Interview Date: August 16, 2016
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Project
Arenstein: Hi, everybody, I’m Seth Arenstein and I’m here in New York City on August 16, 2016. We are at the offices of TV One, Studio 850, and we’re here with—to me it’s a great pleasure to have you here because anybody who’s in Washington, D.C., and knows media knows you and to be sitting here talking with you, Cathy Hughes, it’s just a thrill.
Hughes: Thank you so much.
Arenstein: It really is great to see you and get to talk with you.
So let’s start at the beginning, Cathy. Where were you born?
Hughes: Omaha, Nebraska. Me and Johnny Carson. The Fonda family, Marlon Brando. Want a quick story?
Hughes: So Marlon Brando’s mother ran the Community Playhouse. So they would bring on Saturday for a couple of hours children who grew up in public housing. They would bring children from the public housing to the Community Theater and there was a 17-year old kid who was the son of the woman who ran the Community Theater and his name was Marlon Brando and he used to hate to have to deal with the kids. So then he would turn us into—we would have incredible productions and his mother would come in and she’d be blown away that her 17- year–old teenage son had done this great production with us.
Arenstein: So you got a feel for radio and television when you were really young.
Arenstein: Do you think that influenced you?
Hughes: No, what influenced me more than anything else was my mother. My mother was a very accomplished musician, had an 18-piece all-women’s orchestra called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. If you want to Google, there are about ten of my mother’s songs on the Internet. That’s what really influenced me to really try to do the very best I could. My father was in college full time; that’s the reason we were in public housing and my mother was a musician. Between a full time college student in those days and a musician who didn’t get paid like musicians get paid today—and there were 17 other girls in the band—that’s what really inspired me.
Arenstein: And what did they play? What kind of music did they play?
Hughes: Well, this is interesting. They played what was called swing. Before jazz, there was bebop, before bebop there was swing. They played swing and then they played bebop. They never survived. They were most popular during World War II because the men, even the musicians, were in that war and so they got all of these gigs and then when peace was declared and the men came home, their band started to lose its popularity in terms of bookings. They set records. In 1941, they sold 45,000 tickets in the Howard Theatre in one week.
Arenstein: In D.C.
Hughes: In D.C.
Arenstein: So they traveled all the way up there.
Hughes: They played what was called “the Chitlin Circuit.” They played the Apollo in New York. They played the Fox. They played the Howard. And back then, they didn’t have the respect of the venues of the day. The Apollo now is world-renowned. Now the Chitlin Circuit means nightclubs. Back then, it was actual venues that were referred to as the Chitlin Circuit.
Arenstein: So I have to ask. Did you go on those trips with your mother?
Hughes: Absolutely. And had to sit in the front row because my mother even back then was concerned about pedophilia and child abuse and so I was on the road for the first five years of my life. It was a miserable time for me because I would curl up in the seat. I would go to sleep and then afterwards she would say, “Sit up straight. You’re on the front row. If you’re not enthusiastic about your mother’s band, who do you think is going to be?” At rehearsal, I would have to sit right there where she could do her music and watch me at the same time.
Arenstein: And did you end up playing an instrument yourself?
Hughes: No, because she actually intimidated and terrorized me out of it—something we talk about now. My mother is 93 years old and still going strong. Takes no medication, 93 years old, and she and I have had this discussion. She was so determined that I would be Beyoncé, all right? I would be Josephine Baker because she had come through in the 30s and the 40s, and she used to literally—if I hit a wrong note, I got hit. I was so in awe of this incredible all-women’s orchestra and I didn’t have the talent. To this day, I cannot dance, I cannot carry a tune. And I have three siblings; all of them are musically inclined. I have niece who’s a child prodigy. She has played at Carnegie Hall a dozen times. She’s just, you know, brilliant. And my mother said, “You know what? You really did have the talent, but I scared the hell out of you, didn’t I?” I was her firstborn. I was her only child for almost seven years so she had all these plans—and that was before—I was kind of quiet. I know it’s hard to believe but it’s a little difficult to imagine me being quiet and withdrawn, but I was when it came to music. Because I was in such awe of how brilliant this orchestra was: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, 18 women. Beyoncé based her all-girl band on my mother’s group.
Arenstein: But you’re going into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.
