Cathy Hughes: Holding on to her Faith
We know her today as a successful entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive. We’ve seen her company’s name placed on many radio stations around the country, turning them into success stories. She’s been featured as one of the most powerful and influential people in America in Ebony, the Washingtonian, Radio Ink, and various other periodicals. But Cathy Hughes’ life has been one of ups and downs that have led her to trust in God and rely on her faith.
In 1955 Catherine Woods’ 81-year-old mother bought her a transistor radio, on which she was able to hear Black radio for the first time. “R&B was not something I grew up hearing in Omaha, Nebraska,” said Hughes. “I was so grateful when I was exposed to Black music,” she said. “I wanted to be a disc jockey. I used to stand in front of the mirror with my toothbrush pretending it was a microphone. You daydream asakid—especially a kid from the projects.”
Cathy was the eldest child of the Woods clan. Her father, a high school dropout, would later become the first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. Her mother, a professional musician, would become a licensed practical nurse, and a registered nurse, eventually earning her master’s degree in gerontology at the age of 57. The Woods family lived in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects where the community served as their extended family.
At the age of 16, Hughes became pregnant. She says her mother and others suggested that she get an abortion because she had “messed up her life.” She remembers immediately feeling that an abortion was morally wrong, and she began praying to God to help her. “I asked God to be my child’s father and prayed these words: ‘Dear God, please love and protect us, guide and direct us.’” She quickly learned that in tough situations, “there is no other place to turn but to the Creator, and embrace and acknowledge His greatness.”
While working and being a mother, she found time to attend classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she became the student chair of the Black studies committee. During this time she also volunteered at KOWH radio station. As chair, she was instrumental in bringing Tony Brown, now host of Tony Brown’s Journal, to the campus to speak to the student body. After several visits to the university, Brown offered her a job as lecturer at the newly developed School of Communication at Howard University. Cathy accepted and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1971. The faculty at that time was very unique. “Approximately 70 percent of us were without formal college degrees, including people such as Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, and Stan Lathan.”
Two years after lecturing at Howard University, Cathy began working at the school’s radio station, WHUR. During her time at the station she served as general sales manager, vice president, and general manager. Under her leadership the station increased revenue from $250,000 to $3 million in her first year. She also created the Quiet Storm, a nighttime radio format now heard in more than 50 markets nationally.
Later Cathy met and married Dewey Hughes, who worked at WOL in Washington, D.C., and together in 1980 they purchased the station. Shortly thereafter they divorced. The divorce came at a time when their newly established business, Radio One, was getting off the ground. Her friend, Quincy Jones, once told her, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him you have a plan for your life.”
After hearing about the divorce, one of the station’s on-air personalities dropped in to visit Hughes at the station. The woman fell to her knees in the lobby and prayed the same prayer Hughes prayed when she was pregnant. “She compared the radio station to another child and asked God to be the father of my radio station. I always felt that was the start of my being able to make it alone in business.” WOL, the flagship station of Radio One, is now the most listened to talk radio in the nation’s capital. Currently, Radio One owns approximately 67 radio stations across America and employs more than 1,500 broadcasters. Her son, Alfred, serves as CEO and president.
In January 2004 Hughes launched TV One, a national cable and satellite network that provides lifestyle programming geared for African-American adults. TV One is available in more than 38 million homes. Hughes serves as a board member for TV One, and Alfred serves as chairman.
Today the radio industry is reeling from the worst economic slump that it has seen in its history. Because of this, it isn’t unusual to hear stories from successful entrepreneurs about challenges to their faith. “I have never questioned my faith. When I go through a crisis, I ask God to love and protect me, guide and direct me, and help me think things through.” She believes that because she developed a strong belief system in her teen years, it’s natural to hold on to her faith in trying times.
She has also had to make tough decisions regarding various musical genres and advertising promoted on her stations, causing her to lose out on revenue. “It’s good to stand up and not let dollars drive your thought processes, decisions, and morals. I’ve lived my life hoping that God would use me as an instrument to do His will.”
Hughes is quite free-spirited when it comes to giving back. What makes her so committed to helping others? It’s in her blood. Growing up, her mother would bring orphans to their home for dinner. She would split chicken wings to share with their guests. “I learned that no matter how little we had, there was always someone who needed a part of the little of what we had, because they didn’t have anything. It was expected for us to help others.”
Her maternal grandfather founded a boarding school in Mississippi called Piney Woods School. This school was originally developed for disadvantaged Black children. The school, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, boasts a 99 percent college placement rate. The school is currently one of four African-American boarding academies in the United States (including Seventh-day Adventist-owned Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania). She is an active member of the Piney Wood’s board.
“People always say to me, ‘It’s amazing what you do.’ I say it’s amazing that more people aren’t doing more. The more you get the more you are supposed to give.’”
For those who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs, Hughes has some advice found in Proverbs 3:6: “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” “If you don’t have faith in the Creator, it’s hard to have faith that you will be able to pull it through when you have difficult challenges,” she notes, continuing, “I’ve always seen a close relationship with entrepreneurism and belief in God-ism.”