Radio station owner turns up the volume Politics: When Cathy Hughes speaks, Gov. Parris N. Glendening listens. He can't afford to ignore a strong voice in the black media.

March 05, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

An article Thursday about radio executive Cathy Hughe misstated some aspects of her company, Radio One Inc. It owns 16 radio stations. Most do not use a talk format. One of them, WOL, broadcasts on 1450 AM.

The Sun regrets the error.

Several weeks ago when one of Cathy Hughes' radio talk show hosts began urging voters to wear "Anyone But Glendening" buttons, the target of that campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, invited Hughes to lunch. Last Saturday, the governor showed up at the Baltimore Convention Center for her station's fourth annual People's Expo.

Glendening might well be solicitous of her in this election year. Blacks are at the core of his electoral base, representing a primary and general election constituency he cannot afford to lose. Hughes' ability -- and willingness -- to transmit anti-Glendening messages would be a significant threat to his re-election hopes.


Her Baltimore-Washington voices -- WOLB (1010 AM) and WOL (1050 AM) -- broadcast from studios at 100 St. Paul St. Like most of the 10 stations in her "Radio One" network, they employ a talk format that spins engaging banter on current events out of the daily news. She also operates a local contemporary music station, WERQ-FM (92.3); a spiritual station, WWIN-AM (1400); and "Majic" WWIN-FM (95.9).

A long list of blue-ribbon advertisers attests to Radio One's success at reaching listeners.

Closely overseen by Hughes, the network's on-air tone swings from college seminar to junior high school locker room -- or even more strident. Its themes are economic development, family responsibility, personal motivation, racial discrimination, discipline in the schools and empowering blacks -- referred to as "the Family."

Catch a fallen star

Hughes builds audiences with stars, even falling stars. Former state Sen. Larry Young, who long has had a two-hour Saturday afternoon show on WOLB, is now a Radio One employee. Benjamin F. Chavis, one-time head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had a show on Radio One. Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and comedian Dick Gregory have been heard there as well.

WOLB began its anti-Glendening campaign because the governor refused to reappoint his political ally, Young, to the state Senate after Young had been expelled.

Maryland's attorney general said a reappointment would be illegal, but Glendening -- apparently wary of negative reaction from Hughes and other Young allies -- waited almost a day before announcing that he would abide by the law.

Hughes had begun her anti-Glendening campaign with one of the more dramatic anti-Establishment gestures in recent Maryland history. In the same stinging breath, she lashed out at her opponents and demonstrated her economic security by renouncing a half-million dollar economic development grant approved by Glendening, Young and other legislators.

"I do not accept blood money," she said on air the day Young was sent packing. "I also do not accept money from unscrupulous, immoral, lying, back-stabbing, vicious, hate-black folks."

The state aid was aimed at bringing Hughes' operation to Maryland, even though she had already moved here and her enterprise had sizable annual revenues -- more than $23 million, according to a recent Dunn & Bradstreet report. Glendening opponents questioned giving public funds to a media operation that takes political positions.

Glendening rejected that argument -- only to see the tables turned at whiplash speed with the "ABG" campaign, much to the delight of his opponents.

"It's one of life's most delicious ironies," said Carol Hirschburg, an adviser to Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican 1994 gubernatorial nominee and the party's front-runner this year.

Hughes followed through, informing the state she would not accept the money. No cash had actually been sent to Radio One, and a letter from the state Department of Business and Economic Development officially ended the relationship.

Several legislators say that is one of the best results of the Young affair. One of them had predicted the Hughes grant would be problematic. "When you have the state making loans to newspapers or radio stations, the next step is having people [in state government] saying, 'Don't say negative things about me,' " said Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County legislator, at the time the grant was made.

Sticking her neck out

Hughes' rise to power began in a public housing community in Omaha, Neb. She was a talkative child, reportedly described by her mother as someone who "didn't mind sticking her neck out if she thought it was for the better."

Married and a mother by the time she graduated from high school, she began classes at Creighton University but did not finish. In 1980, she and her second husband bought WOL-AM, then a 1,000-watt radio station, for $950,000 with much help from Syndicated Communications Inc. of Silver Spring, a firm specializing in minority broadcast investments.

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