By William Reed
How many people have gone back and bought where they used to work?
One lady who did that is the epitome of an African-American success story. Catherine Liggins Hughes is a single mother who once lived in the projects. Now Hughes and her son Alfred Liggins III, have climbed the ladder of success to be among the nation’s wealthiest Blacks with a combined worth of $460 million. Hughes founded Radio One, a national network of urban format radio stations. Hughes and son recently gifted $4 million to the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University.
As a 16-year-old teen mom, married at 17 and eventually divorced, the single mother said she saw her son as a blessing and inspiration to work harder. In the early 1980s she purchased Washington, D.C. station WOL-AM with the help of a high-interest loan, which eventually caused her to lose her house and car. She and her young son lived in the station, but, Hughes saw it as an opportunity to be there around the clock and learn how it operated.
Representative of what Black media could and should be, Hughes emphasizes the importance of grooming Black successors, including her son, to take over and assume leadership. She had enough faith and trust in the way she raised her son to pass the business on to him. A MBA graduate of the Wharton School of Business, Liggins took the country’s largest Black media company to the next level, making his mother the first Black woman to head a publicly-traded company and expanded the company to include television and digital platforms.
Hughes became a media legend in Washington, D.C. after landing a job as a lecturer at Howard’s School of Communications in 1971. In 1973 she became general sales manager of the university’s radio station, WHUR-FM, increasing station revenues in her first year. After being rejected by 32 banks, in 1980 Hughes and then-husband Dewey Hughes, bought AM radio station WOL 1450 in a distress-sale for $950,000; then the target of a federal payola probe. Help for Hughes came from Syndicated Communications, godfather investors of Black broadcasting ownership. Even today, Syndicated Communications owns a majority position in Hughes’s stations. The first radio station was a financial disaster for seven years.
“But I stayed focused on not losing my company, and that’s why I moved into the station and did whatever it took. I was willing to let everything go except my son and my business, in that order,” said Hughes.
Over time, the station began turning a profit, largely due to the success of her “firebrand” talk show.
Radio One went on to own 70 radio stations in major markets and in 1999 became a publicly traded company. Today, Hughes’ businesses are everywhere you look. With a slate of investors she started the cable network TV One in 2004. TV One reaches 58 million homes as the “lifestyle and entertainment network for African-American adults.” Radio One owns Magazine One, Inc. and Reach Media, Inc.; owner of the Tom Joyner Morning Show and other businesses. In 2008 Hughes also acquired Black Planet, a social networking website. Once a SBA borrower, Hughes now serves as chair of that agency’s Advisory Council on Underserved Communities.
Hughes is soliciting donors for a new building for Howard’s School of Communications to replace its current site which was built in 1909.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America.”