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. It’s August sixteenth, 2016. We’re in a very steamy New York City at the offices and studios of TV One, and I’m here with Alfred Liggins, who is the CEO of TV One and Radio One Incorporated. Alfred, it’s great to have you.
ALFRED LIGGINS: Good to see you.
ARENSTEIN: We’ve waited a long time to do this. I’m glad we’re doing it.
ARENSTEIN: I would’ve rather done it in the winter when it wasn’t so warm, but I’m glad we’re here.
LIGGINS: I’m happy to be here as well.
ARENSTEIN: Good. So let’s talk about your beginnings. Where were you born?
LIGGINS: Omaha, Nebraska.
LIGGINS: Yeah, heartland of the United States, and born there in 1965 and we moved — my mother and I moved to Washington, DC, in 1972 when she went to work in the school of communications of Howard University.
ARENSTEIN: Oh yes, and that’s where she met Tony Brown?
LIGGINS: That’s correct.
LIGGINS: I was seven years old and she — Tony Brown was the first dean of the school of communications, and she worked for him I think initially as his executive assistant.
ARENSTEIN: OK, so you had radio in your blood, let’s say. Let’s say that.
LIGGINS: I did. I did because not long after — I don’t remember the exact year — but not long after we got to Washington, the Washington Post company had donated an FM radio station to Howard University. It was WTOP-FM. They kept the AM and they renamed it WHUR-FM. They needed people to staff it, and so my mother went there to be I think their first sales manager, and so I spent a lot of time at the radio station. So after school I would come to the radio station. You know, we weren’t in a position — she wasn’t in a position at the time to have after care and we didn’t really have any family in the area for me stay with, so I would go to — pretty much every day after school.
ARENSTEIN: Oh wow, and tell me how you went from Washington, DC, out to the University of California?
LIGGINS: Actually, I — after I graduated from high school, I moved out to Los Angeles. My goal was to get into the record business. So I only went to UCLA in their extension — yeah, it was basically their adult education night classes. So, yeah, that was simple enough, you just fricking enroll and so I did that for a short period of time and I — my first job was actually selling direct mail advertising for GTE, and then I eventually not far after that got a job at a gospel record company called Light Records, which no longer exists, but it was home to Andraé Crouch and Sandra Crouch. Actually, Andraé recently passed away, but they actually got me the job there, and I think the Hawkins family was on that label and a number of other people — Sandi Patty, Ralph Carmichael — actually it was Ralph Carmichael’s label. So that was my entrée into the music business, and ultimately wanted to transition to secular music because that was gospel music, and so I pursued a job at Motown through a contact of our family’s, and I thought I had a job lined up and I learned my first lesson of employment and first lesson of business and that was never quit the job you have until you are absolutely certain of the job that you think you are going to get. So I quit ahead of — I was told I was going to get the job — I quit ahead of actually having the job — somebody sending me paperwork and saying, “Hey, fill out this and what’s your social security number and a firm start date,” and ultimately the job at Motown Records fell through, and so at that point in time I had already quit, I was unemployed, I had gone through the money I had saved up, and so I was in Los Angeles, California, 20 years old, about to turn 21, and — and then I’m unemployed, so I figured it was a really good time to consider going back home to work at the family radio station.
ARENSTEIN: OK. Talk to us a little bit about WHUR and about what the radio station was like in those days.
LIGGINS: Look, I was a very young kid, but it was interesting because it was an interesting — yeah, FM radio was not what it is today. Yeah, it was really just starting to come of age and the music that was being played on FM at the time was the avant-garde stuff that you wouldn’t hear on tradition AM radio, which we’re still doing top 40 and things like that, and so WHUR as I remember when they first started out played a lot of jazz.
ARENSTEIN: Yes, they sure did. Yeah.
