Cathy Hughes remembered the days when she dreamed of hosting her own radio show.
“I would stay up all night long listening to radio. Back in those days the signals were 100,000 watters – Wolfman [Jack] and all those white air personalities trying to sound like they were Black,” Hughes recalled. “It’s such a blessing to look back by the age of 8 – before I reached the age of puberty I knew what I wanted to do with my life and my career.”
Today her company, Radio One, is the parent corporation of several subsidiaries: TVOne, home of UnSung, NewsOne Now, and R&B Divas; Reach Media, home of the Rickey Smiley Morning Show and the Tom Joyner Morning Show; and their web property Interactive One; and the marketing firm One Solution.
But what would even lead a little Black girl in the 1950’s to consider a career in radio?
“They were doing urban radio because Black people weren’t allowed on the radio,” said Hughes, 69. “But nothing gave me more inspiration, nothing gave me more stimulation – I almost didn’t complete grade school and junior high school because all I was thinking about was my future in radio. It just overtook my entire spirit.”
But Hughes dreams were almost thwarted when she became pregnant at 16. For many young girls – the kind of success that Hughes craved might have seemed out of reach, but she looked at her circumstance as simply what it was, a blessing.
“It fascinated me that another human being was going to come out of my body,” says Cathy. “I was still young and naïve enough to be in awe of the process. And I figured that God must have chosen me for something special to allow me to be a mother.
“I get invited quite frankly to speak with unwed teenage mothers and I say to them that if you see this as a mistake then that’s what that child and your life will be about. I saw it as a blessing.”
That blessing, her son, Alfred Liggins III, was also something she looked at as an investment.
“I viewed him as part of my future and that’s what it’s turned out to be. He’s the one that took my company public, he’s the one that actually created TVOne, he and I became partners at a very early age,” she explained. Liggins is now CEO of Radio One.
In her early 20s Hughes went off in search of her dreams and landed at Howard University’s radio station WHUR where she worked her way up the ranks, eventually becoming the first Black female vice president and general manager of a radio station.
After leaving WHUR Hughes went about building her radio empire, by first purchasing Washington D.C.’s WOL-AM after asking 32 lending institutions for a loan. Her persistence and deep faith in God paid off. It wasn’t easy for her at first. She and her son both worked and lived at the radio station.
“My mother begged me to give up my dream and go get a good government job. She said ‘you’re in D.C. sleeping on a floor in a sleeping bag. you’re homeless. Are you out of your mind? With your skillset go get a good government job so you’ll have some security.’ I say to her all the time now aren’t you glad that I did not follow your advice?”
Decades later, Hughes is noted with creating one of the most successful formats in urban radio, “The Quiet Storm.” It’s one of Cathy Hughes’ legacies, but she wants to be known more for this:
“That my community is in just a little bit better condition when I close my eyes for the last time than it was the day that I first opened them. I really feel that I’ve been on a mission to empower and inform my community and my gender. I feel that it’s not just an obligation to the Black community but also to Black women, to open doors, to provide opportunities, to set an example of what we can achieve,” says Hughes.
“We very arrogantly judge success as we go along and that’s the reason that we’re so appalled when somebody makes a mistake,” she said. “That’s the reason they talk about ‘the fall.’ All of us stumble and fall but if you build someone up to a certain level and you give them qualities that only God possess – we’re all works in progress and your work is judged in the end, not during the process.”
The latest feather in Hughes cap is the feature-length TVOne film, Media premiering Saturday, starring Penny Johnson Jerald and Brian White.It follows a matriarchal family-run multi media empire. Plans were also recently announced to turn Media into a television series as well. Hughes says Media is entertaining and heavy on drama and intrigue, yet delightfully sprinkled with a few laughs, but at it’s core it’s about so much more.
“It’s the story of my industry,” she explains. “It’s the story of the impact that Ida B. Wells had. It’s the story of Johnson Publishing. It’s the story of Johnson Publishing and Earl Graves’ Black Enterprise being in competition. It’s the story of Essence and Uptown and Upscale. There’s so much competition but were it not for these families that sacrificed wealth for the power to be able to empower their community, we wouldn’t have had a Black president. We wouldn’t have had Martin Luther King. It’s Black media that made that possible.”
But Hughes has been adamant about the fact that it’s not about her or her life story. She insists that that story is in the works, first as a book she’s currently writing, and then as a movie.
“And I’m not trying to be vein,” she says, “but my story’s going to called the Cathy Hughes story – not Media, there’ll be no code word.”
The empowering of Black women via media and information is a cornerstone of Hughes’ work. But there’s more work to be done.
“I’m happy now that women are rallying and they’re bonding and there’s a unity because for so many years I was the Lone Ranger. I just hope that this isn’t a temporary state for women.” Hughes said. “I don’t consider myself a feminist but I have to admit that I do have all the characteristics. I consider myself a Black woman.”