DiversityMBA Executive Leadership Q&A with Cathy Hughes

Cathy Hughes,  founder/chairperson of Radio One Inc., is one of the most powerful women in radio. She is the first woman owner of a radio station ranked number one in any major market , and the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded company.

Hughes, lives in Washington, D.C. and spends part of her time tending to her 89-year-old mother, Helen Jones Woods, who played trombone in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all women’s band in the country.  Interestingly, the band was established at Piney Woods, a private boarding school in Mississippi founded by her father, Lawrence Woods).

Life wasn’t easy for Hughes, who became a single mother following a brief marriage. But she climbed the corporate ladder like no other, installed some rungs of her own along the way. Her son, Alfred Liggins III, she says, was her “motivation and inspiration.”

Her honors include an honorary doctorate from Sojourner-Douglass College, a Black Woman on Wall Street Award, Essence magazine’s “100 Who Have Changed the World,” the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington Area Broadcasters Association, a Seventh Congressional District Humanitarian Award, the Ron Brown Business of the Year Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Baltimore NAACP’s Parren J. Mitchell Award, a National Association of Broadcasters’ Distinguished Service Award, a National Action Network’s Keepers of the Dream award, and a recent induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame.

Pam McElvane, DiversityMBA founder/publisher, recently had the opportunity to talk to Hughes after first interviewing her 10 years ago.

P. McElvane: First of all, I’m happy to interview you again. You once said we were your first cover story. What salient points can you share about your 10-year-journey since then?

C. Hughes:  Our mission over the last 10 years was to be for the African-American community what Univision is for the Hispanic audience — a one-stop shop, whether it’s print, electronics, cable, Internet, radio, satellite, or terrestrial radio. We wanted to be able to directly communicate with the entire African-American community, and over the last 10 years, our platform has expanded to the point where we now cover 82% of it. One of the most exciting things that has occurred within the last five years was a multi-billion dollar research project called BlackAmericaStudy.com. We wanted to really take a look at the Black consumer market. It’s one thing to say to advertisers that African-Americans prefer receiving your message through Black media. It’s another thing to be able to quantify and qualify it. We had 3,400 respondents between ages 8 and 80. It was the first time that type of expansive research project was ever undertaken of the African-American community.


P. McElvane: What do you see yourself doing with this information outside of sharing it with the companies? 

C. Hughes: The most important aspect of it is to share it with the African American community ourselves. We ended up with over 300 pieces of data. Over 80% of the respondents under age 30 had no desire to work in corporate America. Those between the ages of 18 and 24 overwhelmingly expressed an interest in being entrepreneurs. That’s a radical departure from the belief that a good education will get you a good job, because young Black people aren’t interested in working for anyone else other than themselves. We found interesting pieces of data on the Black community being split almost 50-50. For example, 42% preferred being called Black, and 44% preferring African-American. Even more interesting was that the higher the economic status of the respondents, the more prone they were to want to be called Black as opposed to African-American. Besides making this information part of our sales presentation to advertisers, I encourage people to go online and take a look at it. I think it’s important for Black people to know themselves.

P. McElvane: What did it mean for you to be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame?

C. Hughes: It’s quite an honor, but not a goal or aspiration. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the Hall of Fame, but my Hall of Fame is when I do something that really changes, improves, or upgrades the quality of life in a small or large way. My induction came at the same time we decided to celebrate our 30th Anniversary. Instead of a party or celebration, all 1,800 Radio One employees were paid to report to nonprofit organizations and work for a day instead of coming into the radio station. To me, that was a Hall of Fame moment because when you have that many people being paid to go out into the community, many will continue with their volunteer efforts and bond with those individuals they help. More importantly, those organizations we helped held a direct impact. I have to be very careful because I don’t want any organization, particularly not the Radio Hall of Fame to think that I’m not grateful, but awards don’t excite me. Helping people turns me on and gets me excited.


P. McElvane: Aside from the typical textbook buzz words, how do you personally define leadership? 

C. Hughes: Leadership is being willing to do yourself that which you ask someone else to do or which you require of others. That puts an additional onus on managers because it causes you to consistently and constantly improve your knowledge and skill set.  One of the only areas in radio I’m not skillful in is engineering. I just put it off far too long because I wanted to take some engineering courses to really understand how radio actually works.  Engineers are critical to my profession. If my station goes off the air, I don’t know how to physically enable it to come back on air. But I do know everything else. If I ask someone in my company to do it, it’s not do as I say, but do as I do. If a commanding general in the military isn’t on the front line, I don’t think the troops fight the same way. They need to be out there in the trenches. That’s the style of leadership I’ve always believed in — not asking anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do.


