Liggins, Alfred III 1965–
Alfred Liggins III 1965–
Alfred Liggins III is one of the most powerful African Americans in radio. As president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Radio One, he oversees the daily operations of the seventh largest radio broadcasting company in the United States, and the largest focused on urban radio. Under his reign are 66 stations in 22 markets nationwide, 2,000 employees, and nearly $300 million in revenue. He has come a long way since joining the company in 1985 as a salesman. At the time there were only two stations in the group, and they were stations that his mother, Washington, D.C., radio legend Cathy Hughes, had fought long and hard to establish. Over the next 15 years, working alongside his mother, Liggins went on a buying spree that culminated in the radio powerhouse that has become Radio One. “There is no question that I laid the foundation,” Cathy Hughes told the Washington Post. “But every brick in the skyscraper that sits atop that foundation was laid by [my son].” And now, as the owner of cable channel TV One, Liggins seems determined to turn that skyscraper into a multi-media kingdom.
Alfred C. Liggins III was born in 1965 in Omaha, Nebraska, when Cathy Hughes was just 17. After two years of marriage to Alfred Liggins, Jr., Hughes divorced and moved to Washington, D.C., with her young son. She soon landed a job at WHUR, the radio station of Howard University, and began climbing up the ranks. Liggins was always by her side. “He came to the station after school, did his homework, and many nights we would have dinner right there at the station,” she told Ebony. “I bought him his first tux at age eight, and he would go to all these black-tie events with me.” In 1979, when he was a teenager, his mother bought her first station, WOL-AM in Washington, D.C., and the following year she founded Radio One. The $1 million purchase price put her in the red, and for a while she lived at the station to make ends meet. To save on the cost of staff, she took to the airwaves herself with a lively—and often controversial—talk show.
When not teaching her son the ins and outs of running a radio station, Hughes instilled in him a strong work
At a Glance…
Born Alfred C. Liggins III in 1965 in Omaha, NE; son of Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, Jr. Education: University of Pennsylvania, MBA, 1995; attended University of California at Los Angeles; attended University of the District of Columbia.
Career: CBS Records, production assistant, 1954-85; Radio One, WOL-AM account manager, 1985-87, WOL-AM general sales manager, 1967-86, WOL-AM general manager, 1988-69, president, treasurer, and director, 1989-, CEO, 1995-.
Memberships: National Association of Broadcasters, board of directors; National Commission on Entrepreneurship, commissioner; FCC Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age, member.
Awards: National Black MBA Association, Outstanding Communicator of the Year, 2003; Radio Ink ranked Liggins as number one, 30 Most Influential African Americans in Radio; Ernst & Young, Arts and Entertainment, Top U.S. Entrepreneur (with Cathy Hughes), 2003; Broadcasters’ Foundation, Golden Mike Award (with Cathy Hughes), 2002.
Addresses: Office —Radio One Inc, 5900 Princess Garden Pkwy., Lanham, MD, 20706-2925.
ethic and a determined self-reliance. As a result, Liggins was able to escape the gangs, drugs, and crime that plagued his poor D.C. neighborhood. “The bottom line is that I felt that if I worked hard and only made a marginal amount of money for all of my life, it would be better than making a large amount of money in a short time and spending the rest of my life in jail,” he told the Washington Post. While still in junior high school, Liggins began working odd jobs, earning up to $100 a week. It was enough to buy himself some nice clothes—and earn another lesson from his mother. “One day, he comes home with a pair of designer jeans that he’d bought,” Hughes told the Washington Post. “So I sat down with him and said if you are going to have someone’s name plastered on your behind, it should be yours.” He didn’t understand, so Hughes explained, “Since you are actually going to pay somebody to be a walking advertisement for their jeans and help them build their business, you are also going to help me build mine.” From then on the young Liggins was required to pay $20 a week in rent. “People said I was so cruel,” Hughes continued. “But that was my method of teaching responsibility.”
After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1983, Liggins sold shoes and worked at a pet store, but he dreamed of working in the record industry. With his meager life savings, he set off for California, where he worked briefly as a sales executive with Light Records, a gospel recording company. He also attended classes at the University of California at Los Angeles. Soon he landed a job as a production assistant for CBS Records, where he booked talent and negotiated publishing rights. Just 19 years old, Liggins seemed destined for a bright future in the recording industry. However, his mother, who was having trouble keeping her radio station afloat, asked him to join her and work at the station. It was not a difficult decision for Liggins. He knew that one day the station could be his and, as he explained to Broadcasting & Cable, “My mother convinced me that if you’re going to work your butt off, it’s probably better to work for yourself.”
In 1985, at age 21, Liggins joined WOL-AM as an account manager. After insisting that his mother focus on her morning show and leave the sales to him, he began knocking on doors. Selling advertising on the small AM station was not always easy. “I couldn’t give away air time to advertisers,” he recalled to the Washington Post. However, with the rising popularity of his mother’s show, he began to secure accounts and to enjoy his work. “It was fun going out and talking to advertisers, helping them solve problems in how to grow their businesses, then going back and utilizing our programming to drive customers to them,” he told Black Enterprise. By 1987 Hughes had acquired a second station in Washington. Originally a soft-rock station, Hughes changed the format of WMMJ to rhythm and blues, and within two years the station had attracted a large following in the African-American community and was making a profit. Meanwhile Liggins had become the general sales manager, overseeing both stations. Though he briefly studied business at the University of the District of Columbia, he later dropped out to focus on Radio One. It was not a bad decision. Just 23 years old, Liggins was already making over $100,000 a year.
