Cathy Hughes was supposed to follow her mother into music. Her mom played in an all-women’s swing orchestra, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and, her daughter says, “she was determined that I would be Beyoncé.” Instead, Hughes got into media and has been a ground-breaker for forty years.
Married and a mother at 17, Hughes began her media career in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, where she worked at KOWH, an African American-owned AM radio station. In 1973, the now-single mother moved with her son, Albert, to Washington, D.C. where she lectured at Howard University’s school of communications and worked as sales manager for the university’s radio station, WHUR. There, she created the distinctive “Quiet Storm” format that revolutionized urban radio. She would become Washington radio’s first female general manager.
In 1980, Hughes purchased her first radio station, WOL-AM, applying to 32 banks before finding a lender to help finance the deal. At WOL she introduced another new format to the nation’s capital, “Talk from a Black Perspective.” Unable to afford hiring talk-show talent, she became the station’s morning show host. Five years later, Hughes’ son, Alfred Liggins, joined the WOL staff as an account manager. WOL turned its first profit in ’86, and the next year, Hughes bought WMMJ, also in the Washington, D.C. market. Her company, Radio One, became an urban radio market leader with more than 60 stations and multiple formats across the country.
Liggins took on more responsibility as Radio One grew, and in 1994 he took over day-to-day operations, with Hughes as CEO. She says it was a smart move to make the transition when she did, instead of waiting until she was ready to retire, as many heads of family-owned businesses tend to do. “Parents wait too long to let go,” she says. “It’s so hard to give the combination to the vault to the same child who would lose the keys to the front door.” The mother-son business partnership has endured and thrived. Liggins became CEO in 1997; Hughes is board chair.
Radio One went public in 1999, becoming the first company on the U.S. stock exchange headed by an African American woman. Hughes entered the cable industry in 2004 with the launch of TV One in partnership with Comcast. The new cable channel was just the second entry into the African American market. By 2006, TV One was available in more than 33 million households. Radio One was renamed Urban One in 2017, and is today a multi-media enterprise with radio stations, cable, syndicated programs, web, and marketing properties under its umbrella.
Hughes was inducted into the Black History Hall of Fame in 2000, and she has received numerous awards and honors over the course of her career. In 2016, Howard University announced the naming of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. “My goal was always to be of service to my community,” she says.