P. McElvane: Can you recall an example of when you had to do this?       

C. Hughes: Emergencies are probably the best example. Whether it’s a debilitating snowstorm or Hurricane Katrina, those of us who work in radio have to be there. With Hurricane Katrina, I knew they were going to have severe problems with radio transmissions and towers, so I headed to the airport to see if I could secure passage for my engineers.  Shortly after I got there, two of my engineers arrived and were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I handed them their tickets. They left Washington with a feeling of support and someone having their back. They weren’t asked to, but I knew enough about them that they were going to go on their own to get the radio stations back on the air. Our listeners depend on us not just to tell them what’s going on, but advise them on what to do with what’s going on.


P. McElvane: How do you recommend leading in the current economic crisis?    

C. Hughes: You have to rise to the occasion and do what’s required of the situation. You have to be more compassionate and sensitive to the needs of the troops. I can’t tell you how difficult it is for a company to have to dismiss an employee who fueled his car on a company credit card, not because he was trying to steal, but because he didn’t have enough money to get to work. This was an issue I had to address when gas prices went up to over $4. The employees who drive station vehicles aren’t the highest paid, and there were two incidents where they were caught on camera filling their personal vehicles. One was filling up a whole series of his families’ vehicles.. Another was filling up his car in order to get to work. I had to really do some serious convincing of our human resources department that they weren’t the same thing; one involved a couple hundred dollars, the other $10.

In challenging economic times, you have to be more flexible with regulations. I don’t think that one rule fits all during tight economic times. Under normal circumstances, no one should be charging personal gas on a company card. I told the ‘$10’ employee it would be all right.  He cried. I said, “Stop crying, because they’ll know. Just tell them you didn’t have it on you.’  If gasoline hadn’t been over $4, if it had been better times, I would have been more hardnosed about it.


P. McElvane: With the impact of social media, what is the future of radio in your eyes?

C. Hughes: Television has already been changed dramatically by cable. But network TV and cable are two different things.  I think that radio is like Black newspapers. There’s a different relationship. I don’t see in my lifetime, or my son or grandson’s, there being a big break between the Black community and Black radio. I see radio having to up its game in terms of technology, because the world of video is a reality. You are not going to be able to deliver your radio message, whether its music or sports, in the same modality as we have been able to in the past. We have what they call paperless videos. Before, we had to generate program logs to dictate what was going out over the air. Now we have touch-screens. In order to survive, we’re going to have to keep up with technology, which is the quality of signal and the ability to deliver.  It’s far more a future of radio than its competitors.


P. McElvane: What advice do you have for maintaining a work-life balance for entrepreneurs?

C. Hughes: I’ve never tried to balance it. My child and my family have always been my top priority. By extension, we call ourselves the Radio One family. I always say take care of your front line first; your bottom line will automatically follow. We make a mistake worrying about the bottom line, worrying so much about our being successful in our corporate lives that we sacrifice personal life, particularly as women. I believe that if you do the things that are dictated to you by God, those other things will fall in line. Never once has my job been more important to me than my family. Consequently, I was fired only once, from a nonprofit. My son was about six months old. He had a fever. When the sitter called and told me, I wanted to leave. The supervisor told me I couldn’t because something needed to be accomplished. I told her I’d take it home with me and get it accomplished at home. She told me that wasn’t satisfactory. She said if I left, I couldn’t come back. I left. About three days later, her supervisor asked me to return. I said no. As he got older and my job changed, my son went to work with me when I had to work late. I was criticized because he attended social events for work. I even took him to black-tie affairs. It was a blessing, because people understood why I had to leave early to put him to bed. I wasn’t leaving him in the care of someone else because I had job responsibilities. I figured out how to work him into those responsibilities. So,  there is no work-life balance. Family always comes first.

P. McElvane: What is your personal life philosophy?

C. Hughes: You’re determined successful or not on the day you close your eyes, and it’s judged by the number of people you have helped compared to the number you have hurt. If the number you have helped is significantly larger than the number you have hurt on your life’s journey then you’ve lived a successful life. To me, I’m a work in progress. I’m very uncomfortable with people asking me how I view my success, because to me it’s not to be viewed or evaluated as of yet. I would hope I haven’t experienced my greatest accomplishment yet. I live in awe of some of the things God has blessed me to be a part of.

Image courtesy of AALBC.com

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