Hughes, Cathy c. 1947–
Cathy Hughes c. 1947–
Radio station owner, talk show host
As owner and chief executive officer of Radio One, Inc., Cathy Hughes is in charge of the largest African American-owned radio broadcasting company in the United States. Radio One pulled in more than $50 million in 1997, making it the twenty-second-largest broadcasting firm in the nation. Its formats cater to mainly African-American audiences throughout the eastern half of the country, from Baltimore to Detroit to Washington, D.C. Hughes is not just a successful businesswoman, though. She also takes to the airwaves to dispense wisdom and humor, provide consolation, and stir activism. After starting off in radio as an administrative assistant, she worked her way up to become the first female general station manager in the Washington, D.C. market. In 1980, she and her second husband purchased their own station in order to give African Americans a voice. Since then, she and her son, Alfred Liggins, Jr., have built a radio empire that has provided not only news, information, and music, but also opened opportunities for African Americans to work in the field. In 1997 she remarked in the Baltimore Afro-American,” The more African Americans I can get into management, ownership, and on-air and sales opportunities, the better the industry will be.”
Hughes was born in about 1947 in Omaha, Nebraska, where she grew up in a low-income housing project. Her father, William Alfred Woods, was the first African American to receive a degree in accounting from Nebraska’s Creighton University. Hughes’s mother, Helen Jones Woods, played in the orchestra at Piney Woods School, a private boarding school in Mississippi which her father had founded. Hughes had three younger siblings. She used to listen to her transistor radio each night in bed, catching tunes by acts like the Everly Brothers and the Platters. She was the first African American to attend an area Catholic girls’ school and had always been a good student. However, when Hughes became pregnant at age 16, she tried to deny what was happening. “I went into shock because I knew I had my whole future ahead of me,” she recalled to Charisse Jones in Essence. But she married the baby’s father, Alfred Liggins, Sr., before she gave birth, and afterward, her son, Alfred Liggins, Jr., “became my motivation and my inspiration,” asHughes told Jones.
Hughes’s marriage only lasted two years, though, and she soon found herself raising a child alone. Forging on, she graduated from high school and enrolled in business administration courses. In 1971, she got a job as an administrative assistant with Tony Brown at Howard University. He was a noted commentator who had founded the institution’s school of communications. There, Hughes worked so diligently that Brown transferred her to the school radio station, WHUR-FM, in 1973. She rose to vice president and general manager in 1975, becoming the first female general manager in that media market. Jones asserted in Essence, “It was at Howard, industry insiders say, that Hughes created ‘The Quiet Storm’—that now ubiquitous format featuring silky-voiced deejays playing hours of sexy love songs.” Though Hughes felt she had a money-maker on her hands and urged Howard to license the format, they declined, not seeing its value.
Born Catherine Elizabeth Hughes, c. 1947, in Omaha, NE; daughter of William Alfred (an accountant) and Helen Jones (a musician) Woods; married Alfred Liggins (divorced); married Dewey Hughes (a television producer; divorced); children: (from first marriage) Alfred Liggins, Jr, Education: Studied business administration..
Career: Howard University, school of communications, administrative assistant, 1971-73; WHUR-FM college radio station, assistant, 1973-75, vice president and general manager, beginning 1975; WYCB-AM, president and general manager, late 1970s; founder, owner, and CEO of Radio One, Inc.; bought first radio station, WOL-AM, 1980, became talk show host, 1982; owner of WOL-AM, WMMJ-FM, WWIN-AM/FM, WERQ-FM/WOLB-AM, WKYS-FM, WJZZ-FM, and WCHB-AM/WCHB-FM
Addresses: Office— Radio One, 5900 Princess Garden Pkwy., Ste. 800, Lanham, MD 20706
After that, she sought opportunities where she would have more creative control.
In the late 1970s, Hughes moved over to a new gospel station, WYCB-AM, as the president and general manager. Dissatisfied there, she only stayed six months and then began pursuing her goal of buying her own station. In 1980, she and her second husband, Dewey Hughes, purchased WOL-AM for $950,000. They chipped in $100,000 from their savings, $150,000 from investors, and $300,000 from an African-American-owned venture-capital firm, but still needed a bank loan. After canvassing 32 banks, they found a lender. Hughes set out to provide talk radio for African Americans in the Washington, D.C. area, the first African-American firm to attempt such a format. Her research correctly showed that the market lacked news and information for African American listeners, but she found that advertisers and banks were not receptive. As she remarked to Phyllis Stark in Billboard, “I was very naive in terms of cost. Talk and news is the most expensive format.... Also at this time, we had the advent of FM. It was being recognized as the giant of the music formats.”