LIGGINS: Yeah, they played a lot of jazz, and so I would be playing around in the record library where they had all these 45’s back then records and you’d see Thelonious Monk and you’d see Grover Washington Junior and the Blackbyrds and all these different musical artists, but I believe over time it morphed into a more contemporary sound. In fact, my mother created this music program called “The Quiet Storm,” which was basically R&B love songs at night and became a huge hit in Washington and became a huge hit across the country, but the personalities on the radio were young people and — heck, my mother was young — and I got — I would sit in the studios while they would do their shows, and I would go to concerts at night with my mother and the staff, and so I was — I’d be around Patti LaBelle and Labelle at the time, or Earth, Wind, and Fire, or Roy Ayers. Yeah, I got to interact with all kinds of music stars of the time, and it was quite an education. It was really, really, really fun, and it helped me, I think, find a desire to be, yeah, in that business over time. I thought I wanted to be in the record business. I’m glad that I didn’t end up going into the record business as a career, but it certainly drove that passion.
ARENSTEIN: OK. So your next stop was at where?
LIGGINS: So I was in Los Angeles. I worked for GTE, then Light Records, and then thought I was going to Motown, and then I came back — I joined the company in — full time — in 1985. So I guess I was 20, not 21, when I came back. I came back just right before Christmas and I started in January as a sales rep, and we had one AM radio station — WOL. My mother did the morning show. My mother and then stepfather had done it in the past, but he had moved out to Los Angeles with — he was going out to Los Angeles, and I went as well with him. So when we went out to LA, we were kind of there together, and he stayed in LA — I came back. So I started as a sales rep and the station was African-American-oriented talk, and the station always prided itself on being the voice of the black community. The slogan was, “Information is power,” and my mother was actually able to really carve out a significant place for herself as a voice of the community and for the station as a voice of the community. We — when I first went back to the — to work at the station, we were at 1680 Wisconsin Avenue, which is in Georgetown, so a really nice area. That’s where the previous owner, who was Egmont Sonderling, had the station, but we couldn’t afford to be in that location. In fact, by the time I had moved back from California, my mother was living in the radio station. She had taken half of the space for the — that the office had and made half of it an apartment for herself, and that’s where I moved back into when I came home, and we subsequently couldn’t afford that space, so we ended up moving the radio station down to Fourth and H Street Northeast, which was probably the roughest neighborhood in Washington, DC — and drug-infested, crack wars and stuff going on, gangs — and she bought a little building on the corner and the community helped refurbish the station, and she was in there painting and people were digging out the cellar to put the studio in, and we moved to the hood and that’s where she came up with the idea of radio vision. So you put the studios in the front of the building behind a big glass window. I advocated that the glass should be bulletproof. I figured if the [Cariad?] had bulletproof glass, the radio should have bulletproof glass, and that’s where we were for a very long time, and the community embraced us. The radio station was for the black community; the programming was such that we were an advocate for things and for thought and really carved out a significant position. We didn’t get great ratings at all, very small ratings, but we were also ultimately able to — I was able to sell it. I was able to sell the significance of our audience in the station to advertisers. A lot of the black-owned advertisers or the black-owned businesses would definitely use us because they listened to the station, and we would be able to tell people — as opposed to just running a 60-second commercial “Hey, come to whatever car dealership,” on a talk radio station if your mother is — if your personality — it just happened to be my mother — is doing the morning show, you can actually talk about why the audience should go to this car dealership or to that restaurant and we were able to start to build some real revenue. The company prior to that had really struggled, but the two years after I got back we started to build some real revenue. I think we got the revenue on the radio station up to a million and a half dollars, and it had been well below a million prior to that, and that success, that lift — the team of her doing the morning show, me in the sales department, revenue going in the right direction — gave our investors at the time enough confidence to support our efforts to find an FM frequency so that we could actually compete with the rest of the larger companies in the marketplace, and we were able to finally secure an FM radio station that we could afford. We chased a lot of stations, but none of which we could afford because they were big numbers at the time, but we found this little radio station — WMMJ-FM, 102.3, low wattage, it was just 6,000 watts, but it had a favorable in-city tower location, so it covered the things that we needed to cover really well, and a larger company owned it, but they were buying a bigger FM, and at that time you could only own one FM and one AM in a market, and so they had to sell the small FM, and so we bought it for seven and a half million dollars, and five years later it was a raging success with a new format that we had put on it and we were making a lot of money and it was the springboard for us to grow the company.
ARENSTEIN: OK. Then you had a responsibility as Radio One’s operations chief, too. You got away from sales.