Hughes: Yes, I am.
Arenstein: So, you did OK.
Hughes: I am, thank God. Still if I had it to do over, I don’t know that I’d want to be a member of a band or anything but I still have dreams and aspirations to sit down at a baby grand, the sliding glass doors are open and the wind’s blowing the curtains and I’m just playing a masterpiece. I would still love to do that.
Arenstein: There’s time.
Hughes: Yes. I hear that all the time. That’s what my mother says to me now. She says, “You better hurry up because I’m 93 now, OK?” I took piano lessons for 12 years of my life. We were living in the projects and I have a piano. We didn’t have a TV but we had a piano. And the only song I can still play to this day is “Chopsticks.”
Arenstein: OK. All right, well, let’s go on to how you got into radio.
Hughes: I got into radio because my mother thought that I needed to be exposed to a different genre than what we were hearing in Omaha, Nebraska. I was an expert on Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty back then. They called it “Country and Western.” She wanted me to be exposed to something different. So she put a transistor radio in layaway for a year, paid on it and gave it to me for Christmas. And for the first time, I heard Wolfman Jack, I heard there were black disc jockeys; I didn’t realize it back then, but people were not allowed to be on the microphone. But they were imitating to attract urban audiences and I just fell in love with what I heard. It’s such a blessing to be able to say by the time I was ten years old, I had my career path clearly defined for what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be in radio.
Arenstein: And did you know exactly what you wanted to do in radio, or just radio in general?
Hughes: Well, Seth, I’m going to be honest with you. I wanted to be a news person. Yes. We’re in public housing, my father’s the first black graduate in the county from Creighton University and there’s six of us in the house, one bathroom, and every morning I locked that door and my toothbrush was my microphone and the mirror was my audience. And I didn’t care how much trouble I got in. My brothers would hit me. I would be on punishment, but I never left out until I finished my final newscast. I would talk about it what had happened and I was kind of into psychic hotline. I would say, “When I leave out of this radio booth, I’m probably going to be attacked by my family.” I would do a prophecy of what was going. I would discuss what had happened at school. I loved news. I wasn’t into the music as much as I was into news and information.
Arenstein: So, from there?
Hughes: From there, a group of prominent African Americans in Omaha, Nebraska, Bob Gibson, who is world renowned for the World Series games that he—
Arenstein: The Bob Gibson. The pitcher.
Hughes: The pitcher. The Bob Gibson from Omaha, Nebraska. Bob Booth, a very famous basketball player, and some community activists. A gentleman by the name of Rodney Weed and another, Al Goodwin. They put together a group. They felt the same way my mother felt: that they were tired of Conway Twitty and Willie Nelson. They wanted to hear—we were Dolly Parton fans. They wanted to hear something to hear that related more to the sizable population of the Omaha black population of Omaha, Nebraska. So they put together an investment group and they bought a radio station. I jumped up and volunteered the minute I heard that it was coming. I worried them to death. I was part of that first radio station in Omaha, Nebraska.
Arenstein: And what did you do? What was your first job? I’ll bet.
Hughes: It’s what Alfred talked about in his interview. Answering the phone. I’ve always felt that no matter what business you’re in, whether you sell a product or a service, that if you lose your connection with the consumer that you’re supposed to be servicing, you can’t be successful. So I’ve always had this affinity towards those that I serve, being able to be in direct contact. People will sometimes tease me, particularly now that I’ve gotten older. “You travel by yourself?” or “Someone should go with you.” People come up to me and want to talk, want to engage, want to take now that everyone takes selfies. I love that. I don’t want to be disconnected from them, I don’t want anyone running interference. When I’m single, I always tease and say, “That’s called blocking. OK, here, let him come up.” And they’re like, “Yeah, but you know in this day and time, it might be someone who’s not quite right emotionally or mentally.” I was like, “Believe me, I can recognize that. I’ve been around a couple times.” And so I love the connection. So my first job in Omaha was my very first job in media, selling classified ads at a black newspaper, “The Omaha Star,” which is still in operation in Omaha. I sold classified ads on the telephone. So I started off at 10, 12 years old interacting with the consumer. From there, the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to me in all my years, was the first time I had to open the mike in a radio station. It was at the Howard University radio station, WHUR, and they went on strike because of me. I created a format called “The Quiet Storm.” Some of the jazz enthusiasts—again, like I said, my mother’s music wasn’t called jazz but that’s what swing was. Jazz enthusiasts are an interesting breed because they don’t show up in the ratings, they don’t support the jazz clubs, but if you change a jazz format, Lord have mercy, they come out of the woodwork. They will demonstrate, they will picket, they will give you the blues. They’ll contact your clients; they will go the whole nine yards. I’m like, “Well, why in the heck can’t you support it?” And jazz musicians to this day, unless you are a Wynton Marsalis or a Nicholas Payton or a big name, Sherry Winston—if you’re not a big name, they still have a hard time supporting themselves as a full time jazz musician. The clubs don’t pay them, they don’t get booked.
