Media icon Cathy Hughes is always looking on the bright side.
As a 16-year-old teen mom, married at 17 and eventually divorced, she saw her son as a blessing and an inspiration to work harder. In the early ’80s she purchased Washington, D.C., station WOL-AM with the help of a Chemical Bank loan at a 28 percent interest rate, which eventually caused her to lose her house and car. She and her young son lived in the station, but she saw it as an opportunity to be there around the clock and learn how it operated.
When she walked into WOL and saw that former disgruntled employees had destroyed everything of value, she immediately ran home and got some LPs from her extensive record collection to keep the station rolling. When she was hired as a salesperson at WHUR radio in Washington, D.C., she increased the station’s revenues from $250,000 to $3 million and brought it up to No. 3 from a rating of No. 38.
She had enough faith and trust in the way she raised her son, Alfred C. Liggins III, to pass the business on to him—but only after he agreed to earn an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Her son didn’t disappoint her. He took Radio One, already the country’s largest black media company, to the next level. She became the first black woman to head a publicly traded company and helped to expand the company to include television and digital platforms.
Most recently, she has become the new namesake for the Howard University School of Communications. She will be honored Sunday at a private event at Howard University that will be live-streamed on all of Radio One’s local and national digital platforms. In this Q&A, The Root talks to Hughes about the importance of black media and why she never sold her black-owned empire.
The Root: You have come full circle with this honor from Howard University. You first started in D.C. as a lecturer at Howard.
Cathy Hughes: Yes, that’s where I started. That was my first job in D.C. I was a lecturer at Howard, then they transferred me to the radio station.
TR: How did you get the call to be a lecturer?
CH: Tony Brown [of Tony Brown’s Journal] was a frequent lecturer in Omaha, Nebraska, where I was at the University of Nebraska. We didn’t have a black-studies department, but we had a budget to bring in speakers and Tony Brown was one of our favorites. Tony Brown is still the host of the longest-running television show in history—maybe close to 50 years on PBS.
He was familiar with me and he told me about this newly formed School of Communications at Howard University they had asked him to set up. Tony and Ellis Haizlip were the only two black hosts on television at the time. They assembled this faculty and invited me to be a lecturer on it and put me in charge of a communications conference. Kids from all over the country would come to Howard for this communications conference. We started it off the first year.
So many individuals are working in the media today who came to that conference and got their first jobs. You could not come to the conference unless you were hiring someone. It was kicking in the door of African-American inclusion in the media industry. I always kept students involved in what I was doing, and that was because of those early days in my 20s at Howard.
TR: I grew up in D.C. and remember listening to the Quiet Storm. Most people connect it with Melvin Lindsey, but not everyone knows that you were creator of it.
CH: Melvin was actually my third host. The Quiet Storm was created as a student program. Tony Brown accurately identified a problem, which was that we have these people here to hire students, but most of the students don’t have any commercial experience. I created the Quiet Storm expressly for students. It was supposed to be a competitive program where the brightest students would compete to host the Quiet Storm for a semester.
My first [host] was a student named Don Roberts.The second was a student named Jack Shuler, whose best friend was Melvin Lindsey. Jack was like, “I want to be on TV.” Melvin was already working for me as a personal intern because I didn’t have a budget. He was working part time for me, helping me pick my son up from school and doing various things around the office. Jack said Melvin wants to do it, but he really didn’t.
Melvin not wanting to do it actually became a hit. For the first year, all he would say was, “Good evening and welcome to the Quiet Storm.” Every now and then he would get up his nerve and say, “You’ve been listening to the Quiet Storm with Melvin Lindsey.” Then the bug bit him and he started really enjoying it. The problem was that his popularity was such that Howard University didn’t want to move him out of the slot for another student to come in. I said, “Let’s give him a year”
By the time his year was up as the host, I was transitioning to a new position, and they let him go through, graduate and continue hosting the show. But the show was originally created for students to get commercial experience, which is still a big issue at communication programs on campuses. Melvin remained like an older brother to my son until the day he died.