LIGGINS: No. Well, I was a sales person, then I became the sales manager, and then — from the very beginning, because my mother always treated me as a partner, I was always involved in sort of the brain trust of operations, but as I became the sales manager and then as we got into FM radio, I started to assume more general management responsibility and somewhere along the line, I think probably about 1992 when we bought our first stations outside of Washington in Baltimore — WWIN-AM and FM — is when I kind of started to move into a president’s title, but even today sales is the lifeblood of a media organization and in radio it’s particularly a lifeblood because, unlike television, you don’t really make your core content on music radio. The records companies create it and you play it and you dress it up and, yeah, you’ll put together a morning show or an afternoon drive show, but talk radio is different. You’ve got personalities, and that’s what our AM was, but when we bought the FM and it became hugely successful from a rating standpoint — a revenue standpoint — it was because of the music that we were playing, and so it was really all about sales and marketing, yeah, and it’s 100 — unlike the cable business, where people pay you for your content, you get an affiliate fee — it’s 100 percent advertising based in radio, so I always stayed exceptionally close to the sales process and that was my primary focus. It was kind of like the operations and programming were, yeah, were necessary for me to control in order for me to maximize sales, and so that’s how I made my transition, and so we bought our first stations in Baltimore in ’92. Deregulation came, so now you could own two FM’s and two AM’s in a market, so we bought one of our competitors in Baltimore, and then — in 1993 — and then in 1995, we bought our major competitor — one of our major competitors — in Washington, and we actually expanded into the Atlanta market for the first time. Then actually Atlanta deal was this little radio station that was actually moving in from a little town south of Atlanta called Griffin, Georgia, and it was also lower-powered. In Washington, the big stations had 50,000 watts. So WMMJ was a class A and it had 3,000 watts at the time. In Atlanta, the big stations are 100,000 watts, and this station was 25,000 watts, but it also came in from the South, and I brought it to the board of directors and we had just bought our big FM competitor in Washington, refinanced, gone in a bunch of debt, and some members — some of the investors didn’t want to take the Atlanta risk. They thought it was a distraction and couldn’t tell much about it. They knew the signal wasn’t going to cover the whole market, so they didn’t want to do it. So I said, “OK well, I want to do it separately,” and me and one of the board members at the time — who was also an investor — went off and created a separate company — Radio One of Atlanta — and so even though we ran them together, Radio One of Atlanta was a separate company — it was my company — and so we built out the Atlanta cluster over time, but 1995 was a big year in terms of expansion. We bought WKYS, which was a legendary black radio station in Washington, DC — used to be owned by NBC and it got sold to a group of minority investors who subsequently ended up selling it to us, and then we went into the Atlanta market. Our Atlanta — that little radio station in Atlanta, which is WHTA now, was — bought it for four and a half million dollars and I think five years later it was making five million dollars of cash flow a year — turned out to be a raging success as well, and ’95 — 1995 was also the year that I ended up graduating from business school. So a couple years before that I decided to go back — I saw an ad in the Washington Post for Wharton’s executive MBA program, and I really liked the idea of being able to go to business school on the weekends and not have to quit your job, so I explored it and I didn’t have a college degree. I had gone to UCLA at night for a few semesters, and then when I came back to Washington, I went to the University of the District —
ARENSTEIN: U of DC, yeah.
LIGGINS: — the University of the District of Columbia for about a year at night, but I dropped out of that because I was working full-time selling advertising. I was making a lot of money, you know; it didn’t really make a lot of sense for me, but — so I didn’t have a college degree, but when I saw this ad it made me curious, so I explored whether or not you could actually get into that program without a college degree and found out that you can actually get in to any Ivy League business school if you do what everybody else does and that’s take the GMAT and fill out the application and write your essays and do your interviews and get references and they match you up against everybody else coming in to the — applying for a position, and I had a lot of business experience at the time — I was running a company by this time — and they accepted me. So I graduated in 1995, so ’95 was a big year.
ARENSTEIN: Can I ask you —
ARENSTEIN: You had all this experience at this point, and then you go in to Wharton. Did you learn a lot at Wharton or did you teach the teachers? I mean, you were running a company.
