Taking Care of Business Making waves: Radio station owner Cathy Hughes has no trouble being tough, which means some people admire her and others avoid talking about her.


The disc jockey on Baltimore's "92-Q" never saw the shot coming.

He figured he'd be solid with the boss when he announced on the air that he wouldn't repeat a few songs in that afternoon's show because the lyrics were vulgar. He'd been inspired by the Million Man March and challenged by a listener to stop playing that nasty music. No problem, he figured. After all, wasn't station owner Cathy Hughes always talking about doing good for the community?

Somebody needed to take the young man aside and educate him about Cathy Hughes.

Somebody should have talked to him about how you go from a housing project in Omaha to a position of power in black radio, how you ascend in 24 years from a sales job at Howard University's radio station to a place among Essence magazine's 1995 "Wonder Women," alongside Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisholm.

You don't do this by letting some 29-year-old deejay make decisions about the product. You do this by taking people on and making a few things clear. Such as: One of us is the boss, one of us can be replaced as easily as a light-bulb.

The disc jockey, Marcel Thornton, disappeared from WERQ last October. Pick your version: he was fired or he resigned. Ms. Hughes had to educate him: Yes, the community thing is very nice, but business is business.

Ms. Hughes, who turns 49 this month, has been making decisions as a business owner for 16 years, hiring people, firing them, closing multimillion dollar deals for new radio stations, building a company, the Baltimore-based Radio One Inc. that owns eight stations in Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta.

"She's got a lock on Washington-Baltimore as far as black radio goes," says Ruth A. Robinson, editor-in-chief of Black Radio Exclusive, a 100,000-circulation weekly magazine. As an African-American woman radio entrepreneur, Ms. Hughes is "a singular figure. If you want to be in black radio, you couldn't have a better role model than Cathy Hughes."

Between her financial struggles in the early 1980s and last spring when she bought WKYS for $34 million, Ms. Hughes has made allies and antagonists.

Some people say she's a model of what a community-minded entrepreneur should be. Others say never mind the "WOL Family" patter, she's interested mostly in money. The sympathetic version is this: Cathy Hughes bugs people because she's a forceful and successful black woman.

"This is what Howard University trained women to be," says Dr. Deirdre Fairley, a Memphis pathologist who was a student at Howard University in the late 1970s and knew Ms. Hughes then. "You were either going to be Aunt Jemima or Hillary Rodham Clinton."

The name Hillary Rodham Clinton meant nothing at Howard in 1971. Neither did the name Cathy Hughes, a 24-year-old mother of a 7-year-old son who had just moved from Nebraska to Washington. She was hired as a salesperson for the new Howard University station, WHUR-FM, a fertile training ground in those days for a generation of African-American broadcasters and journalists. In a few years she was named sales manager, then general manager -- a charmer with good judgment about what works on the air and a knack for closing deals.

Say the name Cathy Hughes to people now, and sometimes they get quiet and it's a very short conversation, or they quote their mother who said hush if you have nothing nice to say. Sometimes they supply a few descriptive words: willful, savvy, aggressive, gutsy, warm, generous, beguiling.

She can be a strong advocate for your career, says Armstrong Williams, the syndicated talk host who got his start with Ms. Hughes on WOL in 1991. But "If she ever turns on you, you got the worst enemy in the world," he says. "People are dispensable to her. She takes no prisoners. Let me tell you right now, she's tough."

Lately, one can add another adjective, a departure in the rather dramatic Cathy Hughes Story: inconspicuous. Off the air since WOLB-AM started running the O. J. Simpson trial, Ms. Hughes has been keeping a low profile. She moved her base of operations to St. Paul Street in Baltimore from Washington last August.

Despite repeated requests, Ms. Hughes declined to be interviewed. Enough publicity, says her son, Alfred Liggins, the 31-year-old president of Radio One. Many stories have been done, he says.

