She organized a boycott of the Washington Post in 1986 when she felt the first issue of its new Sunday magazine was racist in its portrayals of African-Americans. She whipped up protests against utility-company shut-off practices, rallied folks to show up at the D.C. lottery board to protest lack of lottery advertising on black-owned stations. When Clarence Mitchell's widow, Juanita, was mired in debt to lawyers defending her sons in the Wedtech scandal, Ms. Hughes took to the air and helped raise $35,000 to help her.
She'd build up Mayor Marion Barry, then tear him down, then build him up again. She'd bring his wife, Effi Barry, on the air in the midst of the mayor's legal ordeals and let her tell her tale of loyalty under siege. Ms. Hughes lashed out at former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's extravagant spending and the school board's incompetence.
One day she picked on Hispanics and got some headlines. Another day, another target, another cause. She'd talk to people about their personal lives and their struggles and give them a little comfort. All at once she was Oprah and Sally Jesse and the radio shrink.
It was good radio, and Ms. Hughes always knew good radio, says Phil Watson, who was WHUR's first general manager and program director. "That's Cathy. She uses everything in her reach to make radio and make money," says Mr. Watson, former general manager of Pacifica Radio. "Cathy carved out her turf."
Lately, the talk on WOL/WOLB, which started simulcasting in Baltimore and Washington in October 1993, is lighter on D.C. politics. The stations feature a mix of national and state politics, discussions of black entrepreneurship and how to solve chronic economic and social problems. The Million Man March is still a subject of discussion. All this is peppered with the sort of folksy fare one might expect to hear on a small-town station. The other morning, a fellow called talk host Bernie McCain to report that the station wagon he uses for his business was wrecked in an accident. Might anyone out there have one he could borrow?
Ms. Hughes was back on WOL/WOLB with Dick Gregory for two afternoon shifts last month, filling in for Lisa Mitchell. On the air she's cheerful, friendly, ready to laugh. Call the tone show-biz upbeat. Everything is marvelous and so exciting. One guest is the most wonderful artist, the other owns the most fabulous art gallery, and a certain quilt is the most beautiful she's ever seen. She ends some calls by telling callers, "I love you."
The longer the show goes on, the more informal Ms. Hughes' diction gets. The academics might call it "code-switching." Pretty soon she's in full street talk: "OK, that ain't even smart white folks thinkin' " and "What you mean they in the car?"
When Mr. Gregory gently criticizes a certain author, Ms. Hughes says, "It is not nice for a talk-show host to be catty, so I'm not going to say what I think. My old grandmama used to say, 'If you can't say something good don't say nothing at all.' So nothin' is what I'm gon' be sayin.' "
A quieter firebrand
Hmmm, doesn't sound like the same firebrand who held forth on the Washington airwaves in the 1980s. But lately, it's true. She hasn't been on the air, and, according to her assistant, she hasn't been making many public speeches, either. Not a word about the Simpson verdict or the Million Man March or Louis Farrakhan's "Flip Uncle Sam the Bird Tour."
Even when a minor public flap developed in Baltimore over Mr. Thornton's disappearance from 92-Q, Ms. Hughes would not comment. She left it to her son, Mr. Liggins, to make the public statement: "We agree that some lyrics and messages are not suitable for broadcast," he said in an editorial delivered on the air. "We monitor very closely, on a daily basis, what we play, and will always remain sensitive to our community."
Funny, Mr. Thornton thought he was being sensitive to the community. "I said on the air, 'I could be fired' " for omitting a couple of songs with sexual lyrics, Mr. Thornton recalls. "I knew I wouldn't be. This was a positive thing. I really thought it would be right in line with what [Ms. Hughes] was doing."
Like Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," Mr. Thornton was misinformed. There's a reason WERQ consistently ranks among Baltimore's top 10 stations.
When he got off the air that day, he and Ms. Hughes had a chat. As Mr. Thornton recalls, Ms. Hughes told him she didn't care much for that sort of music either, but "that's what the people were buying, so that's what they were going to play."
This was last fall, not a particularly great time for Ms. Hughes. A life story that already read like a TV movie script was maybe getting a tad melodramatic.