Cathy Hughes: good businesswoman, good employer, good Baltimorean

August 15, 1999|By Gregory Kane

CATHY HUGHES danced joyously in front of Radio One's Baltimore building at 100 St. Paul Place. She grooved as the local rhythm and blues group Badd belted out their rendition of The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You."

Only a few yards behind her, the street sign had been changed. A couple of hours earlier, Hughes stood beside Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as he whipped off the cover of the sign to reveal the new name for the 100 block of St. Paul Place: Cathy Hughes Plaza.

Schmoke also read a proclamation marking Aug. 11 as "Cathy Hughes Day" in Baltimore. A day in her honor, a street block named for her and making the cover of Emerge magazine all in one week. How many poor girls from the public housing projects of Omaha, Neb., have it this good?

"I love this city," Hughes said to the crowd of about 200 who had gathered.

Hughes and her son, Alfred Liggins, co-own four stations in Baltimore: WERQ-FM, WWIN-FM, WOLB-AM and WWIN-AM. But Baltimoreans should keep in mind she's rich enough to choose where she lives. She and Liggins own two stations in Atlanta, two in Cleveland, four in Detroit, one in Philadelphia, seven in Richmond, Va., one in St. Louis, and four in Washington, D.C.

So it says something when she calls Baltimore home. And the city, apparently, has returned the affection. WERQ-FM and WWIN-FM recently were first and second, respectively, in local radio ratings. How far back in Baltimore's broadcast history do we have to go to find an owner who owned the No. 1 and No. 2 stations in town?

Agnes Welch, city councilwoman from the 4th District, called Hughes a "No. 1 lady for a No. 1 station." She praised Hughes for the number of jobs she has brought to town. Del. Nathaniel Oaks was on hand to praise Hughes as "the top woman in black radio."

But in Baltimore, Hughes is the top woman in radio, period. How did she get to own America's largest black-owned radio company, one -- according to the Emerge article -- that is also the 17th-highest revenue producer in the country?

One answer may be the people who work for her. Several were on hand when their boss was honored. Larry Young, the former state senator who now rises at 4 a.m. to do the early morning talk show, served as a sort of emcee for Wednesday's events. When asked whose idea it was to honor Hughes with a day and a street named for her, Young could barely contain his mischief.

"Mine," he grinned. It came to him when he started working at WOLB. Hughes and Young had a conversation about the fountain in what is now Cathy Hughes Plaza.

"She said the fountain never worked," Young recalled. "She said it was crazy to have a fountain that never worked."

So Young called city officials, who had it fixed in three days. Having taken an inch, Young tried for the mile.

"I said there's no reason we can't turn this plaza into Cathy Hughes Plaza," Young recollected. It's now a done deal. The tale shows how devoted Hughes' employees are to her.

"I've been in radio 30 years," said veteran Baltimore disc jockey Lee Cross, who now works in sales and marketing for WWIN-FM. "Hughes is the best owner I've ever worked for. Without doubt. She looks out for her employees."

That would be the 194 employees Hughes has at her Baltimore stations and the 548 she has at the rest. As she tried to listen to Badd give their concert after she received her honors, one after another of her workers came up to offer congratulations and smother her with hugs and kisses.

"I have a wonderful group of employees," Hughes said between displays of affection. "One of the reasons I made the initial public offering [in May] was that it allowed 401(k) plans and stock options for all my employees."

WERQ-FM and WWIN-FM stay on top because, says Hughes, "we outwork the competition." And it might also be true that no radio executive outworks -- or outthinks -- Cathy Hughes.

Last year she had veteran talk-show host Joe Madison take over as program director of WOLB and had him do his own show as well. When WERQ lost drive-time DJ Frank Ski to Atlanta, Hughes replaced him with Brian Carter, and the station kept on trucking.

"Our stations are format-driven, not personality driven," Hughes said of the two Baltimore FM stations' success.

When popular talk-show host C. Miles was fired last year, few thought he could be replaced. Hughes didn't even try. Instead she put on a program called "Reporters' Notebook" that may revolutionize the talk-radio genre.

Hughes' success has not stoked her ego. She appeared downright bashful about all the goings-on. Her employees had totally surprised her.

"You know," she said as she sat in a chair and took in the concert, "I told them not to do this."

Pub Date: 8/15/99

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