And why not? This is the woman who for years used her talk-show in Washington like a bullhorn at a street rally. She never shied from a public fight, even picked a few of her own. When it began in 1980, WOL was The Voice of the black community in Washington radio, the only game in town, where, the slogan still goes, "Information is power." Cathy Hughes became a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

She organized a boycott of the Washington Post in 1986 when she felt the first issue of its new Sunday magazine was racist in its portrayals of African-Americans. She whipped up protests against utility-company shut-off practices, rallied folks to show up at the D.C. lottery board to protest lack of lottery advertising on black-owned stations. When Clarence Mitchell's widow, Juanita, was mired in debt to lawyers defending her sons in the Wedtech scandal, Ms. Hughes took to the air and helped raise $35,000 to help her.

She'd build up Mayor Marion Barry, then tear him down, then build him up again. She'd bring his wife, Effi Barry, on the air in the midst of the mayor's legal ordeals and let her tell her tale of loyalty under siege. Ms. Hughes lashed out at former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's extravagant spending and the school board's incompetence.

One day she picked on Hispanics and got some headlines. Another day, another target, another cause. She'd talk to people about their personal lives and their struggles and give them a little comfort. All at once she was Oprah and Sally Jesse and the radio shrink.

It was good radio, and Ms. Hughes always knew good radio, says Phil Watson, who was WHUR's first general manager and program director. "That's Cathy. She uses everything in her reach to make radio and make money," says Mr. Watson, former general manager of Pacifica Radio. "Cathy carved out her turf."

Lately, the talk on WOL/WOLB, which started simulcasting in Baltimore and Washington in October 1993, is lighter on D.C. politics. The stations feature a mix of national and state politics, discussions of black entrepreneurship and how to solve chronic economic and social problems. The Million Man March is still a subject of discussion. All this is peppered with the sort of folksy fare one might expect to hear on a small-town station. The other morning, a fellow called talk host Bernie McCain to report that the station wagon he uses for his business was wrecked in an accident. Might anyone out there have one he could borrow?

Ms. Hughes was back on WOL/WOLB with Dick Gregory for two afternoon shifts last month, filling in for Lisa Mitchell. On the air she's cheerful, friendly, ready to laugh. Call the tone show-biz upbeat. Everything is marvelous and so exciting. One guest is the most wonderful artist, the other owns the most fabulous art gallery, and a certain quilt is the most beautiful she's ever seen. She ends some calls by telling callers, "I love you."

The longer the show goes on, the more informal Ms. Hughes' diction gets. The academics might call it "code-switching." Pretty soon she's in full street talk: "OK, that ain't even smart white folks thinkin' " and "What you mean they in the car?"

When Mr. Gregory gently criticizes a certain author, Ms. Hughes says, "It is not nice for a talk-show host to be catty, so I'm not going to say what I think. My old grandmama used to say, 'If you can't say something good don't say nothing at all.' So nothin' is what I'm gon' be sayin.' "

A quieter firebrand

Hmmm, doesn't sound like the same firebrand who held forth on the Washington airwaves in the 1980s. But lately, it's true. She hasn't been on the air, and, according to her assistant, she hasn't been making many public speeches, either. Not a word about the Simpson verdict or the Million Man March or Louis Farrakhan's "Flip Uncle Sam the Bird Tour."

Even when a minor public flap developed in Baltimore over Mr. Thornton's disappearance from 92-Q, Ms. Hughes would not comment. She left it to her son, Mr. Liggins, to make the public statement: "We agree that some lyrics and messages are not suitable for broadcast," he said in an editorial delivered on the air. "We monitor very closely, on a daily basis, what we play, and will always remain sensitive to our community."

Funny, Mr. Thornton thought he was being sensitive to the community. "I said on the air, 'I could be fired' " for omitting a couple of songs with sexual lyrics, Mr. Thornton recalls. "I knew I wouldn't be. This was a positive thing. I really thought it would be right in line with what [Ms. Hughes] was doing."

Like Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," Mr. Thornton was misinformed. There's a reason WERQ consistently ranks among Baltimore's top 10 stations.