LIGGINS: I mean, you know what — look, the problem with higher education, in my view, today is that it’s mostly theoretical and not practical. So did I learn anything at Wharton that helped me run a better radio company, and the answer is no. I actually didn’t meet anybody at Wharton that turned out to be a great business contact down the line, however, it’s funny, there was a woman in my class who ended up marrying, and she’s married to Rahm Emanuel now. His wife, Amy [Rule], was in my business– and I remember him coming — yeah, they would have weekends when you would bring your significant other, and I remember him coming up one weekend. He wasn’t Rahm Emanuel that he is today but — so that — other than that, I have no idea where — actually, there’s one other guy that I remember and I just actually got an award from the Wharton Club in Washington, and the guy introduced me — this guy named Mike Micalico — and he was in my class, and he was a service man. He was in the service — very smart, very buttoned-up guy — I think he’s gotten into the private equity business and has done quite well, but he was a friend, but — and I recently saw him about a year ago — but I’ve had very few remaining contacts from my experience, and no, I didn’t learn anything that helped me grow the business. You know, being in business helped me figure out how to grow the business, but it was a very worthwhile experience. Hugely, because school for me is about critical thinking teaching, disciplining your mind problem solving, so, yeah, I learned stuff about taxes and supply chain logistics and macro and micro economics and production functions, but when you’re programming FM radio stations and selling advertising, none of that stuff comes into play and even less of that stuff comes into play when you’re making TV shows, as we do today, so — and none of that stuff matters when you’re actually negotiating with a cable operator over affiliate fees. (laughs)
ARENSTEIN: Yeah. No, I briefly dabbled in journalism school, and I found that — what I learned was that all these things I had been doing for years and years had a name; they had various names in the books. That’s kind of what I — and yeah, I agree, it was a good experience, but you don’t really learn anything particularly practical.
LIGGINS: No, and I — and like I think ultimately I went back and got the degree sort of as a — because it’s not like that degree was going to help me advance inside my own company, which is why a lot of people that were there did it, because they figured it was going to give them their next career opportunity. I think I did it so much because I didn’t have a college degree; at least I had a degree and it was an OK place to get one so I did it.
ARENSTEIN: It’s a great place.
ARENSTEIN: So you’ve mentioned TV — making TV shows and dealing with cable operators — this is about the time that the idea for TV One was —
LIGGINS: No, well, we —
ARENSTEIN: A little bit early, right?
LIGGINS: Yeah, so ’95 was the first big expansion. We bought some things — we bought Detroit, we bought a station in Philadelphia, and we went public in ’99, and when we went public in ’99 that gave us — it gave our investors an exit. Some of them sold out in the IPO, it brought more capital in the company, gave us a currency, and then we started to acquire more radio stations. It was about ninety– it was actually just before ’99 — it was probably about ’98 — ’97 or ’98 — that I started thinking about getting into the cable business, because BET was founded in Washington the same year Radio One was founded — 1980 — and so I had a front row seat on sort of the trajectory and the success of BET and knew that it was a good business. They — I forgot what year they went public, but they also went public — they went public before we did, so I had an idea of their finances — they’re a public company — but I also saw how important they were being the only television network for African Americans at the time. And being in the radio business, I knew a lot about segmentation to demographics, and I knew that there was a huge swath of underserved African Americans that weren’t into music videos and so being already in the media business, I wanted to be in the television business, so I kept trying to figure out a way to do that. My initial approach was I met a guy named Alan Dannenbaum, who was working at Comcast at the time, and I met him through just a mutual friend. There was a guy that I knew around Washington that I was social with and I was talking about this idea. He goes, “Look, I have a buddy who works at Comcast named Alan Dannenbaum,” and so he introduced me to Alan, and so I met Alan, and Alan was working at Comcast for a guy named Tom Hurley, and I went — and he got — and he took a meeting, and I — we owned stations in Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington, and that was an overlap with Comcast, and I had this idea of creating a local, regional network that would draft off the same thing that BET did. You know, we had radio stations, so we could play music videos, but we would do more, and I’d sell the advertising locally as well with our radio stations, and so I went up and made this pitch. It