So I dropped the jazz format. We were called at Howard, the radio station labeled itself, its tagline was “360 Degrees of Blackness.” Well, I had studied a little bit about broadcasting and I knew I needed to identify and target a demographic, a specific demographic. I could meet 365 degrees of blackness. So I created this format called, “The Quiet Storm,” which went on in its heyday to be the most successful of all urban formats. At one time, nearly 500 radio stations in America were using my format. But my staff went on strike. They didn’t want to do it. They were jazz enthusiasts. The University felt that “The Quiet Storm,” which was basically ballad-based, was what “bubblegum” music is what they called it. In hindsight, I’ve had conversations with various administrators at the University who said, “If we had licensed this format like you asked us to, we could have been self-sustaining. They would have generated billions of dollars by now. In San Francisco, the number one station for decades was called “The Quiet Storm.” Everyone—Smokey Robinson gave me the rights, gave me the publishing rights to the song. Howard was concerned about the picket line that had Jim Vance, who was a big name in television, NBC anchor.
Arenstein: I know Jim Vance, of course.
Hughes: He was out there with the side but that was my scariest moment because I had to go on the air. I was not going to stop doing my format. I was not going to allow my staff being on strike to stop what I was trying to do. Because the interesting thing that rarely gets told, I didn’t create “The Quiet Storm” to be a commercial success. I created it to be a successful student-based program. I wanted each year for our brightest students to get at least a semester of experience because what I was witnessing was the students were very bright but they had no experience. So they were coming to the networks and the networks were saying, “Well, what have you done?” So I wanted a commercially successful format for my student body at Howard University. Then I had to end up doing it myself. But I’m glad that I got over that fearful time because I ended up having to, once again, forced to host my own show to hold onto my first radio station.
Arenstein: And that’s how people my age would know you from D.C.—as a talk show person.
Arenstein: Talk to me about that.
Hughes: Commissioner Benjamin Hooks convinced the FCC to develop what they called “the distress sale policy.” And I was the first station, WOL in Washington, D.C., was the very first radio station to be sold under the distress sale policy. And I did a format search. That format search revealed that the one thing that was not existing in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, was a connect with the local community. That even though the Washington Post has always been—most people don’t realize it because it’s so prominent—it’s a local newspaper. It really is. Local is national news because it’s the nation’s capital, the most important city, but there’s a local population. And that local population was not being serviced. So my format search said that the right thing to do would be a talk format, news talk. No one told me that it’s the most expensive of all formats to do. That part didn’t come out in the research.
Arenstein: Why is it so expensive?
Hughes: A disc jockey back in those days did everything. Engineered their own board, pulled the news off the wire service and read it. It was a one-man show, a one-woman show to do news or talk. You’ve got to have a researcher. You have to have someone answering the phone. You have to have someone hosting. You have to have a scheduler. It takes so much more plus it’s such a different skill set required for engaging, entertaining, informative talk. Even now, news. It used to be when people could get away with just reading copy, no more. So that’s expensive compared to a disc jockey who oftentimes you could get at a discount because all they want to do is play music and have people hear. The whole hip-hop rap industry evolved out of that notion, “We just want to express ourselves.” All disc jockeys have that mentality. So you’ve got this individual who whatever you pay him, they’re going to take. You have an experienced journalist, many of you all have agents. Many of you have, if not agents, at least lawyers who are going to discuss what this talk show host is going to cost you. You can get a disc jockey for a fraction. Now the syndication is so popular, it’s different now. But back then, air personalities were called disc jockeys and they thought they were talk show hosts. But the amount of research that goes into talk radio also, if you are going to have a credible show, for every hour of airtime, you’ve got at least two hours of prep. So if they do a three-hour show, you’ve got six to eight hours of prep time because no one who’s listening to talk radio likes anything better than catching the host wrong. That is like a thrill! I said, no, that is not how that went down and if you refer to so-and-so and so-and-so and now, with modern technology, we’re in the digital age, people can fact-check you—
Arenstein: Very quickly.
