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Russellville's voice is on WRUS-AM

For half a century, the first voice many people in Russellville have heard each morning belongs to Don Neagle.

He rises five days at week at 3 a.m. and soon arrives at the studio of WRUS-AM. He scans the Internet for news, checks the weather forecast and begins broadcasting as the rest of Logan County is getting up to start the day.

WRUS celebrated its 55th year on the air Thursday. On Monday, people will gather at an old downtown theater for a reception honoring Neagle's 50th year with the station.

"Without being overly pompous about it, I don't know what the community would be like if we hadn't had this all these years," said Neagle, 70. "We find their lost dogs. We tell them what the school lunch is going to be. We tell them who's gone to jail and who's been indicted. We tell them who's done wonderful things, and who's done not-so-great things."

As a child growing up in Green County, Neagle said, "I was always intrigued by the announcers who did the commercials and the radio news reporters. I thought that would be so cool."

The summer he was 16, Neagle started hanging around the Greensburg satellite studio of Campbellsville's WLCK. After high school, he worked at radio stations in Campbellsville, Harrodsburg, Glasgow and Bowling Green. He attended Western Kentucky University for a year before dropping out because of illness.

Somebody then told Neagle that WRUS was looking for an announcer. He started work Sept. 1, 1958. Neagle said he had opportunities to leave over the years, but Russellville always felt like home to him and his wife, Vivian. They have four children and seven grandchildren, three of whom they're now rearing.

"He has become the most trusted person in that county," said Al Smith, who also went to Russellville in 1958 to edit the local newspaper. Smith went on to own a group of newspapers and spend more than three decades as host of KET's Comment on Kentucky.

Like Smith, Neagle is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

"He's a very warm and friendly and good-humored man — a college dropout who's probably the best-read person in Logan County," Smith said of Neagle. "He's a reporter's reporter, and a guy who can talk to anybody."

Six years ago, Neagle and his partners, father and son Bill and Chris McGinnis, bought WRUS from a large company. They wanted to keep the station local and public service-oriented.

In the process, they've also made it more profitable, even as big media corporations struggle for revenue.

Since the 1980s, deregulation has reshaped radio markets in cities and big towns across America. Relaxed ownership rules led to consolidation and cost-cutting. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 freed broadcasters of their obligation to provide public-service programming.

Now, the four largest radio companies own stations with half the nation's listeners; the top 10 companies have two-thirds of the listeners.

But "mom-and-pop" radio is alive and well in small towns such as Russellville, Whitesburg, Cadiz and Grayson.

"Local radio is now doing a lot better financially than big-city radio," said Francis Nash, general manager of WGOH-AM and WUGO-FM in Grayson and author of Towers Over Kentucky, a history of broadcasting in the state.

"We've never tried to be bigger than we are," Nash said of his stations. "We just try to serve the people."

That service — local news and information and knowledge of the community — has kept people listening to Don Neagle all these years, even when he reports news they would rather not hear.

"They may not be happy that you reported their son got in trouble or their husband got in trouble, but they will cut you slack if they think you've been fair and you treat everybody the same," Neagle said. "The people we talk about are people we see at church, and in line at the grocery store and at the coffee shop."

Neagle's morning radio show is a combination of news, weather and whatever he and his listeners find interesting to talk about. Topics range from politics to medicine, gardening to religion. "I don't think I've done a whole show on Greek drama, but I've probably done everything else," he said.

A book lover, Neagle frequently interviews authors. He co-hosts a weekly history show with retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice William Fuqua.

The most popular part of Neagle's morning lineup is Feedback, a call-in show.

"It's so local and so community-oriented, and everybody's got a voice," Neagle said. "Anybody who wants to come on the air, we'll put them on if they've got a charity, or they're promoting the United Way or something going on with the schools."

To national media conglomerates, WRUS might look like a relic. To syndicated talk radio stars, Neagle might seem like a dinosaur.

But it's worth noting that, nationally, the radio audience peaked in 1989 and has fallen 20 percent since then.

Things are much different in towns like Russellville, where there are stations still committed to public-service journalism and personalities like Neagle who know the community.

"I'm not smart enough to know what other stations ought to do," Neagle said, "But this one and me, we've sort of evolved together. And it works really well for us and our people."

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