Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins

Cathy Hughes HeadshotAlfred Liggins

Interview Date: August 16, 2016
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Project

SETH ARENSTEIN: Hi, everybody. I’m Seth Arenstein. I’m here for The Cable Center Oral History Project. And we’re here on August 16th, 2016 in New York City, in TV One’s Studio 850. And I’m joined by two people who don’t get into the same room all that much together anymore, right?

CATHY HUGHES: No, we get into —

ARENSTEIN: Do you get into the room?

HUGHES: — the same room every day I can get in the room with him. (laughter)

ARENSTEIN: All right. Because I know it’s really hard to get both of you here, but we’re glad you’re here.

HUGHES: Well, you see, it’s easier in DC to get us in the same room.

ARENSTEIN: Well, we should’ve done this in DC. I wouldn’t have had to come up, and neither would you. All right? OK. But we’re here in New York. We’re very happy to be here. We’re here with Cathy Hughes, or Ms. Hughes, Founder and Chairperson of Radio One, Inc. and Alfred Liggins, CEO of TV One and Radio One, Inc. Welcome.

HUGHES: Thank you.

ARENSTEIN: Great to have you here.

HUGHES: What an honor to be interviewed by you. I mean, —

ARENSTEIN: Oh my goodness.

HUGHES: — outstanding journalist. I mean, your track record is just exemplary, so thank you very much —

ARENSTEIN: Well, thank you.

HUGHES: — for you taking the time to do this with Alfred and myself.

ARENSTEIN: Our pleasure. So we have a whole bunch of questions here. We don’t have that much time, but let’s get to them right away. Did you — we just started Alfred’s story, but I’m going to not tell you what he said. He said nice things about you, by the way.

HUGHES: Thank you, Alfred.

ARENSTEIN: (laughs) OK. But did you always plan on bringing him into the business?

HUGHES: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I come from generations of entrepreneurs. We have a school that my grandfather started in Mississippi, the Piney Woods Country Life School, which is now 109 years old. And we still have close to 200 students. We have a 100% placement rate in college. So Alfred used to joke when he was younger and say he thought everybody had to work in a radio station when they were growing up. But yes, because I was taken to work as a child and he was taken to work as a youngster, also.

ARENSTEIN: So that was in the plan?

HUGHES: Yeah, but not as quickly as it turned out to be.

ARENSTEIN: But it was a good thing.

HUGHES: Oh, no, it was brilliant. It was the best thing I ever did, was turning over the reins and responsibility to him, because with it came the ability for us to grow, because one of the things that I think that parents — mistakes they make when there’s generational anything involved, that they wait too long to let go, because it’s so very hard to give the combination to the vault to the same child who would lose the keys to the front door.

ARENSTEIN: Do you want to look into the camera and give a message to the Queen of England like that? No? You don’t want to do that? OK.

HUGHES: (laughs)

ARENSTEIN: We’re not going to name names or anything.

HUGHES: Right. She’s going to stick around until — right?

ALFRED LIGGINS: She probably knows more about her son than the rest of everybody else does, which is why she’s staying. (laughter)

HUGHES: That’s not nice.

ARENSTEIN: So, I mean, the second question that we had — you kind of answered it — but, you know, it asks, was it hard or difficult to give —

HUGHES: Oh my goodness. It was extremely difficult. We had to go to counseling and everything. And he brought me articles. I think —

LIGGINS: Just this morning. (laughter)

HUGHES: To get here to you. What was the name of the company where they built the new facility, and the mother’s on one wing, and the other — it’s the outdoor where — north —

LIGGINS: I don’t know if it was Timberland. Was it Timberland or was it —

HUGHES: Was it North Face or —

LIGGINS: It was either LL Bean or Timberland.