Hughes: Very quickly. That’s very embarrassing. You’re sitting there explaining to your audience and you are wrong as two left shoes and you get called out almost instantaneously.
Arenstein: Wow. So how did you deal with all that? How did you deal with a career as a talk radio person, as a talk radio host, but also as a business person?
Hughes: Because the talk show was not my career. The talk show was to keep my business in operation. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t afford—my lenders literally said to me, “OK, now that you’ve learned the talk news is the most expensive format that you can do, news talk is not expensive, you’ve got to do music.” By then, I had already had connected with my audience and they were depending on me for information. Information is power. It wasn’t just my slogan. I still believe that to this day. I believe that one of the problems that we’ve had in the African American community for too long is that by the time that we get the information, it’s black history, not current events. And we couldn’t depend on the Washington Post to give it to us, we couldn’t depend on WTOP to give it to us. We had to do it for ourselves. We had to depend on ourselves.
So when my lenders told me that if you are determined to keep “Morning Drive” as a news talk format, you should do it yourself. They were being facetious.
Arenstein: They didn’t think you’d do it.
Hughes: No. So 11 years later…they did not think I would do it.
Arenstein: Talk about some of the other parts of your career before TV One and maybe a little bit about Radio One. How did that start?
Hughes: Well, my career with Radio One was—the only job I cannot do in a radio station is—and I studied for it and then got kind of frightened at the test for first class engineering license—that’s the only thing I cannot do. Back then, we did everything manually. Nothing was digital. We did our logs, our billing, everything was manual. That was my career. In addition to the four hours every morning that I was on the air. However, I have to honestly say it at one time 85% of our entire company revenue was my “Morning Show.” So it was kind of a happy marriage because I knew how much revenue, I knew how many spots I had run that morning. I knew how many employees. Our most challenging times, I was down to 14 full and part time staff members combined. When you are trying to run a business as 24/7, and you have only 14 human beings helping you—there were 15 of us—you learn to wear a lot of different hats. Which is why it was such a blessing for Alfred to get his MBA from Wharton. He was already in the business, but I felt for the business to grow, that he really needed to further his skill set, he needed to up his game, quite frankly. I wasn’t able to because I still was wearing 14 different hats. I’m so appreciative and as I shared it with you earlier, he’s been patient with me because he knows so much more, particularly about the world of finance. I know about the world of people, but he knows about the world of finance. But as he said so accurately, “You can’t help people if you don’t have the finances.”
Hughes: Particularly if you live in a capitalistic society.
Arenstein: True. Did you ever think, I mean I have to ask you, did you ever think in those days when you had 14 employees plus yourself, you’d be sitting here at TV One with a small empire?
Hughes: I don’t see it as an empire and I never have thought in terms of what it could be. My goal was always to be of service to my community since I was a little girl. When I heard these voices amplified, coming over my radio, I realized the power, the impact it could have on my community. Now that we are a publicly held corporation, and I was the first African American woman to chair this publicly held corporation, I realized that I have to have as my top priority the enhancement of shareholder value. But when I’m not on camera, the reality is my priority really is improving the quality of life in the black community.
Arenstein: How do you do that? What are some of the things you’re doing today?
Hughes: Every day is different and it all depends on need. Right now we just finished a very interesting research project, dealing with this disconnect between the police and black, particularly black males. It was really interesting when we concluded this project to see how different our views are. The majority of white participants in this survey acknowledged that there was definitely a problem with police brutality towards the black community. However, they didn’t think it was as bad as our leadership is portraying. Almost 100% of black folks—it’s worse than even this survey is going to show. This research will benefit not only my community but I think that ultimately it will be of benefit to the police department.