In the early 1990s, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eased regulations on the radio industry, Hughes purchased several more stations, including a popular FM station in Washington and an AM/FM station in Baltimore, Maryland. Meanwhile, Liggins moved up the ranks. After a one-year stint as general manager, he became president and director of the company in 1989, while Hughes retained the title of CEO. Liggins and his mother worked side by side building the business, in a relationship that Radio One’s chief financial officer (CFO) Scott Royster described to Broadcasting & Cable as “very complementary.” Liggins pointed out in the same article, “We’ve had knock-down, drag-out screaming matches. [But] it never was so bad that we were fractured at our foundation.… The business is not so important to either one of us that we’re going to ruin our personal relationship over it.”
Liggins and Hughes built Radio One by purchasing low-wattage stations in primarily African-American markets. “We look for underperforming stations where we can either make their urban formats better or switch them to urban formats and grab higher audience shares,” Liggins explained to the Washington Post. Radio One’s success would come from reaching the African-American market through the promotion of an “urban format.” This included anything designed to appeal to ethnic markets—particularly African-American—including rap, R&B, gospel, and jazz. It also included talk radio, a format that Hughes pioneered in the black community. “[The urban format is] our personal cultural heritage,” Liggins told Broadcasting & Cable. “It’s the format and the community we started out serving. It’s the one we’re comfortable serving. And we think we need to do it. And we think we can do it better than most people.” It also made good business sense. As Liggins told the New York Times, “I call the African-American market the emerging market in the domestic market. As companies are looking to break into China and other countries around the globe, they should really be looking here.”
In 1995 Liggins earned a master’s degree in business administration from the country’s top-ranked business program, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Though he did not have a bachelor’s degree, the fact that he had brokered several multimillion dollar radio acquisitions assured him entry. The M.B.A. was a stipulation by his mother, who wouldn’t hand him the company reigns without it, although Liggins pointed out to Ebony, “I would have gotten my MBA anyway.” True to her word, Hughes promoted Liggins to CEO and stepped away from the daily operations of the station. “It’s very hard for a parent, who changes the child’s diaper, to then at a certain point, turn over their whole station and destiny and their career to that youngster,” she told Broadcasting & Cable. However, she continued, “The best part has been that not only has Alfred turned out to be a highly competent manager, but he’s embraced my dream.”
After the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 removed limitations on the number of radio stations that a single company could own, Liggins began buying. Over a 20-month period he negotiated the purchase of 18 stations around the country. As a result, the company’s revenues for 1998 topped $46 million. In May of 1999 Liggins took the company public, offering 6.5 million shares of Radio One on the stock market. The move was a huge boost for the company. The stock, initially offered at $24 a share, shot up to $62.13 in less than a year. A Wall Street insider explained some of this success to Broadcasting & Cable: “[Radio One is] a lot more savvy than a lot of other companies we take public.… These guys know how to operate stations at peak performance.”
Taking Radio One public brought the company a large cash flow and allowed Liggins to make some aggressive purchases. In 1999 he purchased 12 stations from Clear Channel, the country’s biggest radio conglomerate. The $1.3 billion purchase gained Radio One footing in valuable markets in Houston, Dallas, Miami, and Los Angeles. The deal also made Radio One the seventh largest radio company in the country. However, Liggins was just heating up. “We’re going to expand our reach throughout the country,” he told Washington Business Forward. “Our goal is to be the dominant urban media company.” In February of 2001 he reached that goal, brokering a deal to buy out Blue Chip Broadcasting and its 15 radio stations for almost $200 million. Along with Inner City Broadcasting, Blue Chip and Radio One were the top three companies vying for the urban market. With his purchase, not only did Liggins eliminate a major competitor, but he also gained stations that were already established in the urban market. The purchase put Radio One squarely at the top of the urban radio game. By 2003 the Radio One empire had grown to 66 stations reaching over nine million listeners in the top African-American markets in the country. Meanwhile, Liggins continued Radio One’s tradition of building successful urban formats. One of his most popular developments was The Steve Harvey Show at Los Angeles’s KBBT “The Beat.” After conducting extensive research in the region, Liggins signed the popular actor and ratings began to soar.
In 2003 Liggins and Radio One joined forces with Comcast, the country’s largest cable company, to launch TV One, a cable channel aimed at African-American audiences. “African-Americans are under-served in this space,” Liggins told Broadcasting & Cable. “They are the single largest minority group, and there’s only one service for them.” He was referring to Black Entertainment Television (BET), founded by African-American media mogul Robert L. Johnson. Much has been made of the threat TV One may pose to BET, but Liggins has shrugged it off. In typical fashion, he has focused higher. “When I wake up in the morning and think of competing, I don’t think of the next black guy,” he told the Washington Post. “Bob [Johnson] is not the competition; Viacom and Clear Channel are. Those 200 guys above Bob on the Fortune 500 list, that’s who I’ve got my sights on.”
Black Enterprise, June 2000; June 2001.
Broadcasting & Cable, August 30, 1999; January 20, 2003.
Ebony, May, 2000.
New York Times, December 25, 2000.
Washington Post, April 26, 1988; January 26, 2003.
“Deals of the Year,” Washington Business Forward, www.bizforward.com/wdc/issues/2002-04/deal-softheyear/acqlarge.shtml (December 23, 2003).
“The Next Network,” Washington Business Forward, www.bizforward.com/wdc/issues/2000-10/next-network/page05.shtml (December 23, 2003).