HUGHES: It was one of those outerwear companies that the father started and — with the mother. And then the son came in, but they have such battles that when they built their new corporate headquarters, there was one side for the mother and one side for the son. And so we haven’t ever gotten that bad, where we’ve — because, as I said earlier, I try to drop by his office or — and he’ll try to drop by mine anytime we’re both in the same city together.

ARENSTEIN: Oh, that’s nice.

HUGHES: But it’s very difficult, because part of being young is having new ideas and new ways of doing things. I mean, he chose — his graduation day, we’re walking across the campus of U Penn. He had just finished his MBA at Wharton, and he announces to me, “You know, I’m taking the company public.” And I was like, “Taking the company public? We’re a family. We’re a mom and son operation.” But it’s the best thing that can really happen when you really do. You know, I do a lecture, in fact, to young people, and I tell them that one of the mistakes that parents make is they wait until they die to leave you the house. And usually the kids don’t want the house. They have their own house. They don’t want the neighborhood. But if you transfer that asset when the person, the youngster, is still at an age where they want to invest, or start a business, or go to college, it’s a very valuable asset that actually kind of becomes worthless if you don’t get it until your parents die. Same thing with the business. Business is very much like family life.

ARENSTEIN: Now have you come to this knowledge practically, or did you —

HUGHES: The hard way.

ARENSTEIN: — know this before your — yeah, OK.

HUGHES: The hard way. Bumping my head and bumping his with me. (laughs) So, you know, and there’ve been times where he’s been really so gracious and generous with me, because I really didn’t understand. It’s kind of like when the teacher sends the new math home, and the parent is like, what am I supposed to do with this? And so there were so many things I didn’t understand about going public. There are so many things that I don’t understand about financing. And he’s been very patient and very gracious with me, walking me through various aspects of growth in our company.

ARENSTEIN: Wow. So one of the questions that I know they wanted me to ask you was — both of you — the different business philosophies, the different — maybe the generational differences. You look so young, you could be his sister. I’m not sure you’re his mother, by the way.

HUGHES: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

ARENSTEIN: All right. We’ll have to check on that later.

HUGHES: I found him. I found him in my radio station one day.

ARENSTEIN: OK. So now I’m on your good side. But seriously, you look wonderful. But the question is about different styles of managing, and different opinions, and generational differences. Do you want to jump in, Alfred?

LIGGINS: No. We — so I don’t know if — when you say “generational” — we’re not that far apart. We’re only 17 years apart. We kind of — Radio One was founded in 1980. I joined in ’85. So there’s only five years of the company’s 36-year history that we haven’t worked together. And so I really kind of adopted my mother’s view, from a generational standpoint, that the company should have a heart and soul that represents our audience. I very much — she’s a child of the ’60s and the Civil Rights Movement. I think that I definitely have come up in that wake and I’m pretty close to and involved with the leadership of a lot of the community and civil rights organizations. We’ve leveraged our identity as a black-owned company, a minority-owned company, successfully. You know, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today if there weren’t some opportunities created by some of the minority policies, and we’re respectful and grateful of that. So we support that whole notion. So I’m of that mindset, too. Not exclusively — that’s what gets you in the door and gets you the opportunity. Then you have to compete. And my mother’s a competitor, too. We definitely have different management styles. You know, she —

HUGHES: I’m a hugger. I hate HR departments who tell you, “Do not touch your employees.” I want to know, did you take your medicine today? Did your child get the braces off?

LIGGINS: For the longest time, when we were down on Fourth and H Streets, I mean, she used to sit on the switchboard and answer the telephone. That was her —

HUGHES: Community connect.