When there’s a need, we try to rise to the occasion. When Katrina hit—we just did it again a few weeks ago. I’m so proud. All my engineers, they didn’t even call in to ask for travel vouchers or anything. They just immediately got down there to try to keep radio stations on the air. They realized how important it was to keep communications open because people didn’t know where to go or what to do. That’s what I love about radio. Radio can give you instant gratification, instant response; no other medium does that. I know this is for the Cable Center, but cable can’t do that. But radio can. You can be doing anything else and radio can still have an impact. Change your thinking, stop you in your tracks—“Wow! I didn’t know that!” Right now I’m getting texts from some of my older—I still say in touch. We call them “The Girls.” I have a cadre of older women. At one point you had to be 65 or older to be one of the girls. But they stay in contact with me. Right now Marion Barry’s only child, Christopher, has just died from an overdose of K2. So I’m getting all these messages from my elders, my senior citizens, saying, “What in the world is K2, Miss Hughes?” So now I’m going to ask my station to start focusing on the danger. Because this drug has been around for almost a decade and you know, it’s the “poor man’s weed,” quite frankly. In New York and other places, you can buy a joint for a dollar, whereas the real marijuana would maybe cost you $10-15 for a joint. It’s very important for them to know because so many of our listeners have children and it’s also unfortunately—I’m very active with the homeless, the drug of the homeless. When you have a homeless person who has no money, and they can get a high for $1, that’s even cheaper than a bottle of liquor. So I think it’s very important now for us to focus on telling them exactly what Spice is, K2, Spice—it’s killing people. It just killed Christopher Barry. And it is going to make a lot of people really stop and wonder—there are so many things with millennials, so many things with young people. How could something this devastating—most of us these individuals, the girls, they know that the wrong batch of heroin will kill. They’ll know the crack, they’ll know that—begins with an “M.” What is the—when they raid the houses, it’s dangerous for the police because it will seep through your fingers. They know that will kill. What is that—?
Hughes: Meth. Thank you. Meth: they know that would kill. They had never heard of Spice. They had never heard. I started leisurely texting back and saying that they sell it as potpourri, trying to explain it. The reality is I’m going to focus our news people on it now. I think it’s very important to know because it’s been kind of quietly underground until we have like a Christopher, Marion Christopher Barry dying.
There are so many projects we get involved in on a daily basis. Of all the radio networks, we are the largest raisers of funds for St. Jude’s Hospital. Our first year, we did $1 million. Now we try to get to $2 million, $3 million. I mean, there’s so many things we are involved in and that’s why to me it’s important for me to stay connected. We do research so that it’s not me or Alfred or any of our staff members deciding what the community needs and wants, but that they have an opportunity to tell us through a systematic effort to…it used to be called “ascertainment.” When I first went into the radio, you had to do ascertainment. The FCC required you. You don’t know ascertainment?
Arenstein: I do not.
Hughes: Oh, my goodness. Deregulation eliminated ascertainment. Ascertainment was required for license renewal. And you had to bring in a cadre, large numbers of individuals, and sit them down and poll them and survey them and have them identify in your particular market what it was that they wanted your radio station to be covering. In news, in information, in talk shows, because ascertainment was a part of how you identify what your public affairs and public service departments would be required to do. Most people don’t even know that at one time all radio stations had to have public service and public affairs departments and their schedule for the upcoming year was determined by ascertainment.
Arenstein: I did not know.
Hughes: And you had to keep a public file. The public file was open to the public 24/7. Someone could show up at 2:00 in the morning, drunk, and say, “I want to see your public file.” And you had to open up your public file. And your public file was your ascertainment documents but also any type of communication that you had with your listeners. All of that was done away with.
Arenstein: Absolutely. My next question then would be probably to the detriment of the public.
Hughes: Absolutely to the detriment of the public. Absolutely. No question about it. I mean, that’s what people complain about. You have a small group of individuals deciding what’s going to be covered in the news. You have a small group of individuals—the days of a reporter convincing their assignment editor that they’re on to something—OVER.
Arenstein: Unless it gets a lot of clicks on the Internet.
