Cathy Hughes is not as widely known as media titans like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner or Oprah Winfrey. But she should be.
Starting out as a teenager selling advertising copy at 10 cents a word for the Omaha Star, a Black-owned newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska, she has gone on to build one of the largest and most influential media empires in America with Urban One Inc., formerly known as Radio One, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. It is the largest African American owned, diversified media corporation in the nation. In 1999, when she took the company public, she was the first Black woman to run a company listed on Nasdaq.
Today, Urban One reaches more than 80% of Black America with highly rated radio stations in cities like Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Philadelphia as well as cable networks TV One and CLEO-TV. The conglomerate also includes Reach Media Inc., a syndication company that produces the “D.L. Hughley Show” among others; and iOne Digital, a digital platform that offers social content, news, information and entertainment.
“Cathy Hughes’ leadership in entertainment is unparalleled and has served as a model for many who have come behind her in the industries she represents,” says Nsenga Burton, senior lecturer in film and media management at Emory University. “In a world where the term visionary is tossed around loosely, Cathy Hughes is in fact a visionary who helped change the media landscape and made room for women and African Americans as owners where there was previously little to none. She has a legacy that will continue to inform, entertain, influence and uplift well into the future.”
The core of her success has been with radio stations like WOL in Washington or Magic 95.9 in Baltimore, where she has applied an old-school, community-based, media concept she learned at the Omaha Star from a media pioneer: Mildred Brown, the founder of the Black newspaper.
“I worked for her,” Ms. Hughes said. “She gave me my very first job. That’s why I ended up in media. Mildred and my father were very best friends. As a matter of fact, my father’s first office was actually in the lobby of her newspaper, because after he graduated from Creighton University with a degree in accounting, nobody would hire a Black accountant in Omaha. So, he didn’t have enough resources to get his own office, so Mildred created an office for him in the lobby of the Omaha Star. That’s where I got my first job. I sold classified ad print.”
The Omaha Star was “more than just a weekly newspaper,” Ms. Hughes says. “It was a community gathering point. All the community meetings took place there. I can remember seeing Dr. King standing in that lobby in Omaha, Nebraska.”
And, so, when she got her first station, WOL in Washington, she tried to replicate the energy, commitment, sense of community involvement and empowerment that she witnessed at the Star.
“All of the community activities that I witnessed in my formative years, I implemented in my adult years with my radio stations,” she says. “At all times, the lobbies of my radio stations had activities going on. I had individuals coming in to share information or to drop something off for the homeless. We’d feed the hungry and homeless at the radio station on 4th and H Streets. WOL stands for We Offer Love.”
Ms. Hughes said that the first 18 months she was in business for herself, the prime interest rate shot up to 27.5% on the million dollar loan she took out from Chemical Bank. Naturally, she was worried about making it on her own after a successful run up the management ladder at WHUR-FM, the Howard University station where she ultimately was named general manager.
“But a friend of mine said, ‘You don’t have to worry. You’ll never go out of business,’” she remembers. “And I asked, ‘Why do you say that?’ And he said, ‘because you’re more than a radio station to this community. You’re the media hot spot. You’re the community gathering place.’”
Konan, who goes by one name, worked at WOL in the 1980s and saw her engagement with the Washington community firsthand. He played a role in it, joining Ms. Hughes and other on-air personalities in such activities as a literacy program titled “Reading Is Fundamental.” The campaign took the station owners and some of her most widely known employees to parking lots, streets and playgrounds to read aloud to children.
“One of the things that she always communicated was serving the community, especially the Black community,” Konan, now a DJ at Magic 95.5 in Baltimore, says. “We would go out and do things in the community to activate people and show them that they had power.”
“Before we got to that corridor on H Street, that area was drug infested. And she went up and down H Street to make sure Black businesses would move over there. And we supported them,” he adds. “We helped some Black businesses get advertising on the radio to drive customers to the businesses. She galvanized the community. She made sure they knew we were there to help. She had a definite purpose and she never wavered from serving the community. She was a pioneer in giving the community a sense of purpose.”
Cathy L. Hughes
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska.
Current residence: Washington, D.C., and Maryland
Education: Attended University of Nebraska Omaha and Creighton University
Career highlights: General manager WHUR-FM; vice president and general manager WYCB; founder of Radio One, known today as Urban One Inc.; and TV One cable station. Inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Broadcasting Hall of Fame (2019). Recipient of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Phoenix Award, the NAACP Chairman’s Award and the Ida B. Wells Living Legacy Award among others. Howard University School of Communications is named in her honor
Civic and charitable activities: The Piney Woods School
Family: Divorced, one son