People may not be as familiar with Cathy Hughes as they are with Oprah Winfrey but they’ve undoubtedly been touched by her influence.
As the founder and chairwoman of Radio One Inc., Hughes’ career has kept her mostly behind the scenes running the nation’s largest black-owned multimedia company.
“She is one of the wealthiest self-made African-American women in America,” Guy Raz, host of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast, said in an interview about Hughes last year. “Even when she was little, growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1950s, she knew she would be on the radio one day.”
Hughes’ break at a black-owned radio station in Omaha led her to eventually become general manager of Howard University’s radio station, WHUR-FM. During her stint, she helped structure the “Quiet Storm” format that continues to be a mainstay on R&B radio stations. She then purchased WOL-AM, a small Washington, D.C., station that became the first of many owned by Radio One.
"I wanted to be the first African-American to have a syndicated radio show. I've had that desire since I was 8, 9, 10 years old," Hughes told NPR.
Hughes’ childhood dream apparently became more brilliant than she could’ve imagined.
In 2004, Radio One launched TV One, which offers a broad range of black American-themed programming to more than 60 million households. Hughes credits her son, Alfred Liggins III, Radio One’s chief executive officer, president and treasurer, with the company’s expansion into the cable TV space. TV One, where Liggins also serves as CEO, is solely owned by Radio One.
Since founding Radio One in 1980, Hughes’ company has grown to include 55 radio stations, the TV One cable network, Interactive One multimedia websites and nationally syndicated Reach Media. Howard University renamed its communications school the Cathy Hughes School of Communications last October.
A few of Hughes’ pals, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, recently gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate the world premiere of TV One’s original movie “Media.” Executive produced by Hughes, “Media” follows the powerful Jones family and the roller coaster ride they endure to keep their media dynasty at the top of its game.
Penny Johnson Jerald stars as matriarch Jackie Jones, the founder of Jones Universal Media Properties, known as JUMP, the world’s premier urban media conglomerate. Jackie is a no-nonsense businesswoman and a protective mama bear to her four children played by Pooch Hall, Brian White, Blue Kimble and Chrystee Pharris. All of the Jones children play a role in the family business. Filled with passion, intrigue and, yes, murder, “Media” also stars Gary Dourdan, Finesse Mitchell, Denise Boutte, Diane Kirby and Stephen Bishop.
But, if you think “Media” is a biopic about Hughes’ life, think again.
"A lot of people misconstrue this as being my story and use terms like 'loosely based.' When I tell my story, it's going to be called, 'The Cathy Hughes Movie.' This is about my industry," the media maven said.
It’s uncertain when we’ll see a Cathy Hughes biopic, but audiences will get to see more of the Jones family’s drama when “Media” makes its series debut later this year. If you missed the February 25 TV premiere, no worries. You can watch “Media” online below or with XFINITY On Demand.
I recently sat down with Hughes while she was preparing for an on-camera interview at KTLA 5 in Los Angeles. We talked about plenty, including her journey to get "Media" made, her responsibility to black women and where she sees Radio One in the future.
How did it feel presenting “Media” at its world premiere?
CATHY HUGHES: It’s almost anti-climatic presenting it now because the script is eight years old during which time I was trying to convince the network to give us the green light. I was trying to convince everyone including Lee Daniels to direct it for me. And then all of a sudden programs started appearing on other networks that were quite similar so we had to redo our script. So it’s almost like waiting to exhale. I’m grateful. I’m a very spiritual person, not real religious. I prayed numerous times a day. God has a timetable. Quincy Jones likes to say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a plan.” I’m very lucky to have gotten the cast who I was blessed to get that has worked as if they really are family on this production. They say they had never had ad this much fun ever and it is quite a large ensemble. To have that many people getting along and loving each other and loving working with each other wouldn’t have occurred in my time plan. It occurred when God planned it.
Why was it important for you to portray strong black male characters in “Media”?
HUGHES: I think that there has never been an accurate portrayal of the very foundation of the black experience, which is the legitimate business community. It doesn’t take drugs to start a business. There have been generational businesses that have existed in our community that have been totally ignored by mainstream media. Michelle Obama was probably the best example of the fulfillment of black womanhood that has ever existed in our history of being here and yet you don’t see a television show or a movie about a Michelle Obama type. There’s still this void of portraying the black experience and black cultural as being successful, being powerful, having financial resources and still being loving families and yet we’ve had this in our community for generation after generation after generation. So many of our millennials talk about their great grandmothers going to Spelman or Howard. Where’s that story? That was my whole interest in putting “Media” on. As you know, African-Americans have always over-indexed in media. That’s why black radio was so popular, even with nonblack owners. But, yet, this area of intense interest has never been accurately portrayed and that was my interested in talking about my industry.