Hughes: Unless it gets a lot of clicks on the Internet, exactly. And then, by then, every news outlet, everybody, knows about it. But it used to be you sniff out stuff, OK? And it was from talking to a community contact. We had a big scandal in Washington years ago. A woman named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for a story about the heroin problem in D.C. I was so upset—and that’s when I was on the air—I went to the Graham family, I went to Milton Coleman, who was at that time in charge, her editor. And I said, “The reason I know that this is not a true story is because I’m in that community and under no circumstances would any heroin addict mother waste her heroin on an eight-year old child.” But I said, “More importantly, let me ask you this. If that reporter actually saw a drug dealer shooting heroin into the veins of an eight-year old, why didn’t she grab that child and run like hell?” I said, “Because that’s what my community is all about.” Well, everybody was like, “Oh, no, she’s won a Pulitzer Prize, why don’t you give the sister some support?” The interesting thing, the ironic end of this story, I was at lunch with Milton Coleman the day she confessed to it being a fake. He and I were having lunch. Back in those days we didn’t have cell phones. They came to the table, told him he had an emergency call from the Washington Post and he never came back to the table. Within hours, I knew why he never made it back to the table. I was mad because I had to pay the bill…
But I had told him. I had told Katherine Graham. I had told Donald Graham. I had told the whole Graham clan. I had told Lolly. I told everyone. “This is not a true story because I have that connection with our community.” But everyone believed that a heroin dealer, standing in front of a heroin-addicted mother, was shooting an eight-year old up. I was like, no. No way.
Arenstein: Now you have a—I won’t call it an empire, you told me not to do that, fair enough. But you have a large company, a relatively large company compared to what you’ve had years and years and years ago.
Hughes: And miniscule compared to our competitors.
Arenstein: Fair enough, fair enough. But still a public company with a certain amount…
Hughes: Still the largest of the African American entrepreneurial adventures into the communications industry.
Arenstein: Fair enough.
Hughes: Comcast is an empire.
Arenstein: But a company with some size. How do you stay in touch with your consumer now? How do you do that? It must be harder.
Hughes: No, it’s different. Because in the digital age, we have online surveys going on every day of the week. This is what I’m saying; I think it’s so important. I think it’s a mistake that we’ve made in the radio industry. I think the cable industry is far more sophisticated on this issue than the radio industry is. You have to ask the people that you’re trying to serve, be of service to. The people who listen to you, the people who watch you, the people who interact on the Internet with you. You need to find out what’s on their minds and some of the old boys and now some of the old girls in the network make the decisions and then pass them down. “This is what we’re going to do.” Well, to me that’s not being of service to…” I feel so grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to have an interaction with the community that produced me. I don’t ever want to forsake that. So we do it differently now than we used to, like the ascertainment used to be forms that you filled out. You brought people in, you gave them lunch, you asked them questions. Now digitally. And like I said, then you commission other special research but also information. But also we’re so active in our community. What we lack in resources compared to our competitors we make up in elbow grease as my grandmother used to say, OK? We’re out there in the community. I have an employee who used to facetiously—he was the promotions director—he used to call himself an ambulance chaser because the minute we hear there’s anything going on the community, we’re out the door. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re in the division that would normally service that. Everybody would go to see what’s going on. And talking to people: we have all these various functions. We interact with our audience so what we lack in resources we make up in service.
Arenstein: OK. So let’s talk a little bit about TV One. I think in the last interview you told us that you were walking across the campus of U of Penn when Alfred was getting his MBA and he told you what?
Hughes: That we were going to take the company public. And I just stopped dead in my tracks. I said, “Take the company public? No, we’re a family company. We don’t want Wall Street telling us, you know, what to do.” And Alfred said, “Mom, we’re in a game where you either grow or you go.” I said, “I’ve got another suggestion. How about we just pay off the stations that we have?” He said, “And then how do you grow? Where do you get the revenue to grow?” I said, “Well, once we no longer have debt we have to service, we can use that money to…” He said, “Mother. It doesn’t work that way.” I said, “Well, I know that but I don’t know if I want to be a publicly held corporation.” But because we were public we were able to come up with the $140 million that we needed to finance TV One. TV One was not in a diversity initiative. It was just a straight cash initiative.
The Roberts family are very, very, very sensitive to diversity but they’re also even more sensitive to the bottom line.
