“I was in a 24-hour business and now I was living in that 24-hour business. I didn’t have to get in my car to drive to a station. I didn’t have to go anywhere to get to my office. It sounds a lot more terrible than it actually was.”
Radio One owner Cathy Hughes is an undeniable industry icon. She’s modest when receiving accolades reminding others that “I’m still a work in progress.” Obviously, she’s not done yet and she doesn’t believe in resting on her laurels. She comes from a long line of entrepreneurs including her father, grandfather and great, great grandfather – all to whom she attributes much of her business knowledge. Her first job at the age of 10 was doing tax returns with her grandfather and having the ability to type 100 words per minute at that age. When you talk to her and you are in her presence, you actually sense her greatness and confidence. Radio One employs the most African Americans in the radio industry. Her son Alfred is the CEO of the corporation. Most recently they have added a cable network, TV One, which is another success story with hit shows like “Unsung” and through which they are preparing to premiere a new scripted drama conceptualized by Cathy.
WOMEN OF COLOR IN MEDIA MAGAZINE: Many years ago, I remember you at Jack the Rapper trying to tell people, where the industry was going. You were pushing entrepreneurship but you seemed a slight bit disappointed that it didn’t seem like your message was getting across. Do you recall that?
CATHY HUGHES: Very well… I was talking about duopoly and the fact that the FCC was going to deregulate. This was going to adversely affect smaller owners because the big owners were going to be able to double and triple up. It went over like a lead balloon. They didn’t believe me! It was nothing they were interested in… This was during the heyday of black executives in the music industry and black-owned stations. We were at our peak…
Right…thinking it was going to last forever.
Absolutely – and that it was going to increase. I was trying to tell them that we were getting ready to hit a major obstacle in the middle of the road, okay – a big pothole – and if we weren’t careful, many of us would fall into it. As you see now, there are very few owners left. I can only name a few black owners in the entire music industry.
Say you went out of your way to support a black business, like a restaurant, and the service was poor. Would you most likely walk away or say something?
Oh, heavens no, heavens no! Black-owned? I’m going to tell them. I’m going to befriend the owner and I’m going to tell them. I would hope that they do the same with me. I have always used my audiences – be they television, or radio or the internet – as my ongoing focus group. I make it clear to all of those whom we serve, clients included, if you are not satisfied with our service, please bring it to the top immediately. I want to correct it. I grew up being taught that the consumer is always correct, be it my listener, or viewer or sponsor.
What is the one thing that has remained constant throughout your career in radio with listeners?
Their trust in the message that they are receiving through black-owned media, whether it’s print or electronic. There are people in my listening audience I talk to that are still very upset that Ebony was sold because they don’t know if they can trust the new people. Same as when Viacom bought BET, their ratings still have yet to recover. Now their programming changed – a lot of different things changed – but most importantly what changed was the TRUST factor.
I want to ask about your situation early on when you slept on the bathroom floor of the station…
About my what? No-no, not the bathroom floor – the station floor!
Oh, I’m sorry.
Yes, I slept on the floor of the radio station. No, I never slept in the bathroom. That was Chris Gardner (laughs)! I washed up in my public bathroom and I slept in a sleeping bag in my radio station office.
Was Alfred there?
No. Alfred was in college at UCLA. I lived in the radio station alone.
Did he know that you were sleeping on the floor of the station?
Yeah. He had to come to see his momma! The station where I was living was empty on the FM side. When I bought WOL, the owner refused to sell me the AM and FM. He sold the FM to another company and it became WMBQ, a country station. So I had the whole side of 1680 Wisconsin – the whole FM side was empty – that’s where I lived! I converted it into an apartment. I had to put in a bathroom. It took me 18 months because I didn’t have much money. I was trying to keep the station alive but I converted 2500 square feet into an apartment.
Was it a functioning apartment or a makeshift?
It was a living apartment. For those 18 months, I cooked on a hotplate and I slept in a sleeping bag. As I got my money together, the first thing I put in was a bathroom because it was quite embarrassing washing up that length of time in the public bathroom. At night, I would go to a friend of mine’s house and take a shower. I would have to leave to take a shower. I got a pre-fab bathroom. I was so excited. They elevated the floor and literally ran the plumbing off of the water fountain that was in the hallway at the radio station. Then they put in this little water heater. It was so cute; you could almost sit on top of it! It held maybe only fifty gallons of water but I had hot water. After the pre-fab bathroom, they gave me a little kitchenette. So I went from a hotplate to a two-burner stove and one of those apartment-size refrigerators. Then I converted office space into actual living space, but that’s actually not so unique, Kevin. Are you aware that there are over 100 congresspeople who live in their offices because they can’t afford the housing in D.C.? They sleep in their offices.
What? I was not aware of that. I would think that it’s because they probably work so much.
I just became aware six months ago. I understand that several congresspeople have tried to pass policy where they would have to pay rent because all their bathrooms have showers. All they have to do is get a pull-out couch.
How did you maintain your ability to keep going at that point? Did you feel like owning the station may have been a mistake?
