Radio One’s Cathy Hughes Keeps Business in the Family

UPDATED: December 11, 2016
PUBLISHED: December 11, 2016

Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of Radio One, was called one of the most powerful black women in America by Ebony magazine. The Encyclopedia of African American Business called her one of the most powerful African-American business executives in the U.S. And in 2015 she became the first black woman inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

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Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Hughes moved to Washington, D.C., in 1971 and became the general sales manager at WHUR, Howard University’s radio station, in 1973. There, she increased the station’s revenue from $250,000 to $3 million in her first year.

She then went out on her own and built her media empire by amassing radio stations and eventually a TV channel. In 1980 she founded Radio One, which operates 56 stations in 16 urban markets. TV One, which Hughes started in 2004, serves more than 57 million households. Now 69, she’s behind the movie, Media, premiering in early 2017, which captures the power struggles, secrets and stakes surrounding a family-owned business. Her son, Alfred C. Liggins III, is the CEO of her company. This past year, Howard University named its School of Communications after Hughes.

Q: Although Media isn’t strictly autobiographical, you have a family-owned business run by you and your son, Alfred. What is the hardest challenge FOR A family-owned business?

A: The hardest challenge is transmission of power. You look at the children who are getting ready to assume the mantle of leadership, and you remember the day they lost the keys to the house or when you told them not to drive the car and you come home to find a smashed-in fender. You need to let them forge their own path, which can be particularly challenging. Battles for power in a family are not unique to being a black business, but it can be more challenging because we don’t have a lot of generational businesses, so we are going into territory that isn’t familiar to us.

Q: How hard is it to treat Alfred like a CEO instead of a son?

A: It’s hard for parents to really let go and let the next generation take the lead. But I’ll give you a simple story of what happened the other day. We were walking down the hall when we passed an employee, and I didn’t hear or see him acknowledge her, so I said, “Alfred! Did you speak to her?” He said, “I’m not 6. I know how to speak to people.” But that momma gene just jumped in. It happens when a parent is still involved in the business.

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Q: What happens when it’s an issue more stressful than that?

A: One of the things he and I agreed on many years ago was that we would never allow the business to mess up the family. Family is No. 1. I studied the horror stories of brothers and sisters never speaking to each other again, children plotting against parents. Money is not worth that. We both understand and trust each other and know that one has to be willing to trust, even if we don’t see the path the other does. As the parent, I have to trust in the next generation even if they mess it up. Then you say, “Fix it.” The reality is that not everything I did was right. The most important thing you can give the next generation is the freedom to fail. We don’t even want to see our child stub a toe, but you have to allow them to fail in the same way you empower them to succeed.


“The most important thing you can give the next generation is the freedom to fail.”


Q: What was the positive effect of bringing your son into a control position?

A: Generational businesses allow for new thought patterns. I was old school. I would get a radio station and pay it off. I come from a generation where you pay off your house, you pay off your car, and you don’t have debt. But Alfred said, “Let’s use what we have as leverage so we can buy more. Let’s take some risks. As long as our lenders are willing to do it, let’s roll the dice.”

Q: What is a common misconception about lenders?

A: That lenders invest in ideas. Ideas are like noses; everyone has one. But they are investing in the person. Once your lenders become comfortable with you and know you come to them with integrity and commitment, they will go for the ride, even when they might think what you have isn’t the best idea. Because they are banking on you.

Q: What sets apart people who get funded from those who don’t?

A: A willingness to sacrifice to achieve their ideas, goals and vision. What are you willing to give up? At 17, my son went off to college, and I was in a radio station sleeping in a sleeping bag and washing up in the bathroom. I sacrificed my car and my house. I was willing to give up everything to make a return on my lender’s investment.

Q: What is the single most common mistake new entrepreneurs make?

A: When you can’t make your financial obligation, you need to be the first person to notify your lenders. When you can’t pay your bills, call the people. If you can’t make a full payment, send a partial payment. Most of the time, lenders would rather just put it on the back of the loan. Return phone calls; don’t hide. It’s the penalty you are afraid of, that you have to admit your failures. Just tell them the truth: My projections have changed, performance isn’t what I expected. Honesty really is the best policy, especially when it comes to money.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.