Arenstein: OK. That’s fair, that’s fair enough.
Hughes: They’re great entrepreneurs. OK, I mean Brian has definitely followed in the footsteps of his father. Incredible business people. Incredible business people. And so at that time, they had to do certain things under the banner of diversity when they wanted to buy NBC Universal.
Arenstein: There were conditions.
Hughes: There were conditions. Back when we entered the game, there were no conditions. So they were like, “All right, so what are you bringing to the dinner table besides an appetite?”
Arenstein: OK, and here we are in 2016, TV One is doing pretty well. Is it where you want it to be? What do you want it to be going forward?
Hughes: I want the combination of all my various assets to be to the African American culture, experience and community what Univision is. I think that Univision is just incredible. We presently combine, all our assets combined., reach on a weekly basis 82% of the African American community. I want 100% and once I get to that 100%, I want to be able to really do some things that I really lack the resources presently to do corporately. I look at the incredible work that Comcast does. I look at the incredible things that Univision is able to do. When you have scale, when you have that level of scale, in addition to everything else, the costs come down because it’s like McDonald’s. They didn’t have to worry about the pricing because they sold so many that the pricing became irrelevant. And that’s what I really want. I want to be able to have enough scale to really have a direct impact on certain things starting off with education, because I do believe that information is power. And I use education and information interchangeably.
Arenstein: Now, shifting gears slightly, we learned, I think in the previous interview with Alfred that you’re doing a little bit of television production.
Hughes: I am, I am.
Arenstein: Tell us about that.
Hughes: I am. Number one, let me just say thank God, thank God, because usually at my age, they’re trying to get you out of the television business and I’m just now getting through the door. My first movie that has been given a green light to become a series, I happen to know the CEO…
Arenstein: What’s his name again?
Hughes: Peddle a little influence. And it’s called “Media,” and it’s about black folks in the media business.
Arenstein: Now where did you get an idea like that…? It’s so farfetched.
Hughes: Thank you. Exactly. Now that we’ve gotten a green light for it to be a series, I want to really bring in some historical information. Frederick Douglass was able to do what he was able to do because he published a newspaper called “The North Star.” I mean, the communications industry has been key. Ida B. Wells—you can go all the way back. Frederick Douglass was a slave and he knew the importance of the communications industry in terms of information is power, the dissemination of information. That story has never been fully told. So I want to talk about—this piece is not about Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins. It’s about all of the generations of black folks who have been involved and the problems they have and still encounter. Johnson Publishing was just recently sold and Johnson Publishing just opened the door. It created the black celebrity. The only pictures being taken of black folks when John H. Johnson came up with this idea were mug shots of the police department. Nobody was showcasing black excellence, black accomplishment. The reality is you can’t count on another culture to get your story right. You’ve got to do that yourself. No matter how sensitive or how informed or how well educated a person from another culture may be—and sensitive to your culture—there’s still certain nuances, there’s certain idiosyncrasies, there’s certain ways of saying things and doing things that only are understood by the people who are living it on a daily basis. So that’s what Media the movie, an original movie for TV One is about; it’s our largest budget to date and it has a cast that is just absolutely positively the very best. God really blessed me with putting these individuals together because there’s quite a large ensemble and everybody brings their “A” game. I mean, it was so inspiring to me to watch actors during lunch break rehearsing their lines as opposed to getting something to eat. I’m looking for, when is lunch coming? And they’re like, “No, I don’t think I’m going to do lunch. I’m going to rehearse.” Practicing with each other and feeding off each other.
One of the things they say will keep your mind and body sharp is learning something new. And I am now learning the cable movie industry business and I love it. I still don’t understand how I can run a 24-hour, 7-day a week radio station with 15 people and before you even get to a movie, you’ve got 15 credits. When they run the credits at the end, OK, I’m like, “Oh, my God.” I’m still running around saying, “What does this person do, what does that person do?” I mean, so many, so many it takes and it’s hard for me to adjust to the fact that I can deliver a message. Oftentimes it’s as potent as a movie with one person. And I need 150 people to do a movie. Or a television show. Or you know it’s like, “Oh, my goodness.” I’m still in this learning process and it’s so invigorating for me.
Arenstein: The cable industry.
