The summer sun is rising as an alarm clock strikes 5:30 a.m. and its radio switches on. A Cookeville, TN, resident stirs as she hears, "Good morning! It's Sheila Scruggs, Lite Rock 95.9, thank you so much for joining me..." Like many others in the Upper Cumberland area, she wakes up every weekday morning to this familiar, perky voice.
Through breakfast, the morning commute and early office hours, Cookeville residents continue to tune in to Sheila in the Morning. After more than two decades on the air, host Sheila Scruggs has become a part of the weekday routine, offering music, fun and cheer to start the day.
At the studio, Sheila juggles her duties as host and public affairs director, roles that have greatly evolved since Stonecom acquired WLQK Lite Rock 95.9 and three other area stations in 2012. New owner, Larry Stone, sees radio as a community-oriented service.
As a kid in North Wilkesboro, NC, Larry dreams of buying a radio station. He begins working in the medium in high school and devotes 17 years to the NFL Titans radio network, ultimately serving as executive producer and game-day host. When the football team moves to Tennessee in 1997, he travels all over the state and becomes fascinated by Cookeville and the Upper Cumberland. "When I turned the magic age of 40," he says, "I thought, now's the time if I'm going to pursue the dream." He decides to invest in Cookeville.
He runs the company with more of a "guiding philosophy" than a strict business model. "There are a lot better appliances that deliver music than a radio these days,” he says. “There's so much more technology. I learned in journalism school that 'all news is local.' People care about what's in their community. And when you help community, you help business."
The key to his approach has been to establish one-on-one connections with listeners and advertisers. He has learned from working with the Titans to build good relationships one at a time. Not only does he send thank-you notes, he handwrites them.
When he gets to WLQK Lite Rock 95.9, he immediately notices Sheila's passion driving the "one-horse" operation. Instead of simply lending her name to causes, she actually rolls up her sleeves and participates in the work. She also handwrites thank-you notes. A moment last Christmas further underscores their shared values.
As Larry remembers it, he asks Sheila and a couple of other teammates to figure out a way for everyone to give back as a group during the holidays. The team comes up with the idea of working together at the local senior center, filling baskets to be delivered to folks confined to their homes. “We got all the baskets stuffed in 75 minutes,” Larry recalls.
As they head for the door to leave, a manager at the center pulls him aside. Out of earshot of the rest of the group, she says to Larry, "You don't know how helpful your staff has been. This will take care of half the people."
"Half?” says Larry. In an instant, he realizes that the center doesn’t have enough baskets for everyone. “Look, just send me the bill, and we'll take care of the other half."
A few days later, Sheila walks into his office on the verge of tears. “I know what you did," she says, as she begins to cry. Larry doesn’t know what she is talking about, but her reference to a scary movie title concerns him a bit. It turns out that she found out about his generosity.
“The senior center,” she says. "You don't realize that that makes me want to come in here every day and put in the team effort. This is the kind of place I want to work."
Since then, their personalized, team effort continues tirelessly. Besides supporting existing programs, Stonecom is developing more of its own events. Three years ago, they start a fun Easter Egg Hunt, a free event at a new city park. Two years ago, they launch a huge community yard sale, where fees for booths are donated to Habitat for Humanity. This year, they support a first-ever seven-county blood drive, where donors give a pint of blood and get a pint of ice cream. A big animal lover, Sheila also has her own “pet” project. She and her husband, Tim, have rescued two cats and a dog. To encourage others to adopt, she features a Pet of the Week from an area shelter every Friday on her show. The segments are helping to reduce kill rates at the shelters.
Beyond these and many other programs, Sheila simply tries to “get out and talk to people.” She and her colleagues show their love of community by broadcasting live about 40 times a month from various locations around town. One of those places is JJ Jax, a store Sheila first visits while shopping for a gift for a friend. After discovering Brighton accessories there, she returns to shop and do live remotes. In particular, she broadcasts from its annual parking lot sale, where proceeds are donated to charity. Jenny Spurlock, the shop owner, has gotten to know Sheila well and adores her spirit. She is also tickled that Tim is becoming a good customer, stopping in to shop for “anything Brighton” for Sheila.
Since she's on radio, Sheila is usually not recognized by her face, but by her voice and her laugh. Increasingly, she and Larry are also recognized by their hearts. At events, people come up to express their appreciation. "It's rare in our business," says Larry. "They usually say they listen to you, not that they appreciate what you've done for the community."
As Cookeville residents turn in for the night, their dials remain set for Sheila in the morning. Whatever day they’ve had, they know the sun will come out tomorrow, and a little love will be on the air.