When he got off the air that day, he and Ms. Hughes had a chat. As Mr. Thornton recalls, Ms. Hughes told him she didn't care much for that sort of music either, but "that's what the people were buying, so that's what they were going to play."

This was last fall, not a particularly great time for Ms. Hughes. A life story that already read like a TV movie script was maybe getting a tad melodramatic.

She was anticipating the opening of a criminal trial in D.C. Superior Court during which she spent three days on the witness stand. A former Washington school teacher named Loretta Smith was tried for criminally threatening Ms. Hughes, who had become involved with a man Ms. Smith had been dating. Into the public record went a soap opera of a jilted lover, alleged harassment, restraining orders, hateful phone calls.

After a trial that went more than a week, the jury in early December acquitted Ms. Smith of four felony counts of threatening. It deadlocked on a fifth blackmail charge, which is still pending. The D.C. Court of Appeals is also still considering two stalking charges.

Also still to be settled is a multimillion-dollar civil suit that Ms. Smith has filed against Ms. Hughes and Radio One for defamation, invasion of privacy, inflicting emotional stress. Ms. Smith says Ms. Hughes held her up to public ridicule by making remarks about her and playing tapes of her telephone calls on the air.

Ms. Smith has been threatening to write a tell-all book. She has pages of notes about people who feel Ms. Hughes has done them wrong in business and personal affairs. She has clippings of letters to the editor in which people say nasty things. She already has a working title: "Cathy Hughes: The Dark Side of Power."

What is it about Ms. Hughes that stirs such strong emotion?

"She's someone who calls them like she sees them. Some people are very sensitive to that," says Larry Hicks, who used to work for Radio One full-time and now fills in occasionally as a talk-show host. Asked if he considers Ms. Hughes vindictive, he thinks a moment.

"I wouldn't say she's vindictive," says Mr. Hicks, who lives in Cheverly. "I would say she's someone who has a strong case of non-memory loss."

Cathy Hughes grew up in a housing project in Omaha, one of four children of Helen and William A. Woods, who was then one of Nebraska's few black accountants. She was a talkative child, her mother says, who "didn't mind sticking her neck out if she thought it was for the better."

When Ms. Hughes became pregnant during her last year in high school, she left home and married the child's father, Alfred Liggins, from whom she was divorced about three years later. She graduated from high school and started classes at Creighton University, but never finished.

In 1980, she and her second husband, Dewey Hughes, bought a 1,000-watt radio station, WOL-AM, for $950,000 with much help from Syndicated Communications Inc. of Silver Spring, a firm specializing in minority broadcast investments. By all accounts she was bailing with both arms in the first few years to keep afloat an AM talk station at a time when talk was slumping and FM music was growing in popularity. Her determination to stay in Washington and make the business work led to her divorce from Dewey Hughes, whose interest in the music business pulled him to the West Coast.

With backing from investors, including Syndicated Communications, Ms. Hughes rode a wave of expansion in black-radio ownership that was encouraged by federal incentives by Jimmy Carter's administration in the late 1970s.

Before that, says Mr. Watson, who was a minority broadcasting activist at the time, blacks owned about 13 radio stations in the United States. The number is still tiny. Of 11,700 radio stations in the country, 183, or 1.5 percent, are owned by African-Americans.

Mr. Liggins says he and his mother have had notions about expanding into the country's top markets, but prospects don't look so good these days. The 1996 telecommunications bill increased the number of stations one company can own, meaning large companies with much more money to spend than Radio One are free to buy more stations, and they are.

"The big guys are eating up the little guys," says Mr. Liggins. "It's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to get into Los Angeles or New York."

But then, we're talking about Cathy Hughes. Loved, hated, seldom underestimated.

A radio empire

In 1980, Cathy Hughes bought her first radio station in Washington, WOL-AM. During the next 15 years, she bought seven more radio stations, including three in Baltimore. Her holdings include:

WERQ-FM, WOLB-AM and WWIN-AM and FM in Baltimore

WMMJ-FM, WKYS-FM and WOL-AM in Washington

WHTA in Atlanta

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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