Cathy Hughes: Finding A Way Or Making One
“One of the things my mother taught me when I was a child was just keep your eye on the prize and as long as you feel that you’re right with your creator and you’re right yourself, then other people’s opinions really don’t matter.”
Cathy Hughes is the media maven behind the broadcasting companies Radio One and TV One. Though she encountered many obstacles in her path to success, she had a vision for the future of media and never let challenges prevent her from seeing them through.
A combination of determination, dynamic personality and extraordinary work ethic has brought her to the media forefront. Her accomplishments are astounding. Radio One is now the seventh largest radio broadcasting network in the U.S. and the largest African-American owned and operated radio broadcast company in the nation. Hughes has used her company to empower African-Americans across the nation, making sure that her success signifies an achievement for her race.
“Hopefully the information that [Radio One] disseminates will somehow, some way assist in [African-American] empowerment, because, as quiet as it’s kept, the African American community is still struggling with and progressing towards liberation… we [at Radio One] see ourselves as the voice of Black America that identifies [with what] is best for our community,” Hughes said in a keepingfamilyfirst.org interview.
Catherine Elizabeth Woods Hughes was born in 1947. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska as the eldest of four children. She lived with her parents in an Omaha housing project. Hughes was very young when she realized that she wanted to pursue a career in radio.
“I knew that I wanted a career in radio when I was 8 years old… There were six of us in the house… and I would tie up the bathroom in the morning pretending my toothbrush was a microphone and I would be standing in front of the mirror giving news casts and announcing records and events in the community.”
Hughes attended the elite Catholic girls school Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart. She dropped out of high school at age 16 to give birth to her son, Alfred Liggings III. Hughes was given the choice to have an abortion or move out. She chose to give birth and marry the baby’s father at age 17. The marriage lasted for 14 months.
As a single mother Hughes attended both Creighton University in Omaha and the University of Nebraska but never had the opportunity to graduate.
The entrepreneur began her career in radio in 1969 as a volunteer at KOWH, a black-owned radio station in Omaha. Here she learned the essential skills needed to be successful in the radio business. Afterward, she was offered a position in Washington D.C. as a lecturer at Howard University’s School of Communications. Hughes became the general manager of WHUR-FM, the university’s radio station in 1975, where she boosted annual sales revenue from $300,000 to more than $3.5 million. While Hughes served as station manager for WHUR-FM, Melvin Lindsey, an intern for the station created a radio format called the “Quiet Storm,” a late-night romantic R&B music and talk format that is prevalent in urban radio programming. Hughes heard about the positive feedback from the show and rewarded Lindsey with his very own segment.
In 1978, Hughes relocated to WYCB-AM in Washington, D.C. As the station’s vice president and general manager, she revamped WYCB-AM into an all-night gospel music station. With this title, Hughes became the first African-American general manager in the Washington, D.C., media market before leaving to establish her Radio One empire.
A year later she saw her dreams become reality as she and Dewey Hughes, her former husband, purchase the small Washington D.C., radio station WOL 1450. This purchase was no easy feat; 32 banks rejected the couple before they finally received a loan for $1 million, the purchase price of the station.
Shortly after buying the station, her husband Dewey wanted to relocate to L.A., but Hughes had a vision for WOL that she was unwilling to forfeit. The couple decided to get divorced instead of trying to make a long-distance marriage work. This left Hughes as the sole-proprietor of the radio station.
She began a morning talk show program on the station followed by music programming for the remainder of the day. Finances were scarce for Hughes, causing her to give up her apartment and car and live with her son inside of the WOL station building. Due to a lack of funding for personnel, Hughes took on the tasks of producer, on-air personality, and even a DJ. She even played songs from her own personal music collection. Largely because of the morning talk show’s success, the station began generating abundant profit.
Hughes continued to purchase stations across the nation until Radio One became an influential force in the media world. In 1999, the company was valued at $950 million and it was traded publicly for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). This made Hughes the first and only African-American woman to head a publicly traded firm in the U.S.
Radio One currently has a network of 69 radio stations, located in 22 American cities, with 13 million listeners. The company has received numerous awards and abundant acclaim; in 2003, it was even inducted into the U.S. Small Business Administration Hall of Fame.
In 2004, Hughes launched TV One, a cable television channel targeted at the African-American adult community that seeks to maintain the positive image of African-Americans on television.
Currently, Hughes’ son serves as CEO and president of Radio One and Hughes serves as the company chairperson.
Hughes is an active participant in issues that involve the radio world. In 2009, Hughes fought against the Performance Rights Act (HR 848), a bill that would require radio stations to pay royalties to artists for playing their music. Through “Reality Radio,” a series of announcements that aired frequently on Radio One stations, Hughes spoke out against the bill and its governmental supporters, urging listeners to sign a petition against it. The bill never became a law.
Today, this media maven is highly revered and respected. Her skills as a savvy businesswoman have helped her build an impressive communication chain from the ground up. Cathy Hughes serves as a spokesperson for women and the black race, using her power and prominence to stand up for those whose voices would otherwise, not be heard. Hughes has shown that if a person is willing to make sacrifices and has a strong will to succeed, they can make anything happen.