry) started WRVA’s Salvation Army Shoe Fund, obviously a cooperative effort between the station and that religious group. One source reported that over its 36 year run, the fund raised over 5.6 million dollars to provide shows for needy Central Virginia children. This was an era long before “crowd sourcing,” and the fund was successful because the huge listening audience both trusted and liked Aaroe. He served the public interest.

The station also offered generous “public service time” to civic and religious groups. My own “Sunday Morning” program was on WRVA for decades, in time the station donated. Granted, this was an era when stations were required to give free public service timeslots to non-profits. But I had free use of the station’s production studio, free air time, and, in turn, produced an ecumenically-sensitive program that was both entertaining and informative, and (ahem) inspiring now and then, in the public interest.

Springing from this radio station mug, we can mention the wide variety of civic groups that call themselves “service organizations.” Kiwanis, Rotary, the Lions Club, Jaycees, and others build camaraderie and community among members while finding a specific niche in outreach and service to their locality and globally. From eyeglasses to scholarships, from leadership training to children’s hospitals, they serve. I, like my father before me, was a Jaycee. (It was called the Junior Chamber of Commerce when he served as a local President. I was pleased just to be a chaplain in the Richmond ) I know it had its perks for young professionals making business connections, building helpful resumes, but community service was a hallmark of the organization. Good for them! And good for the cities they serve.

A term that people of faith are becoming more familiar with is “servant leadership.” It may sound like an oxymoron. One can be one or the other, a servant or a leader, but both? The point is that leaders lead by serving. Especially faithful, compassionate, unselfish leaders. One of the more memorable continuing education courses I enjoyed was led by the Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann. His presentation focused on Moses as “servant leader.” And Jesus was the incarnation of the concept. He challenged his followers by saying, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last and the servant of all.”

That is not particularly appealing these days, is it? One glance toward the U.S. Capitol and Jesus’ call is turned upside down: the last thing we who hold first place want to do is serve anyone. For Jesus’ people in politics, those touting their “Christian values,” politics still comes first, and following Jesus’ call to “serve” is way down the list of their priorities. If love is at the heart of Jesus’ message, that word isn’t in the vocabulary of most public servants. It’s not reflected in directives, budgets, or programs. Maybe patriots “love” their country; but loving one’s neighbor is harder, isn’t it?

When we speak of a person “serving their country,” we are likely to picture that person in a uniform. Thank you for your service, we say to the one in the military. Fine. And to the teacher in a challenging classroom? To the utility worker restoring power in frigid temperatures? To the nursing home attendant at the bedside of a belligerent patient? Thank you for your service too.

Those engaged in serving others, most thoughtfully, most passionately– they are the leaders in their communities, in their places of worship, and in the fickle realm of politics. Freely giving of one’s talents and time, without thought of reward or honor, is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who led the way by serving the outcast, the sick, the poor in spirit.

The radio station that so effectively served the public is gone. Only its call letters and frequency remain as a commercial venture. Sadly, even those once popular community service groups are struggling to recruit new members. And we know what’s happening with formerly vibrant churches.  While everybody wants to lead, fewer want to serve. And everyone loses.

Pray about that for awhile. It would be in the public interest.

 

 

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