Cathy Hughes, who lives in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, is founder and chairwoman of the media company that touts reaching 82% of Black people in the United States.
Urban One Inc., formerly known as Radio One, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, operates radio station Magic 95.9 in Baltimore and others, including in Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Her company also owns TV One and CLEO-TV, two cable television networks, and employs 1,500 people.
The multimedia conglomerate also owns Reach Media Inc., a syndication company that produces “The D.L. Hughley Show,” and iOne Digital, a platform where social content, news, information and entertainment are shared.
In addition to being the first African American woman to chair a publicly held corporation, Hughes helped to revolutionize Black radio with the legendary “Quiet Storm” program, which was aired on more than 480 stations across the country.
Hughes, 73, was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1980, Hughes purchased her flagship station, WOL-AM in Washington, with Dewey Hughes, her husband at that time. She has one son, Alfred Liggins III, who is the company’s CEO.
This year, amid the pandemic, Hughes provided a lifeline for many Black businesses that were negatively affected by COVID-19.
The Baltimore Sun recently talked with the media mogul about topics including her Nebraska upbringing, her affinity for Baltimore and Maryland, and why what she does matters.
This interview has been edited for length.
How did being raised in Nebraska shape your identity as a Black woman in America?
In my opinion [Omaha has] one of the best education systems in the country. There isn’t a lot of social life in the Midwest. There isn’t a lot to do. Going to school is an activity. There is a lot more focus. You don’t have a lot of distractions. You get up in the morning and look forward to going to school. That’s where you go see other people. When I moved to D.C., they would remark about my work ethic. I was always 15 minutes early. On snow days, I was at my office.
What brought you to the Baltimore region and why did you put roots in Anne Arundel County?
What brought me to Baltimore was the opportunity to expand [my business] into Baltimore.
When my son was young, we spent weekends in the Inner Harbor. Being from the Midwest, I thought that water was supposed to be brown and gray. That was the only type of water we saw. Baltimore was always a fascination. There has always been a great interaction between Black people in Baltimore and Black folks in D.C. A lot of Black people would come to Baltimore on the weekends for social activities: crabs, seafood, the whole ambience of Baltimore.
When we had an opportunity to expand our radio into Baltimore, we jumped on it. Baltimore was our first city of expansion for our company. It was organic. It made sense. Baltimore was such a welcoming community.
When this farm [in Pasadena] became available, my assistant found it. She said, “You’ve got to see this farm. God has blessed us.” That’s why I put roots in Pasadena. I still list Washington, D.C., as my primary residence, but I rest my head in Pasadena. I’ve been there almost 20 years.
Why is Black radio so important (especially in an area like Baltimore)?
Several years ago [in 2008] we did the Black America Today study. We undertook a million dollar research project. [It found that] second to the Black church was the reliance of the Black consumer on Black radio. … That is why it is so important. Historically, Black media has been the only place where Black consumers could get a Black perspective. One of my favorite soapbox sermons is that it is important for us to control our own means of communication because it’s a whole different perspective.
Was it difficult to build a business as a woman?
I role-modeled after Mildred Brown, who owned a Black newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska. I did not realize how unique that was because I had grown up seeing Mildred Brown.
Everything is perception. My perception was that if you have determination, you have to keep your mind open. Sexism and racism are all realities for Black women. But you just keep your eyes on the prize and continue to progress and not take failures or disappointments personally.
It’s the law of averages. For every 99 people who tell you ‘no,' the chances are that the 100th will say ‘yes.' My daddy was an accountant and he used to always talk about the law of averages.
How has the recent national focus on supporting Black businesses affected your business?
When COVID-19 first shut down everything, our business was affected. We lost 65% of our business. I initiated a program, Buy Black Tuesday. Every Tuesday we announce three Black-owned businesses specific to each market. For a week we give them free advertisement.
Black businesses finally got a toehold and then COVID hit. So many of them were in the service industry — the restaurants, plumbers. People didn’t want anyone coming in their houses. This is an effort to help them rebuild and have people go back and patronize Black businesses.
I did it because I saw it as an opportunity [for them. Black businesses] wouldn’t be able to afford the advertisement at a radio station because they are too small. … It has been working.
Awards and accolades
Hughes was selected for the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019, the Woman of the Year Award by 100 Black Men of America in 2018, the Ida B. Wells Living Legacy Award in 2011 and the Essence Women Shaping the World Award in 2008.
She was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2010, and the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University was named for her in 2016.