LIGGINS: Yeah. Exactly. I’m definitely much more sort of economically-focused. You know, she’s much more community and people-focused. But I understand the importance of the community and the people to the economics and vice-versa. You can’t do much good community work if you got no money. You know what I mean? And you can’t generate sums of money unless you do good community and people work. So I think we’re on the same page. We do have different management strategies. I think I’m more — I’m a dichotomy. I think I’m more hands-off when it turns to, like, OK, hire people, kind of let them do it. Even though I have strong opinions, Mom answered the telephone, right? So she’s, I think, a bit more detailed and micro in the way she would like to manage things. I tend to get less bent out of shape with failure, because I figure it comes to — failure at different task or different ideas comes with the territory. But she — I think she’s definitely much more stringent and unsettled by it, which may be the reason why, you know, I’m in the business, and I toe a line and the business has been successful. So — but we manage that. I think she thinks I don’t spend as much time on our people as I should, and —

HUGHES: Well, as you have time to. Because one of his favorite things that he says to me is, “Ma, you know, on the scale of things, that’s not really important.” To me, it’s important, not just for the company, but more importantly, for the individual involved, because I don’t like the word “failure.” I like to correct things as we go along. Alfred figures that if you’re an executive at a certain level, earning a certain salary, then there are certain things that should be inherent in your management style, in your skill set, in your knowledge of your job. And I’ve always been a firm believer that the first person who doesn’t know something is the person who doesn’t know it. And they’re the last person to admit it. And so I believe in corrective measures along the way. And he thinks that, in this day and time, that professionals should come fully equipped to do the job and be held accountable for their failures. And I just think that they put erasers on pencils because everybody makes mistakes.

LIGGINS: So we manage that. We definitely have two ways of looking at it. And I think that that does create stress and conflict between us, but that’s kind of the extent of it, and we work through that. You know, it’s — at the end of the day, we have the same goal, right? We both want the organization to succeed. We both want —

HUGHES: And for our people to grow. That’s the reason I’m so focused on not using the word ‘failure.’ I just think that it’s additional nurturing, additional training, and I think that’s the mother side of me, that you just have to work with this person more, and you have to be honest with them that what they’re doing does not fit.

LIGGINS: And I’m more apt to give them enough rope and I stick with them, and I give them a lot of opportunities. She thinks I sometimes stick with them too long. Then, when it’s clear that they’re not going to succeed, and they’re not up to the task, then I move on really quickly.

HUGHES: I’ve had people who have worked for me on and off, six, seven, eight, ten times. Because I think people change. I think that — and some of these people are people that were actually dismissed. Now, if that dismissal had to do with, you know, dishonesty and thievery, you can’t come back if you stole something. But just because you didn’t get it right the first time, to me, I believe in second, third, fourth chances, because people grow. People change. Circumstances change. And Alfred’s like, next.

LIGGINS: So we meld the two, hopefully to a successful outcome. Yeah. We definitely have a range of management options and tools. (laughter)

ARENSTEIN: Alfred, I want to ask about being the owner’s son. Were there particular challenges that you had to overcome there?

LIGGINS: You know what? Not so much in this organization, because again, I started at the — not at the very beginning, but again, founded in 1980. I showed up, full time, in 1985. I think, during that first couple years, when I first got there, there were one or two folks that, like, had an issue with me, one program director. But that didn’t certainly hold any sort of sway with my mother. And then — and we’re business partners, right? It didn’t really come in — I didn’t really come into the organization when it was a large organization.

HUGHES: He helped build it.

LIGGINS: Yep. And so —

HUGHES: Makes a big difference.

LIGGINS: And so that really wasn’t a problem, you know?

ARENSTEIN: Now let’s go to the other side of the fence here and say how wonderful it is for a mother and a son to be working together. What are some of the pleasures of that, Cathy?