You’ve stressed to people several times that this film isn’t about you, but your industry.
HUGHES: This is about the impact that Johnson Publishing had, this is about Ida B. Wells being burned out for telling the truth of liberation for her people. All research has shown that second to the black church is black owned-media. It’s more respected, more dependent upon, more considered the best source of advice. If you look at what’s happening with mainstream media now, we’re not experiencing that in black radio. If you look at the proliferation of black content on everybody’s network, it definitely ties into the reality that the black consumer market is the No. 1 consumer market in the United States. Yet, the only reasons why we’re getting these opportunities now in mainstream media is because it needed an additional resource avenue in terms of financial and talented resources. But, we’ve always existed. If you go back and look at Oscar Micheaux, he was producing content 100 years ago. But we haven’t had distribution and outlets.
WATCH: Cathy Hughes documentary short
Why is black-owned distribution important?
HUGHES: I think it’s very important that black ownership becomes even more important because of what’s being distributed and how we’re being portrayed. A Chinese family in mainland China, many of them are of the opinion that the [“Real Housewives of Atlanta”] are who are as black women. So it’s important for me to show a Penny Johnson Jerald as Jackie Jones who has a loving family yet has built a successful media empire.
You have black American consumers who do want more accurate representation of themselves, but also watch shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
HUGHES: True, they have the highest ratings for “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Empire.” They love Cookie. They say on one hand that they hate Fox News but they love “Empire.” There’s a definite conflict there. I want the same people who love Roland Martin and “NewsOne Now” to love “Media,” “Unsung” and my other programming. I don’t understand how people resolve that conflict in their mind. They hated how Fox treated President Barack Obama and how friendly the network is to the present president, but they don’t miss “Empire.” They don’t understand that that’s the same bank account. How can you hate where they stand politically but give them credit for giving you an accurate portrayal of your people? If they could not give you an accurate portrayal of who your black president what makes you think that they could give you an accurate portrayal of business life in the black community? That is why it is important for me to advocate for black ownership of communications and outlets. That is why it is important for me to wait eight years to get a green light on a movie that tells a different story of being a black entrepreneur in America.
There aren’t many women, especially women of color, who have accomplished what you have.
HUGHES: It’s still an old boys network. It used to be called the old white boy network but the brothers haven’t done a much better job, unfortunately, with opening the door for women.
So, how did you get through?
HUGHES: I never took my eyes off of the prize, I never ever lost focus on why I was there. It didn’t matter that they didn’t like the fact that I was an African-American and basically a nationalist, very proud to be black. I never got hung up on the fact or focused that I was a woman. I think because I was focused on building a media company that would employ — at one time in our history, we employed more African-Americans and more women in managerial positions than all of our competitors combined. Now that everyone is in the black space that has changed considerably, but we still don’t have them in the decision-making positions. This is the ability to give a green light and the ability to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Why do all of our shows depict black women as screaming, hollering, the only thing that makes them happy is going shopping? Why don’t we have a different perception of who a black woman really is?”
Black women have been misunderstood for so, so very long. You know, at one time, particularly in cities like New Orleans, it was illegal for a black woman to wear her own hair. There’s this whole story about achieving motherhood and black success from a woman’s perspective and our story has really never been told. That’s really one of the most important aspects of “Media” for me: Penny Johnson Jerald plays a woman who loves her children with a deep passion but at the same time is going to do what’s necessary that her company stays alive.
Black women have also been portrayed as Alexis Carrington, that if in fact we are financially successful and have managerial responsibility in our professional life then we’re cold-hearted b-words, we have no feelings and can’t get along with black men and are estranged from our children. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. You can go back and look at our great-, great-, great-grandmothers who not only reared their families successfully but they also raised white children successfully for their employers. We created the definition for multitasking.
As a black female media mogul, what responsibility do you believe you have to black women?
HUGHES: I have always been active in mentorship even before the term became popular. As I said, at one time, we had more black women managers in our company than all of our competitors combined. I’m very blessed and very thankful to the Creator. I thank God nightly and daily for my son, Alfred Liggins, who has assumed the responsibility for the operation of our company and who in fact created TV One and not me.
