Don Neagle first drove into Russellville in September 1958 at age 20, with a love for radio inspired by the likes of network greats Harry von Zell and Arthur Godfrey. Now 67, Neagle drives into the western Kentucky town of 7,200 every weekday morning at 4:15 a.m. to prepare for another day of work at WRUS-AM.
On this particular morning, he’s talking with a minister about the state of Christianity. Tomorrow, Neagle will be talking about Social Security. The next day is Thursday, always the local history program. That’s guaranteed to prompt a lot of call-ins.
Neagle added station owner to his job description three years ago, when he and local father and son Bill and Chris McGinnis bought WRUS. Even as the new owner, Neagle knows that people in Russellville regard the radio station as their own. In fact, he agrees with them.
“It’s theirs. Without them, we’re dead, and I think people know it’s theirs,” he says.
That means talking about whatever people want to talk about. That means talking about child rearing, money management, gardening, auto mechanics, obituaries, hedge apples, and how to make homemade lye soap.
Neagle is on the air from 6 to 11 a.m., armed with information gathered during the research he does when he arrives in the wee hours. He likes to pass along interesting occurrences, whether they happened nearby or somewhere around the world. He likes to hear from his listeners—his 21-year-old Feedback program is from 10 to 11 every morning. Sometimes he likes to complain. And he likes to have guests.
William Fuqua, a retired Logan Circuit Court and Kentucky Supreme Court judge, came on as a guest eight years ago. He was born in Russellville, is the son of a former mayor, and lives next door to the home where he was born, in the historic section of downtown.
“He asked me to come out and talk about my life in Russellville and the good old days,” Fuqua says. “An awful lot of people called. There was a lot of interest. We didn’t have enough time to take all the calls, so I came back a couple weeks later.”
There still wasn’t enough time, so Fuqua came back again. He’s still coming back to talk about the good old days with Neagle and the rest of the town.
“He’s such a well-read person, he can pretty much talk about anything,” Fuqua says of Neagle. “An hour passes pretty fast. He’s just like a member of everybody’s family.”
Russellville is in many ways a typical Kentucky town, with signs of plenty alongside signs of decline, with signs of tradition alongside signs of change. In the heart of town, stately old houses stand along tree-lined streets and most of the storefronts along Main Street are open for business.
Heading out of town, old neighborhoods show their wear, giving way to the edge of town with a mix of bypass, farmland, and subdivisions that has become as much the mark of small-town Kentucky as the county courthouse.
Maintaining a sense of community is something that cannot be left to chance. In Russellville, WRUS 610-AM plays an important role in bringing the community together. It is the only station in Logan County, which is southwest of Bowling Green, and it broadcasts from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Local basketball and football games keep the station on air later.
The station was established in 1953. Woodrow P. “Winkey” Sosh came on as general manager and part owner in 1955 and hired Neagle in 1958. The station was later bought by Bowling Green-based Forever Broadcasting. The company allowed WRUS to maintain its local flavor, then Neagle partnered with former Forever executive McGinnis and his son to buy the station at the end of 2002.
“We’ve actually gone backward,” Neagle says. “Everyone is selling to larger companies. We’re buying from a larger company.”
The origins of WRUS are similar to a lot of radio stations in Kentucky, explains Francis Nash, author of Towers Over Kentucky: The History of Radio and Television in the Bluegrass and general manager of WGOH-AM and WUGO-FM in Grayson. Locally owned and operated stations were established throughout the state in the 1950s and were often bought by corporations in the 1980s and ’90s.
“It was difficult for one little station to make it,” he says.
In spite of the trend toward consolidation, WRUS can still find good company as a locally owned station. Stations from Paintsville and Harlan to Hopkinsville and Henderson continue as local businesses with a local orientation, along with a host of others. One-third of all radio stations in Kentucky are in towns of 4,000 or less, although not all are locally owned, Nash says.
“There’s still old-time radio,” he says. “Public service involvement is the common denominator for small-town radio. If they’re just going to play music, they’re not going to compete with the larger stations. And having a strong local personality, like a Don Neagle, is important.”
Neagle’s radio career began at the age of 16 in his hometown of Greensburg, at the extension studio of Campbellsville station WLCK-AM. He’d been practicing since he was 4, talking into a headset off an old crystal radio and pretending it was a microphone. He knew he belonged in radio because, if nothing else, he had demonstrated an inability to make it anywhere else. He recalls working for Pierce’s Market in Greensburg and being asked to count the eggs. He informed the manager there were 63.
“Don, we count them in dozens,” the manager informed the boy.
At WLCK, Neagle was willing to do anything to get his foot in the door, and he was willing to do it for free. His first assignment was to run across the street to Adolphus’ restaurant to get some cigarettes for the studio manager.
Neagle bumped into a friend who asked, “What are you doing, Donald?”
Neagle proudly answered, “I’m working at the radio station.”
When he wasn’t buying cigarettes for the employees, he carried equipment or did whatever else was needed. Soon, the studio manager let Neagle read on the air. It took him a year before he got a paying job: $6 to call in election returns from the Green County Courthouse.
After high school, he headed to Western Kentucky University, but dropped out after coming down with a serious case of diphtheria. When he was recovered, he headed to Russellville after hearing that WRUS needed someone. All he knew about Russellville was what he had learned at the movies: Jesse James had once been there.
He didn’t find Jesse James there, but he did arrive in Russellville about the same time Al Smith was arriving to work for the local newspaper. Although the community saw them as competitors—and they often were—they also became close friends.
“We worked together happily and well,” says Smith, who came to the News Democrat after a 10-year career at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. “We would divide things up. If I went to the fiscal court, he went to city hall, and if I went to city hall, he went to fiscal court. We doubled our coverage by working together.”
What struck Smith about Neagle was his wide-ranging interests, from news and politics to culture and religion. This rural radio personality was a Renaissance man.
Smith went on to a career as a newspaper owner and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, and is known statewide as the moderator of KET’s Comment on Kentucky. Throughout the years, he has maintained a friendship with Neagle as well as a professional respect for him. Smith believes that radio stations like WRUS are doing what radio is supposed to do.
“This station is almost a historic survivor of a better era than we have today. Local radio is losing its localism. The drive for profits is so severe that the news coverage is almost negligible,” Smith says. “I wouldn’t call WRUS a dinosaur, I would call it a treasure.”
Neagle chuckles at the mention of Smith and their days working side by side in Russellville.
“Al and I came in the same year. He went on to become a media mogul and head of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and I get to do the Happy Birthday Club,” he joked. “We always tried to get our scoops on each other, but we would swap out stories and cover for each other as well.”
From teenager to grandfather and from radio greenhorn to station owner, Neagle has seen plenty of changes by just staying put. The most dramatic changes are personal. He arrived in town alone, but now he and his wife have four children and 10 grandchildren. Although his bout with diphtheria is a distant memory, a battle against cancer remains a much closer reality.
“The main change is from being one of the kids around town to being one of the seniors around town,” he says. “I used to call up people and ask, ‘Do you know thus and so?’ Now, I’m the one they call.”
Neagle describes himself as an “old beat-up radio guy,” but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s where I ought to be. I’m not saying it’s a calling, but this is where I’m supposed to be,” he says.
His love for his adopted hometown remains as strong as ever, as does his enjoyment of the job. And with the new responsibility of station ownership, Neagle now knows what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
“I’d like to live long enough to get the thing paid off,” he says with a laugh.
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