HUGHES: I think we understand how the other thinks. We understand what our priorities are. We understand that, for the sake of our employees, that we always have to end up on the same page. That’s the most important, I think, that nobody can hold out. We can’t filibuster. You got to get to the solution, and you’ve got to implement it. And sometimes you have to trust the other. The benefit is that you grow up together, trusting each other. You know exactly that Alfred is honest to a fault. Sometimes I just wish — and loyal. Way, way, way, way more than me on — sometimes I just wish that that had a little better balance. Because Alfred will — if he really, really, really is close to one of our executives, he’ll talk them out of leaving, even when they want to. And I was like, “Alfred, he told you he wanted to go and do something else.” He was like, “Yes, but we needed him, and he’s a good employee.” And so, the trust factor, I think, is the best element. Again, going back to the example I used about the house being an asset. Most parents will say, well, the reason I don’t give away the house, you know, until I’m ready to, you know, move into assisted living, or wherever, is because, you know, I want to make certain I have a roof over my head. Well, to me, that says that you don’t trust the child that you brought and reared into the world, that if you didn’t trust your child not to leave you homeless, then you need to go back and not worry about the house, but worry about parenting. And I think that the best thing about working with Alfred is that we really do trust each other. And I have more of a flare for the dramatic. He’s cut-and-dried when it comes to certain things. And his memory is so much better than mine. And I’m credited with having a good memory most of the time, so I know that if he tells me, “No, that’s not how we decided that this was going to go,” then I don’t argue that, “No, that’s not what I said.” I’m like, OK. Your memory’s better than mine on this. And I was like — I try to replay it and replay it. And I’m like, no, he got over on me on that one, OK. But the trust factor’s most important.

ARENSTEIN: Do you ever have to — do you ever come into the office and have to say, oh, you know, I’m really lucky; most parents don’t get to see their children as they get older; I get to see him —

HUGHES: I feel that way. He doesn’t.

ARENSTEIN: He doesn’t feel that way.

HUGHES: No, because I’ll complain, “You haven’t called me in two, three days.” He’s like, “Ma, I see you every day. Why do I have to call you, too?” (laughter) I feel that way, OK? But that’s part of — just the other day, I said something to him and he’s like, “Ma, I’m not six years old.” And I said, “You’re not?” (laughs) But, yeah. I —

LIGGINS: I walked into the office, and I’d seen somebody, and you were like, “Well, did you say hi to so-and-so?” I’m like, yeah, when he was in my office about 10 minutes ago. (laughter)

HUGHES: Yeah. And he’s like, “I’m not six years old.” And I have to be really careful about that, because it’s so easy for a mother — a parent, period, a father, too — to just slip into that nurturing role to make certain that, you know, your child doesn’t trip and fall. And so often, he’ll say to me, “I’ll be fine, OK?” And I’m like, “Is that too risky?” And he’s like, “We’ll be fine, mother.” So when he says, “mother,” I know that it’s time to (laughs) take a second look.

ARENSTEIN: (laughs) OK. I think that’s probably — you just expressed a sentiment that most parents have. They think of their children, no matter how old they are, as —

HUGHES: As their obligation to protect them, to make certain that, you know, they don’t drop a ball that you see, you know, falling out of their hands.

ARENSTEIN: Of course. Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about industry-wide and diversity and the cable industry, in terms of your careers in it, and where you see the industry now, in terms of diversity, and where — like, even the radio industry — you could bring that in if you’d like — when you both began your careers?

HUGHES: Do you want to go first?

LIGGINS: Yeah. I would.

ARENSTEIN: It’s a lot of ground there. I’m sorry.

LIGGINS: Well, we’re in business because of diversity policies. My mother got the opportunity to buy her first radio station —

HUGHES: The Distress Sale Policy with the FCC, Benjamin Hooks.

LIGGINS: We were able to buy a bunch of radio stations from Clear Channel because Bill Kennard said they wanted to sell to minorities. We got into the cable business — it was a business deal. I mean, there wasn’t a minority policy. But I definitely think that —

HUGHES: There’s a cash policy. (laughs)

LIGGINS: Yeah. But I definitely think, as we went around to seek distribution from other cable operators that weren’t our partner, the fact that we were a minority-owned network, that it — and we were serving a particular audience, an underserved audience, was helpful. I can tell you, in our renewals, it’s definitely been a big factor and a huge help. And so I’d like to say that all of our success has been — or all of my success was because we’re just brilliant operators, and insightful, and the whole bit, but the door has been opened. No matter how smart you are, or capable you are, if you don’t get an opportunity to perform, to try, you can’t win. And certainly, diversity policies, minority ownership policies, have opened that door for us. So I’m hugely supportive of it. And look, it’s not the only way you can be successful, you know, because I know lots of African Americans that have been successful in other things, but I would say for the majority of the larger business opportunities that we’ve come across, it’s played a big factor.