Arenstein: Tell me about—you’re relatively new to the cable industry but you’ve got a few years under your belt.
Hughes: We’ve got a decade now.
Arenstein: You’ve got a decade. What are your impressions of the cable industry as a whole?
Hughes: I think it’s come a long ways. I think it’s growing. I love the fact that each year I meet more and more women executives, women decision makers. I see the diversity but it’s interesting because the cable industry is not like the broadcasting industry. Most people who own or run broadcasting facilities grew up during the Civil Rights Era or had some type of connection. That’s not true of the cable industry. It’s a big difference in the cable industry. But the diversity that it offers in terms of programming, oh, my goodness. How wonderful! I mean, right now with the Olympics going on, how wonderful it is to get various perspectives to tune into something. And everything from A to Z is available in cable. The broadcasting industry had limitations in terms of and one of my favorite shows recently in cable has been people living in the wilderness in places like Alaska and—
Arenstein: Yes, yes, I like those, too.
Hughes: Oh, my goodness, how inspirational. The other night I watched a gentleman who was putting up a smokehouse and it fell and he’s got a concussion and he’s still working. I said to myself, “I’m not complaining about anything anymore because if he doesn’t do what he’s got to do to prepare for winter, he’ll perish.
Arenstein: Exactly. It’s a great show.
Hughes: Those shows—I’m from Omaha. And in Omaha, in the summer, it’s 110 ° and in the winter, it’s 100°, it seems like, below zero. And so it’s a different mentality when you struggle with Mother Nature. Because Mother Nature does not play the environment, cuts no slack, an equal opportunity oppressor. When it’s cold, it’s cold. And you’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to think. The wisdom that goes into individuals who’ve mastered—you know, we forget, we get spoiled living in New York City or a Denver, Colorado, or a Washington, D.C. We forget that there are tens of thousands of people who every day when they get up, their number one priority has to be preparing for the future. We kind of rest on our laurels, OK, all right, these people have to think. And the skillsets. This same show where the gentleman got the concussion, another gentleman built a knife because they needed a knife to slaughter—built his own knife. I was like, “Why don’t you just go to the hardware store and buy a knife?” Because there is no hardware store…so only through cable could I bounce from that to the next night watching the Olympics. To watching C-SPAN cover something to an all-music channel. So much information, so much diversity. I love that and I’ve watched it grow by leaps and bounds and I’ve watched the competitors now come. Because the competitors saw how popular, how popular this choice, these options. Like I said, when we first came into the cable industry, the two options for black folks were BET and TV One. OK? Now just about every cable channel has got at least one black show on it, all right? Like I said, I’m so thankful for the opportunity for people of color to have these opportunities. At the same time, it makes the competition awful steep. I mean, “Unsung” now has been copied by BET and everybody who’s in the black lane because “Unsung” hit on an age-old question that people had: “Whatever happened to them? Whatever happened to Cathy Hughes? Whatever happened to…?” That’s all “Unsung” is. “Unsung” tells the story of what happened to these people. And people love that because like I said, it’s just human nature to wonder about somebody you liked or knew or a song you sang. Whatever happened to them? And particularly in the black space now, again, in the world of white entertainment, “Jersey Boys” has played almost as long on Broadway, almost as long as “The Lion King,” so you know what happened to the Jersey Boys. Their stories are told and there’s been numerous movies. But in the black space “Unsung” answers that question. Whatever happened to?
Arenstein: Well, Cathy, we know what’s happened to Cathy. And we’re so happy you were here today to tell us. But thank you so much.
Hughes: Seth, we should do another couple hours. I like this.
Arenstein: I’d like to. I loved it. This was fun.
Hughes: I haven’t really told you how I really feel because I was just being quiet and introverted. Thank you.
Arenstein: It was like pulling teeth. It really was.
Hughes: Let me say this seriously: what an honor. What an honor to be here.
Arenstein: Right back at you.
Hughes: I thank you very, very much.
Arenstein: So many years on the radio. It’s so nice to talk to you.
Hughes: Thank you. And it’s so nice to see you in person and sit down for an opportunity to actually chat.
Arenstein: Thanks to the Cable Center.
Hughes: Absolutely. Thank you, Cable Center.
END OF INTERVIEW