Before my career is over, I would like to really have set a black woman on that same path that I was able and successful in setting him on. I would like to replace myself with my own gender and race. Like I said, I’m very thankful that God blessed me with Alfred. He’s made all of the difference in the world. He took us public once he got his MBA from Wharton and he’s the one who determined that we needed to diversify and “add pictures” to our radio stations and you do that through cable. He said, “Black folks are visual now, mama, we’ve got to add some pictures.” I’d like to be able to sit here in the not to distant future and be able to discuss an African-American woman that I opened the door for as wide as I could. I see Oprah doing it with Ava DuVernay. I applaud her for that and she’s done it with Iyanla Vanzant. I want to be to have that same credit added to my eulogy when they’re closing the box on me.
What is it like being a black woman running a multimedia business?
HUGHES: Very challenging, particularly now that it’s publicly held. It’s interesting. Over the years, I’ve been asked questions like how do you balance career and family. Family is always first and then your career will follow suit. It’s challenging but I don’t see it as difficult. One of the things that I try to counsel people, particularly millennials on, if you think something is hard, it is. If you think something is destined for failure, that’s where you end up. If you see the glass consistently as half-full and not as half-empty, then you’re able to see problems not as problems but as opportunities to learn a problem solving at a different level.
How are you able to think this way when you’re in the midst of a crisis?
HUGHES: You have a goal and most of us don’t clearly define what it is that we want to do. I started defining my goal when I was 8 years old and my mother brought me a transistor radio. I was determined that I was going to be on the radio. I was determined from 8 years old and I feel very fortunate that I had my career defined for me, by me before I even reached puberty.
Where do you see your media empire in 10 or 20 years?
HUGHES: I don’t see it as an empire to begin with; I see us as a work in progress. There are so many challenges that we have to help our community figure out in terms of true empowerment. I see us as continuing this journey of expansion and continuing this journey, for instance, with “NewsOne Now,” the only one-hour news show in existence of all of media, expanded to three hours. I want us to have a black morning show that helps African-Americans start their day but, more importantly also, explains to white America, Latinos and Asian Americans who we are and what’s important to us in terms of news. Most of us are so tired of hearing everything that Donald Trump says. If he belches, it make national news. We want to know where he stand on black advancement. Where does he stand on the fact that even under Barack Obama, the SBA approved $23 billion for American business and only $385 million got into the hands of black entrepreneurs?
Do you think there’s anything the black church could do to help mobilize positive change?
HUGHES: Absolutely, in terms of activism. See, I came up during the civil rights movement when everyone was preaching liberation. Now they’re preaching prosperity. How are you going to experience prosperity if you’re dead? And I don’t mean just physically dead; mentally and emotionally dead also. Because you become anesthetized to the killing, to the injustice and you just go along with it. You don’t question why out of $23 billion [of U.S. Small Business Administration loans] you only got $385 million. Oprah Winfrey could’ve loaned that out. We didn’t need the federal government.
What is next for TV One as far as original programming is concerned?
HUGHES: Immediately we are working on scripted TV. Our first years, we had to build an audience and we concentrated heavily on acquired programming. Then BET came and took our No. 1 acquired programming, “Martin,” just so we couldn’t have it because they weren’t getting the traction that we got. But it was perfect timing again because then we were able to force ourselves to go into scripted television, which is a lot more expensive.
A lot of people are now tuning back to BET after being upset with its programming choices in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
HUGHES: I think Debra Lee is doing a great job with turning things around but the reality is that they’re still primarily an entertainment only network. Tom Joyner says it best for his Fantastic Voyage cruise: We entertain with a purpose. There should be a learning experience. We just don’t play the latest records in our radio network for the sake of playing a hit record. We play a hit record or help break a new record so that you listen for the information that we’re going to give you in between the records. I want you to watch “Unsung,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Media” but more importantly I want you to turn on Roland Martin at 7 o’clock in the morning and hear what’s important in terms of breaking news for black folks. The other thing that we do that other networks have never touched is follow-up. Whatever happened to Joe Jones? Whatever happened to Sally Brown? They make the news but then it’s the next wave of whatever’s popular or what’s trending. That’s part of the reason why our young people don’t know our history.
I’m thankful that he’s getting the recognition that he deserves but everyone knows the Martin Luther King Jr. story now. How about telling the Annie Malone story about the woman who is responsible for the creation of Madame C.J. Walker? Annie trained her, she went to Annie Malone’s school, she sold Annie Malone products and they fell out when she started changing the name on the labels to her own products. [Annie Malone was] 10 times more wealthy than Madame C.J. Walker ever was and owned a square block in St. Louis. She started an orphanage that is still in operation today in St. Louis. After you worked for Annie Malone for five years, she co-signed for you to get a house and she gave you a diamond ring on your second anniversary working for her. If you called her within a 300-mile radius, she had a fleet of trucks that brought you your product within 24 hours. Annie Malone. Google her.