From a high school dropout and single teenaged mother to the first woman owner of a number one radio station and the first African-American woman to lead a publicly traded company, Catherine Hughes has had quite a ride.
Catherine Hughes’ Early Days
Catherine Elizabeth Woods was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 22, 1947. She was the oldest of four children and grew up in a public housing project. When she was nine years old, her parents—William, an accountant, and Helen, a nurse—gave her a transistor radio. “Her incessant listening was a portent of things to come,” Jean Sanders writes for Nebraska State Education Association.
Catherine was an intelligent and hard-working student. She was the first African-American to attend Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, a respected Catholic girls’ school in Omaha. But at 16, she discovered she was pregnant, married the baby’s father and dropped out of school. Just two years later, the couple divorced.
Wanting to set a good example for her son, Catherine returned to Duchesne Academy and graduated in 1964. After a variety of jobs, she was made general sales manager of Howard University’s radio station, WHUR-FM in 1973. She left the station in 1978 to be general manager at Washington, D.C.’s WYCB-AM.
“[F]rustrated at being stifled creatively,” according to Sanders, Catherine wanted to buy her own station. With help from her husband, television producer Dewey Hughes, the couple secured investors and a bank loan to purchase WOL-AM in Washington, D.C.
Though it was the beginning of what would become Radio One, keeping the station afloat in the beginning was a struggle. Financial and marital stresses mounted, and Catherine and Dewey divorced. Catherine bought his share of the station, while she and her son, Alfred Liggins, lost their home and car. According to The Black Perspective magazine, mother and son lived at the station. Catherine “slept nights in a sleeping bag on the station’s floor and played her own LPs brought from home to fill air time.”
Sources in this Story
- Nebraska State Education Association: Profile: Catherine Hughes
- The Black Perspective: Soul of the City
- Radio One
- TV One
- National Radio Hall of Fame: Cathy Hughes
Hughes’ Notable Accomplishments
In 1987, Hughes purchased an FM station, WMMJ-FM in Washington, D.C. The purchase was a success, and was followed by the acquisition of several more stations. “Her pattern was to buy troubled stations and turn them around,” Sanders writes.
Radio One went public in 1999, making Hughes the first African-American woman with a company on the stock exchange. According to The Paley Center for Media, “Its IPO earned $172 million. Hughes’s personal worth is estimated at $300 million.”
The Rest of the Story
Hughes stepped down as CEO of Radio One in 1997. Her son, Alfred, is now president and CEO of the network, while Hughes is board chair and secretary of the company.
But Hughes’ work ethic is far from diminished. In 2004, she partnered with the cable company Comcast to launch TV One, a television offshoot of her radio network. Radio One was reaching 14 million listeners annually, so Hughes decided to branch out into a field that had the potential to be even more successful. “Some market analysts are skeptical,” Sanders writes, “but Hughes has proven repeatedly that her ventures can survive and thrive.”
Hughes has also earned a number of national awards. In 1995, she received an honorary doctorate from Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore. In 1998, she became the first woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Achievement in Radio Awards. She was also named by Essence magazine as one of “100 Who Have Changed the World.” In 2010, she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
This article was originally written by Colleen Brondou; it was updated March 27, 2017.