The station was located in a rough area of town, but Hughes toughed it out. When her second marriage ended, she found herself economically in a tight spot, but managed to pull through that as well. However, when the bank threatened to cut off funds in early 1982 unless she began playing music, Hughes compromised. She insisted on retaining a talk format in the morning, but conceded to filling the rest of the day with music. Without enough in the budget to pay a morning host, Hughes took to the airwaves herself, dispensing news and riling the activist spirit of her listeners. Since then, she has hosted a regular show on WOL-AM, acting as both a sounding board for listeners as well as a community leader. Once, in 1987, she led a protest of the Washington Post when readers took offense at perceived racial insensitivity in the Washington Post Magazine, which ran a story about an African-American murder suspect. Subsequently, the publisher and editor went on her program to apologize. Meanwhile, in 1986, the station turned its first profit, and the following year, Hughes purchased her second station, WMMJ-FM, for $7.5 million. Though the sellers continued to increase the price throughout the deal, Hughes’s son, Liggins, insisted they buy. “Had we not been able to give WOL an FM big sister,” Hughes told Jones, “we would not have survived.”
Hughes’s enterprise continued to grow when other African American broadcasters have been inched out of the market. In 1995 and 1996, African American-owned FM stations dropped from 86 to 64, and AM stations sunk from 109 to 101. By 1998, she owned seven stations, WOL-AM, which moved to Baltimore, Maryland; WERQ-FM/WOLB-AM, WMMJ-FM, and WWIN-AM/FM, all in Baltimore, and WKYS-FM, in Washington, D.C. Her $34 million acquisition of WKYS-FM in 1995 was the biggest business deal to date between African American radio station owners. Later, Hughes purchased three stations in Detroit, WJZZ-AM and WCHB-AM/WCHB-FM, and her son, Liggins, who serves as president and general manager of Radio One, acquired his first station, WQUL in Atlanta. The success of Radio One continued into 1999 when the company’s stock went public, making Radio One the first African-American-female-owned company on the stock exchange. Radio One stock debuted at $24 a share, but by 2000, the price had risen to $97 per share.
Hughes has won serval awards in recognition of her accomplishments. In 1995, she was granted an honorary doctorate from Sojourner Douglass College in Baltimore. This honor inspired Hughes to go back to school in 1997. In 1998, Hughes became the first woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Achievement in Radio Awards at its twelfth annual ceremony. Hughes has also been inducted into the Maryland Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame. In February of 2000, she was presented with the first annual Black History Hall of Fame Award. Also in 2000, Hughes was presented the National Action Network’s “Keepers of the Dream” award. This award recognizes leaders whose contributions are an honor to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy.
Some have criticized Hughes for paying more attention to profits and less attention to community matters. Others claim her on-air commentaries and pro-African American stance displays prejudice against other races. Such comments do not bother Hughes, who has never wavered from her commitment to create more opportunities for African Americans in the radio industry. “What turns me on the most about this business,” Hughes told Black Enterprise, “is fulfilling my dream to provide lucrative employment opportunities for other blacks in an industry where there are so few opportunities.” With African American ownership and management of black radio stations on a steady decline, Hughes explains in Essence that “It is critical for us to tell our story from our perspective...When the company is Black-owned, you have black decision makers, a Black perspective and Black employees.”
Hughes has encountered all of the challenges of owning and operating a black radio station in an industry with few opportunities for African Americans. She has succeeded where so many others have failed and, in so doing, she has not only opened the door for other African Americans, but she also strives on a daily basis to keep that door open.
Atlanta Inquirer, April 19, 1997.
Baltimore Afro-American, March 22, 1997.
Baltimore Business Journal, June 30, 2000.
Billboard, January 14, 1995, p. 61.
Black Enterprise, May 31, 1995.
Broadcasting & Cable, October 23, 1995.
Ebony, May 2000.
Essence, October 1998, p. 113.
Jet, May 1, 2000.
NABJ Journal, November 30, 1994.
New Republic, October 2, 1995, p. 20.
PR Newswire, April 7, 2000.
Washington Afro-American, March 5, 1994.
Washington Times, October 19, 1998, p. C13.
—Geri Speace and Jennifer M. York
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