Oh no, it was exhilarating for me. I was in a 24-hour business and now I was living in that 24-hour business. I didn’t have to get in my car to drive to a station. I didn’t have to go anywhere to get to my office. It sounds a lot more terrible than it actually was. It was really, really, really great to be able to be there to nurture and develop my business in its early stages. What was really a hardship was a lemon turned out to be lemonade. Okay?? I was in Georgetown so I was a block and a half away from a Safeway. I was a block and a half from a whole street full of restaurants. And since I was living there for 18 months, everybody in the restaurants knew me. I could call ahead, pick up my meal, bring it back and warm it on the hotplate. Microwaves weren’t the big thing then.
Earlier in your career, you were promoted to the General Sales Manager at WHUR. How did you go from $250,000 to $3 Million in sales in a year?
I was hired as the General Sales Manager. I was promoted to Vice President and General Manager. They brought me into setup their sales division. They didn’t even have sales packages, okay? The first thing I did was to develop a sales philosophy. I created their logo, developed a sales package and hired a team of salespeople. They had none of that. They were just kinda taking business as it came along. They weren’t going after business. It was not as difficult as it may appear when you’ve got a sales package, four or five people on the street, a campaign, and a strategy. You go for it! That’s how I knew I could maximize their revenue. I was like, “Oh, my God, their just kind of bumping into $250,000 every year (doing no sales).”
How do you find salespeople?
My first recruitment was with the Howard University School of Business. My two top salespeople during those days were students who I had recruited when they were seniors in college. They came and started working part-time. As soon as they graduated they went to full-time. In those days, every college student – even if their parents were paying their tuition – had some type of gig. That was just our culture. So I had a whole reservoir (laughing). I was right across the street from the reservoir – full of hungry individuals who were fascinated by media. They were ready to get their foot in the door. We had a very respectable product, WHUR, Howard University Radio.
Do you find that that hunger still exists today?
Do you think it can be attributed to social media and networking?
Unfortunately, those of us in the media glamorized instant gratification. So the sacrifice – the hard work, the hunger – it’s gone. It’s like the way our community told smart black kids that it’s not cool to be smart. So often I interview young people who act as if they are doing me a favor by coming to apply for this job. I know you’ve experienced that, right?
And, they’re gonna tell you how to do Radio Facts better than you can!
Absolutely and have their own agendas.
Exactly. I’ll go to my grave singing the praises of Tony Brown. If he called me right now, I would abort this interview with you and run to do whatever it that is he needed for me to do because he opened the door of opportunity for me. I will always be loyal and grateful to Tony Brown. I was hungry and needed that opportunity so I appreciated it. When you’re not hungry, you don’t recognize that someone has opened the door for you, that you should be grateful or that you should be loyal. So often, young people use their first or second, or sometimes third, fourth or fifth opportunity as a stepping stone. They’re only with you until they get “something better.”
Well, the one thing that remains constant is relationships.
There is instant gratification but at the end of the day, relationships are going to be more profound because you can always go back and ask for something else. With instant gratification, you get one chance.
That’s really the key – you are so correct.
I haven’t been in a station for a minute but, at one time, there was a disconnect between programming and sales – one thinking they were more important than the other. Do you still see that today?
Oh heavens, yes, because there are only 24 hours of air time and both are competing for it. Both are controlling what goes over that microphone and what goes out on that transmitter. Programming creates and manufactures the product so they figure they’re the most important because, without a product, there is nothing to sell. Sales generate the revenue to pay your salary to manufacture the product so they feel they’re more important. In a well-managed facility, it’s balanced out at 50-50 but I think it is the nature of our industry that that’s always going to be a confrontational reality of our industry.
If you had started Radio One in 2016, what are some of the things that you would do differently?
First of all, I would not rear Alfred as an only child. I would have as many brothers and sisters for him as I could so they could all work in the company and reduce rates like Alfred and I both do! (laughing) I am very serious about that! I had come to the conclusion that black folks had it right back during the day when we were an agricultural community. Many hands make for lighter loads.
You talked earlier about what I said at Jack the Rapper, trying to educate the community. I think I would have beaten that drum a lot louder and a lot longer. I would not have just said, “Okay, you all aren’t listening,” I just went and practiced what I was preaching. I started looking at opportunities for my company. I felt I had (done my part just) telling them. Now as I look back at the shrinkage that has occurred in black ownership, I wish I had encouraged more…
It’s so funny that you just said that because I have found when you try to encourage people in the black community, we tend to respond quickest to a crisis.
We have to be extremely interested in a situation or in deep despair. I know you wanted to do more but I have found that it actually wears you out.
Well, that’s the reason we stopped doing it. I remember Pepe Sutton telling me that. I was trying to have a one-on-one with him but he was passionate that I should worry about Radio One and let him take care of Inner-City broadcasting.
What advice would you give a black entrepreneur just starting out?
In the world of entrepreneurs: be your own best PR. So often in those first 6 or 7 years starting out, people ask you, “How you doing?” “Oh, it’s rough, it’s rough.” We say, “I’m not making a budget, I’m not doing this or that.” Herb Wilkins of Syncom, who loaned me my first million dollars, said to me, “You have to be your own publicist. You have to be your own PR agent. When people ask you how you’re doing, say, ‘It’s getting better’ or ‘it’s great!’”
