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Editorial: Overjoyed

The Service to America Summit awards is the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation’s annual opportunity to celebrate public service very publicly.

It is, of course, in broadcasters’ self-interest to be seen as serving the community, even more so in the shadow of a spectrum auction that could be used to push it toward the edge of the tar pits. But what is also undeniable, especially after last week’s ceremony and the stories that unfolded is that it is in the country’s self-interest to have a free, always-on medium for news and emergency information that also, for whatever the reason, invests that medium and its people in helping the community.

A former FCC chairman—this was several chairmen ago—once suggested that broadcasters’ community involvement (food drives, coat drives, relief efforts, etc.) was not a signi!cant part of their public interest obligation. We disagree, but even if it were not part of the governmental compact, it is part of the obligation the industry feels as good corporate citizens with a unique opportunity to reach that public. Why did broadcasters do it?, asked the GM of one of the North Carolina stations that got together for a salute to Vietnam veterans. Because they were the only ones that could, thanks to a reach into the community that meant they were able to get the message out to virtually everyone, and not once but multiple times.

The Service to America Summit is an ideal opportunity for broadcasters to toot their own horn, and with reason. There is always a healthy contingent of Congressfolk and FCC commissioners— all three current FCC members were presenters on June 3. And per usual, the praise for the industry was bipartisan, including shoutouts from Rep. Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the latter a former broadcaster who knows first-hand the industry’s commitment to public service.

The event always includes an impressive display of community service. And this year’s was no exception, from a salute to Oklahoma broadcasters covering deadly tornadoes to the relief efforts of New York stations in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There was the story of the child with a brain tumor whose family was able to keep its house thanks to the efforts of one station, and the victim of domestic violence whose story helped another station raise almost a quartermillion dollars as part of a six-week campaign to increase awareness about domestic violence.

There were more than a few tears wiped away as those stories were recounted from the dais, an occupational hazard of those attending the events, as well as the broadcasters whose connection to the community is more than their FCC market of license. But we don’t want to leave the impression that the ceremony is a downer. Far from it.

What struck us particularly about the event this year was the spirit of, well, joy. Perhaps because, while this was the 15th annual Service to America ceremony, it was also the !rst Stevie Wonder lovefest.

In the interests of full disclosure, B&C is a cosponsor of the event, but anyone who was there will likely agree that it had a magic attributable both to the celebration of good works and to the addition of the infectious enthusiasm, indomitable spirit and musical genius of the night’s star. Wonder was being saluted for his advocacy for people with disabilities, his fight against AIDS and apartheid and his work as a U.N. Messenger for Peace.

As had been the case when another musical legend—Elton John—was honored for his public service by the NABEF, Wonder was given a musical tribute by jazz singer and pianist Oleta Adams. But unlike John, who could not be coaxed to the piano after a similar tribute by Adams, Wonder took only a little gentle prodding before leading the crowd in a group sing. By the time he was done, he had them in the palm of his hand. NAB president Gordon Smith was beaming, that was the only word for it. He “hearted” Adams— a hand to the heart and a point of the finger—for her soulful performance.

When Wonder sang “You’ve Got a Friend” (not his song, but a favorite), he added NAB to the list with an exclamation point. It felt at times like a benediction on broadcaster efforts. If Stevie likes you, you must be doing something right.

Wonder had nice things to say about the industry— he is a radio station owner himself (KJLH-FM Los Angeles)—and encouraged broadcasters to use their megaphone as a tool for positive change.

The night’s litany of public service offerings suggested they had already gotten the message.