For Cathy Hughes, Information Is Power for Black Community

Her Biggest Challenge: 'Everybody's in the Black Programming Lane'

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Cathy Hughes
Cathy Hughes Credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Entertainment alone doesn't cut it in the radio business, according to the woman who heads the biggest black-owned broadcast company in the U.S.

Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of Radio One, contends that one of the problems that has plagued the African-American community is lack of information.

"I think that when we have the proper facts and figures we will make the right decisions," she said, "but usually by the time we get the information it's black history, not current events."

So, she told me during a video interview prior to her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame in the spring, pure entertainment "doesn't serve a purpose."

She pointed out that the black community has never had a national daily newspaper, so "I had to figure out how to diplomatically dispense information and weave it into a blanket of information so I wouldn't lose the attention factor."

Ms. Hughes said her biggest challenge is that "everybody's in the black programming lane." Radio One, in addition to its 54 radio stations and nine syndicated shows, operates cable channel TV One and an interactive division. Last month marked the company's 35th anniversary. Ms. Hughes said every cable channel on the dial now has some form of black programming. And sponsors are interested. But at the same time, iHeartMedia "thinks they're the experts on black radio. So I have competitors that I have never seen before. It's a little easier to secure major sponsorships and advertising, but it's still very difficult."

One of the problems with advertisers, she said, is that although they recognize black consumers as trendsetters, they only allocate about 1% of their budgets to black programming. Advertisers believe that they can reach the urban market with general-market advertising.

But, Ms. Hughes pointed out, "just because an advertiser reaches a consumer does not mean they have touched that consumer… There's a big difference between reaching and touching."

Ms. Hughes liked radio from an early age, when she was eight years old and her mother gave her a transistor radio. She would lock herself in the bathroom and use the toothbrush for a microphone. She wouldn't come out until she had delivered all the commercials and the news, and said goodbye to the audience, which was her mirror.

Ms. Hughes grew up in the projects in Omaha, the daughter of a professional musician mother who married a high-school dropout. Her mom put her dad through college and he became the first black CPA in the state of Nebraska.

At 16, she became pregnant. "I thought I knew everything. I was only concerned with what looked good on me, who looked good with me. But once I got pregnant I had to shift my priorities, and for the first time in my life I had to think beyond myself.

"And it was the best training ground I could have ever had, because once I was able to do that with [my son], I was able to do that with my entire family. I consider my staff my family, my extended family. I do that with my community initiatives and efforts. It became second nature for me, because before I was 21 I was putting someone else first."

That proved to be a pretty good formula. After working at an Omaha station while attending college, the dean of Howard University's school of communications hired her not only as a lecturer but also general sales manager of the Howard radio station. In two years Ms. Hughes increased revenue from $250,000 to $3 million, and she was appointed head of the station, becoming Washington D.C.'s first female general manager.

In 1980 Ms. Hughes and her then-husband bought a struggling station, WOL-AM. At one point, after she lost her house and car because of sky-high interest rates, she and her son moved into WOL's offices, where they cooked on a hot plate and slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
And she also became a successful talk-show host, relying on more talk than music in keeping with her motto "Information is power."

Her proudest achievement has been "rearing and grooming my son to embrace my dream and take over the mantle of leadership of my company." She gives credit to her son, Alfred Liggins, for convincing her to take the company public. When advertisers tell him they don't want to buy, he says "it simply means they haven't made up their minds correctly."

And through it all, Cathy Hughes still thinks of herself as "a work in progress."

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