In 1980, when Catherine Hughes was attempting to purchase her first radio station, thirty-two different bankers, all men, turned down her request for a loan. The thirty-third—a Hispanic woman—said “yes,” and with that million dollars Hughes’s career as an owner and operator of radio stations began in earnest. She purchased WOL-AM in Washington, DC, the start of what became Radio One, a multibillion-dollar empire averaging thirteen-and-a-half-million listeners per week across sixty-nine radio stations around the country. When Radio One went public in 1999, Hughes, then the company’s chairperson, became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded company. Hughes and the company she built from scratch have achieved many other “firsts,” including the first female-owned radio station to be number one in a major market and the first African-American–owned company to dominate two major markets at the same time. Hughes was also a talent on the other side of the mike, hosting her own talk show, the Cathy Hughes Show. She is as renowned for her commitment to the African-American community and to women as she is for her business prowess. Most of the employees at Radio One stations are African-American, and Hughes hired a substantial percentage of female managers. Instead of criticizing the “old-boy network,” Hughes once told the Houston Chronicle, women should go out and create their own.
Hughes was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Her interest in radio first emerged when her parents—her mother was a nurse, her father, an accountant—bought her a transistor radio for her ninth birthday. She attended both Creighton University and the University of Nebraska while working at KOWH, an Omaha radio station. Tony Brown, dean of the School of Communications at Howard University, was so impressed by Hughes when he met her during a visit to KOWH in 1971 that he hired her as a lecturer at Howard. Hughes became general sales manager of WHUR-FM, Howard’s radio station, in 1973. Over the next two years, her sales and marketing skills contributed to the station’s increase in revenue from $250,000 to three million dollars a year, and its rise on the regional ratings charts from number thirty-eight to number three. In 1975 she was appointed head of the station, thereby accomplishing her first “first”—she was Washington, DC’s first female general manager of a broadcast facility.
By 1980 Hughes was eager to run her own business. The FCC then had a regulation that allowed women and minorities to purchase failing stations at a discounted rate. Washington, DC’s WOL-AM was just such a station. With the help of her then-husband, television producer Dewey Hughes, Hughes began the process of attempting to take over WOL. Despite the discounted price, the station was still outside their budget, and a loan was needed. She was turned downed over and over again until a Puerto Rican woman, new to her bank, heard Hughes’s story. The loan was granted.
Little did Hughes know that the struggle had barely begun. WOL-AM was, indeed, a failing enterprise—and many of its former employees had destroyed or stolen anything of value. The first day on her new job Hughes had to immediately return home and bring back her own LPs so she would have something to play on air. The soaring interest rates of the eighties caused further trouble for Hughes, who, in her first few years at WOL, lost her house and sold her car to raise additional funds for the station. At one point, Hughes and her teenage son moved into the WOL offices and made them their home, cooking on a hot plate and sleeping in sleeping bags.
With no budget to hire seasoned on-air talent, Hughes turned herself into a talk show host. In 1981 she created the Cathy Hughes Show for WOL, which was on the air for fourteen years. Her broadcast presence helped transform her from a behind-the-scenes executive into an outspoken icon of the black community. “Information is power” was one of her mottoes. Even when investors, hoping for higher ratings, suggested she switch from talk radio to R&B music, Hughes stuck to her guns, insisting that there was an audience for African-American talk radio. It is “critical for us [African-Americans] to tell our story from our perspective,” she explained to Essence magazine. Audiences agreed and, in an unusual show of public support, began writing “I listen to WOL” on checks and dollar bills that were circulated all over the DC area and beyond. In 1986, WOL recorded its first profit. Hughes used it to purchase an FM station, WMMJ-FM in Washington, DC. WMMJ was another success for Hughes, and in 1992 she purchased two more stations, both in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1994 when Radio One acquired WKYS-FM in DC, the acquisition constituted the largest ever such deal between minority-owned broadcast companies. Between March 1998 and December 1999, Hughes purchased eighteen stations for Radio One, increasing the total number of Radio One stations to twenty-six. In 1999 Radio One went public. Its IPO earned $172 million. Hughes’s personal worth is estimated at $300 million.
In 1997 Hughes stepped down as CEO of Radio One, a position taken over by her son. She is now board chair and secretary of the company.