Don Neagle to mark 50 years at the same radio station, bringing a rural community rogether
By Al Smith
On Labor Day, Sept. 1, Don Neagle, the popular news director and part owner of WRUS Radio in rural Russellville, Ky., will mark his 50th anniversary of broadcasting for that small station (AM 610).
As the Internet continues to unsettle the economics of the news business, the long career of my old friend is a witness to the traditional values of rural and community journalism. He still does it the old-fashioned way, getting up before dawn with the farmers and factory workers to tell them what the weather will be like, what happened in their county yesterday, and what might happen today. For many Logan countians, he is someone they began listening to as their parents got them out of bed to catch the school bus. (Photo by Tim Webb for Kentucky Living magazine)
While Tribune Co. downsizes under a staggering billion-dollar debt and Gannett Co. newspapers lay off three percent of their staff, the three owners of a dinosaur station in a Kentucky farm town that has reported local news in the same voice for a half century are thinking about a third dividend for the year.
Neagle’s partners, Bill McGinnis and son Chris McGinnis, along with Bill’s wife Brenda, are sponsoring a public celebration to honor him between 5 and 8 p.m. CDT at the new Arts Center which will open on Labor Day in a former movie theater in downtown Russellville. The many fans of Don, who is probably the most trusted figure in the county, are invited to see the new theater and visit Don and his family in the lobby.
A week of celebration will include a one-hour, on-air reunion Monday, Aug. 25, from 9 to 10 a.m. CDT between Don and me. I also came to Russellville in 1958, to edit the weekly newspaper, The News-Democrat, but left after 22 years.
Although WRUS and The News-Democrat were competitors, Neagle and I were friends and collaborators from our first meeting, quietly sharing most of the routine stories in a county too large for one reporter to cover alone, yet managing to scoop one another occasionally on an “exclusive,” and then laugh about it the next day.
On Wednesday nights, back in the ’60s, when our weekly paper was rolling off the press, Don would come into the office along with scores of folks, most of them subscribers who couldn’t wait overnight for the mail carrier to see what was on the front page. He and I would then adjourn to the Colonial Inn to drink coffee and talk about the political news with a mutual friend who was then the circuit judge. Later in that decade, when the judge got a DUI arrest in another county, we swallowed hard, but we put it in the paper and on the radio — and we continued to drink coffee with him on press nights.
In 1980, when I left Russellville, I was head of a small newspaper chain that expanded into Eastern Kentucky the next year, but Don stayed where he was. It was a good thing for the 27,000 people of Logan County because eventually new owners of WRUS, deciding that Don was too valuable to retire, made him an offer to keep on keeping on. At retirement age, about five years ago, he became a partner.
In 50 years of reporting, without (or in spite of) fear or favor, the events of a rural community, his career has spanned the golden age of radio, the competition of FM radio stations, and then television and the Internet. Kentucky’s first licensed station, WHAS in Louisville, had only been on the air 36 years when WRUS hired Neagle.
Now 71, Neagle still sends out a daily fare of the old faithfuls – weather, school lunches (“macaroni and salmon croquettes today”), high-school game scores and traffic reports, but also the fusses at City Hall and the Courthouse, court trials and convictions as well as “notes of regret” (funerals). But it is doubtful that any Kentucky-based radio host mixes the conversations – literary, down home, and politically savvy – that are so uniquely appealing in Neagle’s daily talk show, “Feedback.”
Guests might be an author on the line from Louisville or New York about a new novel, or a Vanderbilt University Divinity School professor discussing Pentecostalism in South America, or, as on an especially memorable morning, one of Western Kentucky University’s aging Hilltoppers helping Don spin their music that went gold in the Fifties. Every Thursday the phones light up when Bill Fuqua, a retired judge and Russellville civic leader, chats with Neagle about historic personalities in a county where Jesse James robbed a bank, the Great Revival of 1800 was preached, the Night Riders burned tobacco warehouses, and 10 of its pioneer lawyers would become governors in Kentucky or other states.
An avid book reader, a longtime library trustee, and married to a former teacher, Don’s passion for reading compensated for whatever he missed as a college dropout. But his learning rests easily in the folksy, good-humored chatter of a man who can talk to anybody.
When he came to Russellville, he was barely 21, but he had started out in broadcasting five years before, covering his hometown of Greensburg for a Campbellsville station — not surprising for a lad who at five years of age appears in a family photo album listening with head phones to an old crystal radio set. His first paycheck of $6 was for phoning in election returns from Green County.
Don Neagle’s name is now inscribed in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Other recognition of Don in the past three years includes the Kentucky Mike Award of the Kentucky Broadcasters Association and a feature in Kentucky Living, the state’s most widely circulated magazine.
The undermining of the infrastructure of journalism as we have known it discourages historical memory in newsrooms where editors and reporters are increasingly insecure in their jobs. Media critics question whether traditions of community service and in-depth reporting will survive the consolidation of ownership and economies of scale facilitated by new technology; Neagle himself is not certain they will. At his own station, he worries about the educational attainment of kids who help him out on weekends; he wonders if there is anyone at my old paper who proofreads the stories before they are printed.
He remembers the era of Ed Murrow in broadcasting and Louisville’s Binghams in newspapers, but speculates that journalism will suffer when no one else does. He still struggles to visit the Logan County Courthouse, to argue with police dispatchers who are ordered not to give out details of an accident or an arrest, and he wishes he had more time to find out why the local city schools, once the best, are classified as “in decline.”
As always, he welcomes “tips” and “leads,” but he knows that a trained reporter on the scene or arguing with a clerk over a public record cannot be replaced with a voice by satellite, pretending to be “here,” when it is really “there,” nor can the in-depth story be composed from the hurried call of a passerby with a cell phone.
Although he and his wife Vivian were enjoying travel in the U.S. and abroad a few years ago, thinking they were near retirement, they quit these pleasures to raise three young grandchildren whose parents could not. After 50 years at the same work schedule and a bout with prostate cancer, Don Neagle still gets up at 3 a.m. to go to the station. But when he comes home, there are kids 7, 12, and 17 for whom he and Vivian go back to school at nights for PTA meetings, ball games, and class plays. They take the children to Sunday school, where Don swallows the skepticism of his youth to teach a Bible class.
Better educated than their parents, Don and Vivian have had their share of personal problems but they feel that their lives have been good, and fulfilling. Their time, toil, and talent were invested in the rural experience, in classrooms of crossroads schools, in the humdrum and occasional excitements of grassroots journalism. They have not escaped the changes of modernity in America, but they value the continuity that was maintained by keeping in touch with the same neighbors.
Don has managed to exploit new technology to keep his little media business profitable, but much of his success is still so very personal — the dependable service that long ago forged a bond between a rural American community and its self-taught but experienced news guy. He feels the pressures of his business interests compromise his time to do quality news. After he leaves, he is not sure what will happen, or who will care as much.
Al Smith of Lexington, Ky., a former weekly newspaper editor and publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee, co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Columnists Tom Eblen of the Lexington Herald-Leader, here, and Byron Crawford of The Courier-Journal, here, commemorate Neagle's achievement. For a local report, from blogger Jim Turner of Logan&Beyond, click here.