With purchase of radio station WOL in 1980, Cathy Hughes launched a media empire


A crowd gathered at the Newseum on Saturday to hear Radio One founder Cathy Hughes discuss the importance of ethnic media with Inside Media host Frank Bond. (Frank Mitchell/Newseum)

An outspoken minority press is “needed now more than ever before,” Radio One founder Cathy Hughes said Saturday, even as sluggish advertising revenue and hard-to-secure financing make it difficult for those media outlets to thrive.

“It’s the responsibility of each community to tell their story in their own words from their perspective,” Hughes said during a live interview at the Newseum on Saturday.

Hughes is honored in the press museum’s “One Nation With News for All” exhibit, which chronicles the ways immigrant and minority media have advanced their respective communities. She was also interviewed on “Inside Media” by host Frank Bond.

But Hughes is as much an entrepreneur as a media pioneer. She began her career as a young, single mother working for Howard University’s radio station, WHUR. She went on to found her media empire, now known as Radio One, in Washington with the purchase of station WOL in 1980.

“I don’t think that it’s possible for any African American, let alone an African American woman, to get one station financed the way I did,” Hughes said. “That’s not possible anymore. You have to have multiple stations that you’re trying to get financed.”


Cathy Hughes, the founder of Silver Spring-based Radio One, bought her first radio station in 1980. Today, Radio One owns dozens of stations in urban markets across the United States. . (Frank Mitchell/Newseum)

She shifted the station from an all-music format to include programs that examined politics, culture and other current events from an African American perspective. As the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights advocate and media personality, said during a video introducing Hughes: “She took the mute button off of black America.”

Silver Spring-based Radio One now boasts a collection of radio and television stations in urban markets such as Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit and Houston. The company debuted on the stock market in 1999, making Hughes the first black woman to chair a public company, and launched its inaugural television station, TV One, five years later.

The company reported its second quarter earnings earlier this month, posting a net loss of $36 million for the first six months of the year, up from a net loss of $32.3 million during the first six months of 2013. Hughes’ son, Alfred C. Liggins III, serves as chief executive.

“Advertising still is as difficult for the black press, be it print or electronic, as it was in Frederick Douglass’ days quite frankly,” Hughes said. “Billions and billions and billions of dollars are spent by major corporations each year, just a trickle of it comes into black media.”

But Hughes said Saturday her personal mission has always been to lift the black community rather than stock prices. Before Radio One would hire a major law or accounting firm, for example, Hughes would insist the company be assigned an African American employee. If the firm couldn’t provide one, she said, Radio One would simply look elsewhere.

“Even as a teenager when I bought my first car, when I went to the dealership I asked them did they have a black salesman,” Hughes said. “They were like, ‘No, I don’t have a black salesman.’ So I didn’t buy my car at that dealership.”

Hughes hopes others in the African American community adopt a similar approach, using their collective purchasing power to support black-owned businesses. That includes backing her media empire with their television remote and radio dial.

“We have got to become a lot more sophisticated in our community in terms of the power of our dollar. We’ve got to demand that opportunities be provided,” she said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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