HUGHES: I want to go in a different area with the issue of diversity. When we first started out, it was just BET and TV One. Just the two of us. Now everyone under the banner of, quote, diversity — I like to call it, you’re in the black lane — everybody, cable and broadcast television, radio, the same way. Everyone has something now because of the success that they’ve witnessed serving the African American consumer. I’m very, very happy that that diversity provides a lot more opportunities than just what we’re able to provide because at one time, if you didn’t work for BET, you worked for us, and that was it in the cable industry. But at the same time, it makes the competition so, so, so much more difficult. And more importantly, it really drives up the pricing of employees, as well as talent. And the reality is, if you’ve got an opportunity to double or triple your salary, working for a Fox, or working for a Comcast, or working for a TV One, just starting out. Now that we’re 10 years old, it makes a difference, in terms of respecting confidence, because also, there’ve been so few African Americans given opportunities given opportunities in those early days, that it’s a big gamble to come with something that’s a startup. And you look at something that’s been around, that’s generational, also, with the Roberts family, and you look at this generational business, and you’re like, well — and again, before the doors of opportunity were kicked open, because of mergers with Comcast and NBC Universal, you don’t gamble. And so it made it very difficult for us to afford some individuals that we would’ve loved to have had as part of our operation, but were outpriced. So diversity has opportunities, on one hand, for my community; on the other hand, it makes it more difficult if you’re trying to operate in that same space.

ARENSTEIN: OK. Is there something that people don’t know about you that you’d like to tell us? Something — it could be something fun.

HUGHES: Well, most people are very surprised that I cook just about every day of the week. And I’m a very good cook, if I must say so myself, as I can attest to these 30 pounds that I fed myself.

ARENSTEIN: What are your specialties?

HUGHES: Food. (laughter) I love to cook. I live on a farm. I raise my own vegetables. I fish and I crab. And most people find that — I wear these flowers. The flowers in my home normally are cut from my yard. One of the big problems, though, when I travel, is my deck right now has 62 various plants on it. The issue of, is there rain in the forecast, or can I get someone to come water my plants with me, so I don’t come back and they’re bramble bushes instead of healthy plants and — but that surprises most people. I don’t know why. But most people are like, “What? You cook that often?” It is interesting because Alfred eats out all the time. I was like, I must not have been a very good when he was growing up, eating my food. But the minute he hits my front door, the first room he goes to is my kitchen, and opens pots — and don’t let there be a clean pot that I’m letting dry or something, sitting there on the stove, waiting for something. He’s like, “Why is this pot empty?” (laughs) He expects there to be something on the stove, and I like that a lot. It’s my therapy.

ARENSTEIN: Alfred, same question.

LIGGINS: You know, I think that, from the outside, a lot of people might think that I’m not all that approachable. Who knows? Maybe it’s because of the position that I hold. I also can have a lot of tunnel vision. Like, when I’m thinking about work and things like that, — I’m very focused. So I could walk down the hall —

HUGHES: Which is all the time that he’s thinking about work.

LIGGINS: I could walk down the hall, and I don’t stop —

HUGHES: Which is why I said, “Did you say hello to…” — OK, that’s exactly why.

LIGGINS: And so I definitely can have tunnel vision. But if you do engage me on any kind of personal level, I’m actually pretty easygoing and kind of funny, right?