TR: You made many sacrifices, including you and your son sleeping in your office, but you frame it in a positive way.
CH: I was like Nikki Giovanni in her poem—she didn’t know she was poor until she got money. She was happy. Me too. I remember I was somewhere in Detroit and they introduced me and they talked about when I was homeless. I was offended. Afterwards I said, “Excuse me, I was never homeless.” The lady was so apologetic, she was like, “I’m so sorry; I thought you had lost your house and your car and lived in the station.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I think that qualifies you as being homeless.” [Laughs.]
I have never dealt with the fact that I was homeless. I never called it that. It had its advantages. When you’re new to 24-7 operations, the fact that I was living there made it convenient to get to work, especially since they had repossessed my car. I was on the floor in a sleeping bag. I didn’t see it as me being homeless or impoverished because I was working on a goal, which was to build this media company, to build this radio station.
TR: And you were a young divorced mom.
CH: I was pregnant at 16 and a mother at 17. I’m a popular speaker with programs that deal with teen mothers. I took [my son] to school with me. If you’re serious about motherhood, there’s no age to that. There are stories of 10-year-olds raising siblings when both parents die. There are countless black families that were reared by an older sister or an older brother, particularly in the South.
When I lecture young mothers, I say, “View this as a blessing, not as a handicap or a problem.” If you think the child is a problem, the child is going to grow up to be a problem. And think of it as an investment. At some point the roles will change. So you want to make sure you instill in this child a sense of duty and honor towards you. You can’t do that by not properly parenting.
TR: When much of black-owned media is being sold and bought by mainstream media companies, what has been your main struggle in keeping Radio One/TV One black-owned?
CH: I have always had the mentality that I'm in it for the long run. I'm not building it to sell it. I'm building it to create opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry. I think I have a different view. I never would have gone into cable or known that we should have bought Interactive One without Alfred. I was concentrating on paying off the radio bills. He thought we should use radio for collateral to go into other areas. Thank God he had the vision.
It is difficult to turn over the reins and responsibility of authority to the generation behind you. I had to bring in consultants and shrinks. There are psychologists that specialize in family-owned business. This is not a problem unique to black folks. White entrepreneurs have dealt with this for many years.
Parents have a house that's paid for and stocks and bonds. They give it to you when they die. By the time they die, you're old yourself, so you don't need their help. But if they had transferred their assets to you when you were in your 30s and wanted to build a business or wanted to do something, it would have been a lot more valuable. It's an issue of trust and confidence. If you really have confidence in how you reared your child, give them the house so they can use it for some purpose.
TR: You started out working for a black newspaper. What do you think is the importance of telling our own stories?
CH: I think it’s critical. I started out at the Omaha Star. Frederick Douglass said he started the North Star to represent our own because for too long, others have spoken for us. That is still the case now. The [mainstream] media still thinks it should speak for us. It is not their responsibility to get it right. It is not their responsibility to understand the nuances of what’s important to us. One of the greatest compliments I get from people for both radio and TV is them telling me, “We get information [from you] that you can’t get anywhere else.”
TR: When you bought WOL, you had to go home and get your own LPs to save the station. Do you have a big record collection?
CH: The company that we bought WOL from was ticked off that they were losing their license and that they made them sell it to us under a distressed sale, which meant I only had to pay two-thirds of the share market value. They literally raided the place. They took everything out of there. I walked into an empty shell. It was cool because I had an extensive record collection; that's what the Quiet Storm was based on for the first several years. My mother was a musician, a trombonist. Right now I have thousands of CDs and an extensive record collection.
TR: Did you ever consider being a musician?
CH: I probably got more beatings for hitting the wrong notes on the piano. [Laughs.] I don't have musical talent in terms of performance, but I think I have great musical talent in terms of recognizing the talent of other individuals and promoting it.