Taking Care of Business Making waves: Radio station owner Cathy Hughes has no trouble being tough, which means some people admire her and others avoid talking about her.

April 07, 1996|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN STAFF

The disc jockey on Baltimore's "92-Q" never saw the shot coming.

He figured he'd be solid with the boss when he announced on the air that he wouldn't repeat a few songs in that afternoon's show because the lyrics were vulgar. He'd been inspired by the Million Man March and challenged by a listener to stop playing that nasty music. No problem, he figured. After all, wasn't station owner Cathy Hughes always talking about doing good for the community?

Somebody needed to take the young man aside and educate him about Cathy Hughes.

Somebody should have talked to him about how you go from a housing project in Omaha to a position of power in black radio, how you ascend in 24 years from a sales job at Howard University's radio station to a place among Essence magazine's 1995 "Wonder Women," alongside Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisholm.

You don't do this by letting some 29-year-old deejay make decisions about the product. You do this by taking people on and making a few things clear. Such as: One of us is the boss, one of us can be replaced as easily as a light-bulb.

The disc jockey, Marcel Thornton, disappeared from WERQ last October. Pick your version: he was fired or he resigned. Ms. Hughes had to educate him: Yes, the community thing is very nice, but business is business.

Ms. Hughes, who turns 49 this month, has been making decisions as a business owner for 16 years, hiring people, firing them, closing multimillion dollar deals for new radio stations, building a company, the Baltimore-based Radio One Inc. that owns eight stations in Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta.

"She's got a lock on Washington-Baltimore as far as black radio goes," says Ruth A. Robinson, editor-in-chief of Black Radio Exclusive, a 100,000-circulation weekly magazine. As an African-American woman radio entrepreneur, Ms. Hughes is "a singular figure. If you want to be in black radio, you couldn't have a better role model than Cathy Hughes."

Between her financial struggles in the early 1980s and last spring when she bought WKYS for $34 million, Ms. Hughes has made allies and antagonists.

Some people say she's a model of what a community-minded entrepreneur should be. Others say never mind the "WOL Family" patter, she's interested mostly in money. The sympathetic version is this: Cathy Hughes bugs people because she's a forceful and successful black woman.

"This is what Howard University trained women to be," says Dr. Deirdre Fairley, a Memphis pathologist who was a student at Howard University in the late 1970s and knew Ms. Hughes then. "You were either going to be Aunt Jemima or Hillary Rodham Clinton."

The name Hillary Rodham Clinton meant nothing at Howard in 1971. Neither did the name Cathy Hughes, a 24-year-old mother of a 7-year-old son who had just moved from Nebraska to Washington. She was hired as a salesperson for the new Howard University station, WHUR-FM, a fertile training ground in those days for a generation of African-American broadcasters and journalists. In a few years she was named sales manager, then general manager -- a charmer with good judgment about what works on the air and a knack for closing deals.

Say the name Cathy Hughes to people now, and sometimes they get quiet and it's a very short conversation, or they quote their mother who said hush if you have nothing nice to say. Sometimes they supply a few descriptive words: willful, savvy, aggressive, gutsy, warm, generous, beguiling.

She can be a strong advocate for your career, says Armstrong Williams, the syndicated talk host who got his start with Ms. Hughes on WOL in 1991. But "If she ever turns on you, you got the worst enemy in the world," he says. "People are dispensable to her. She takes no prisoners. Let me tell you right now, she's tough."

Lately, one can add another adjective, a departure in the rather dramatic Cathy Hughes Story: inconspicuous. Off the air since WOLB-AM started running the O. J. Simpson trial, Ms. Hughes has been keeping a low profile. She moved her base of operations to St. Paul Street in Baltimore from Washington last August.

Despite repeated requests, Ms. Hughes declined to be interviewed. Enough publicity, says her son, Alfred Liggins, the 31-year-old president of Radio One. Many stories have been done, he says.

And why not? This is the woman who for years used her talk-show in Washington like a bullhorn at a street rally. She never shied from a public fight, even picked a few of her own. When it began in 1980, WOL was The Voice of the black community in Washington radio, the only game in town, where, the slogan still goes, "Information is power." Cathy Hughes became a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

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