HUGHES: Not kind of funny. He’s being modest. What they don’t know about him is that he, at one time, tried his hand at standup. He had a stage name. Alfred Andrews was his stage name. He had a press kit, the whole nine yards. He is hilarious. He is really hilarious, and he’s so quick with it. And most people — I hear that so often when people get to know him. They say, “I had no idea Alfred was so funny. He’s hilarious.” Alfred could’ve made it in standup. Thank God he didn’t decide to go that route. But he tried his hand at it because I think his friends probably told him how funny he was. But most people do not, because he’s usually — has this serious, firm demeanor. And I think that people are really shocked. I hear that more often than anything else. “I had no idea that Alfred was so funny.”

LIGGINS: Yeah, so I get that people — I come off as more firm and, like, — because I’m not — you know, when I’m doing work, I’m trying to get through it, and then — but when I’m at home, relaxing, and I’m with my friends, or if I’m just — like, I’m — you know, I’m pretty easy, and I love — you know, I love to laugh and I like to make people laugh, and I think life should be about enjoyment and having a good time. And levity in a situation improves the situation. And so I try to interject — if you work with me, and we’re in meetings, I make jokes all the time in meetings. Like even — like, I go back and forth between jokes and sort of, you know, kind of like tough questions, because after you ask a really hard question, if you lighten it up with a joke, — (laughs)

HUGHES: You might get an answer.

LIGGINS: It takes the sting away a little bit. (laughs)

ARENSTEIN: OK. That’s a good way to do it. One last question. We were asked to ask you about rebranding. Why? Why now? And what implications does that have for TV One, if any?

LIGGINS: No implications for TV One. We are rebranding because the parent — the company’s name is Radio One, and we’re not just a radio company —

HUGHES: And people get confused.

LIGGINS: — any longer. We’re a multimedia company. Over 50% — maybe just about 50% of the company’s revenue and cash flow now is not radio. And it — over time, that will probably —

HUGHES: Decrease even more.

LIGGINS: — decrease even more. So, however, we have created — Radio One is a brand. TV One is also a brand. Radio One’s at least not a consumer brand. The consumer brand for the radio stations is the station’s moniker, 93.9 WKYS, the call letters. But TV One has been marketed as a consumer brand since day one, and people know it. So not going to mess with that at all. And the company’s new position, new name, is going to be Urban One, because we focus on urban media, and it drafts off of the ‘One’ moniker that we have built into the other aspects of the other organization: TV One, Radio One, Interactive One. And that’s why — and quite frankly, — a lot of it was driven by investors, who, when we’re out trying to tell this story. They’re like, “Look you got to” — because radio’s gotten a bad rap as a traditional medium, in terms of its growth profile. And so when investors want to buy bonds, —

HUGHES: And clients.

LIGGINS: — and clients — or buy stock, you know, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to invest in the radio business.”

HUGHES: The radio business.

LIGGINS: Well, they’ve got to understand you’re not just radio. So that’s why we’re doing it. I think it’s been received well by the investor community. I think the employees think it makes sense because we’ve gotten feedback.

HUGHES: Except for the ones that worked in Radio One. They liked being the parent corporation of all of our —

LIGGINS: So that’s the impetus for it. I think it makes sense. And it’s really not that large a departure. In fact, right now, we’ve been Radio One, the Urban Media Specialist, so now we’re going to be Urban One, media and communications. Or we haven’t figured out everything about it. But it’s a variation of what we are already.

HUGHES: Clients will say, “Well, you know, I don’t buy radio.” It’s confusing now because we have the other divisions. And again, radio is no longer the favorite child, unfortunately.

ARENSTEIN: Fair enough. Well, Alfred Liggins, Ms. Cathy Hughes, —

HUGHES: Uh, no Ms., just Cathy.

ARENSTEIN: OK. It’s been a pleasure. And talking about One, it seems to me the two of you together are one awesome team.

LIGGINS: Thank you.

HUGHES: Thank you.


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