You never know who’s listening.
The first person who hears that is you because it came out of your mouth and went to your ears. If you believe it is getting better then the glass is half full. Then people start saying, “Well, you know, Cathy’s not doing good,” “I don’t know what’s going to happen to her and her company, ‘cause I talked to her and she was about ready to throw in the towel.”
You actually did that today. When I asked you about sleeping on the floor, you gave a very positive response to that.
Do you feel that you have had a good support system?
Yes, I always had positive reinforcement from Washington, D.C. and what the listeners here have provided to me. They are the ones that empowered me to go nationwide. God instilled it in their hearts to surround me with love and support. They helped me build my station on 4th and 8th. When they realized that I was coming into the hood to do bravely something that no one else had done, they checked in – they used to write on their checks to Washington Gas, “We listen to WOL – please advertise!” So, no, I’ve never felt isolated. I’ve always felt connected to the community that I have been blessed to serve. I always chuckle when people say, “You never change.” Why would I change? This has been my greatest blessing. I want to talk to my listeners. I want to talk to the people who use my products and my services. I don’t want to ever become disconnected. And because of that, I have always felt that whatever the problem was, there was going to be a solution. There was going to be an angel in the form of a man or a woman I didn’t even know. They would just show up and say, “I want to advertise” or “I want to help do that” or “I want to help do this” or “I want to sponsor that.” So, no – that isolation, I think, is when we spend too much time inside our head,
When you see a situation like what just happened with all the shootings, should radio come to the rescue? Some stations just totally ignored it.
I know what you’re saying. They just kept on playing music. We just commissioned a big research project. I never want to be in the position of deciding for my listeners, my viewers or my users of Interactive One what I think is best for them. I ask them what it is that they think is best for them. So we just completed some research on what needs to be released in the next several days. The first thing is you have to have a calm head and analyze the situation. Next, you have to declare your listeners’ safety, as a top priority. If everybody gets killed, who’s going to be listening to your station? It’s in your best interest to help your community solve whatever problems need solving, particularly one of life or death.
Radio One can’t do the entire job of influencing or inspiring the community when these things happen. Why do you think a lot of black celebrities don’t get more involved in these issues?
A lot of them do…they’re just not trying to toot their own horn. Sometimes when Oprah and I talk, we do one-ups on each other about who gets the most requests or some of the most interesting requests that we get. A lot of times celebrities won’t discuss what they’re doing because they don’t want the whole world at their doorstep. You can’t service all of the needs of the community.
How do you respond to people that question your choices about management at Radio One?
Well, number one, we’ve probably had more diversity than anyone. We’ve had women managers, we’ve had African-American managers. Right now we’re going through a phase where, unfortunately, we lose our black managers to other companies. We’re a stepping stone for a lot of people so right now my white managers outnumber my black managers at the top. But that’s just a cycle we’re going through because of availability in the marketplace. One of the things that happened is, with consolidation – particularly in radio – it’s hard to compete against an iHeart. I would love for Doc Wynter to work for me. Unfortunately, I can’t afford him.
D.L. Hughley did an amazing job with the shootings. Everywhere he was, I kept wondering why he didn’t promote the radio show a bit more, but I thought he did an amazing job as a spokesperson for the community combining his wit. It’s like a comedian is absolutely equipped to do what he did at that time.
Exactly correct! Thank you! He canceled his vacation, the whole nine yards. So, we’re going through a cycle, but we’re in the black people business so it will cycle back again. A lot of the black executives in radio we’ve been after for years.
I want to settle a score on the creation of “The Quiet Storm.” I’ve heard it credited to you and I’ve heard credited to Melvin Lindsey who you hired when he was a student. Who actually created the Quiet Storm?
Me. Melvin Lindsey was my third host of “The Quiet Storm.” He was my most popular because he stayed the longest. Before I hired him, Melvin Lindsey was my intern and he actually got hired by accident. The two people that preceded him were Don Roberts – who decided that he liked television better than radio so he went into television and, as a senior, got a job at a Baltimore college station – and Melvin Lindsey’s best friend, Jack Shuler. Melvin Lindsey was actually my third host of “The Quiet Storm.” It took him almost a year before he really grew into his personality. Melvin was good looking, tall and a really wonderful personality. That music had captivated the Washington market. Melvin was able to come out of his shell and really blossom along with it.
Have you started to get into some scripted programming for TV One?
Absolutely. In January, my first production, Media, will be airing. We just premiered it at the Critics Association recently and it was well received. Media is going to air on in January of 2017 – say a prayer for me.
I’m sure it’ll do well. What about Unsung? Do you think you would have had more artists participate if it wasn’t for the title?
I wonder if some artists are insulted by that title.
You’re absolutely correct.
Does Radio One do any community work as far as non-profits – something that’s near and dear to you?
Oh, my God, heavens yes: The School in Mississippi – The Piney Woods Country Life School…tons of it.
Well, I know that you are busy and I’d like to thank you for your time today. I greatly appreciate it.
Cathy Hughes: Thank you, Kevin.