wasn’t much of a pitch; I didn’t really have anything. I didn’t realize that the cable industry didn’t really work that way at the time, although there are a number of regional channels now — most of them happen to be sports networks — but that was the very first idea that I had about how to get into the cable business. And then there was more deregulation in radio. Everybody was public, you know. We were trading at 20 times — we went public at 20 times cash flow – This was also at the height of the internet bubble — and Bob Johnson, who was a personal friend, family friend, we also had common — the people invested in Radio One were also in business with Bob in a number of things — a guy named Herb Wilkins, they owned a D.C. cable franchise together. And Bob was thinking of things to do, and Bob was thinking about buying radio stations because clear channel bought AM/FM radio at the time and they had to spin off a bunch of stations, so — and the chairman of the FCC at the time was also Bill Kennard, African American — also was our first lawyer, and actually I think he was my first lawyer — wasn’t my mother’s first lawyer, but when I started in the business and running it and doing deals, Bill was our lawyer at the time. So Bill made it a point to tell Lowry Mays and Mel Karmazin and all these people that, “I want you to sell stations to minorities,” so they knew that there were going to be a bunch of stations that had to trade hands and there was potentially — and minorities would have a leg up. So Bob was thinking about buying radio stations, and it was about that time that he actually tried to convince me to merge Radio One and BET together, which I remember the conversation sitting in his office, and I said, “Well, I’m not sure I want to sell.” I think he was trying to convince me that, “Hey, you can be number two,” and somehow number two didn’t sound as good as number one. I don’t know. (laughter) I was like, I don’t know, there’s something about being an entrepreneur, right? Doing your own thing, and I said to him — I said, “Well, maybe I want to get into television business — into the cable business,” and he said to me that “You can’t,” and I’m like, “What do you mean, I can’t,” you know, and he said, “Because my partner, John Malone, controls all the big cable systems and you’re not going to get carriage.” Now, I knew who John Malone was; I’d never met him ever and, in fact, even when I went in to see Alan Dannenbaum and Tom Hurley, I never met Brian Roberts, right? So I didn’t have any access at all or know much about the cable industry, and so — and Bob was right. He was like, “You’re not going to get into the cable business,” and so he was going to go buy some radio stations, so all of a sudden he potentially was going to be competitor, and it always made sense to have a radio group and a television network together if you — because my ultimately vision was to build a black media company fully integrated and like MCA Universal was. They had music, they had TV, you had division of movies, and I think Bob wanted to do that as well. Eventually, he ultimately shied away from buying radio stations, and we bought a bunch from Clear Channel — I forgot, it was like 20 something radio stations. It was a 1.3 billion dollar deal. We paid the most money; you know, we were doing it with an inflated currency at the time. We were — we paid cash, but we were selling equity at high prices, and it was a big deal — it’s actually a Harvard Business School case now — and that doubled the size of the company overnight. Now economically, in retrospect, I should’ve listened to Bob and merged because I would of made a lot more money, but I’m not quite sure that I would have been as happy, and I ultimately did figure out a way to get into the cable business because both Bob and John Malone sold to other people, and there was a new landscape created where Comcast was the big player and I ultimately did get an opportunity to meet Brian Roberts and Ralph Roberts and Steve Burke and Amy Banse, and they decided they would partner with us, but if I would’ve made that deal with Bob, I’d have a lot more money, (laughs) but not have been as happy.
ARENSTEIN: Right, OK. So here it is — money or happiness?
ARENSTEIN: So tell us, what was the — some of the ideas behind TV One? What did you see that BET was not doing that you wanted to do at TV One and that, more importantly probably, the market wanted?
LIGGINS: Yeah, look, at that time, BET was the only game in town, and it took them awhile — I mean, when they first went on the air, they weren’t twenty-four/seven, and they needed low-cost programming, and music video– MTV was doing – wow — music videos were free coming from the record company, and so they made a big business out of being the black music video channel, and they were the only advertising outlet, and people watched them, and then they added other stuff. They added news and things like that, but, so, yeah, the biggest void was, hey most of black America — no, I don’t want to say most — not everybody in black America is into hip hop and scantily clad women and — because hip hop music was taking off then, so it was it was becoming the zeitgeist of popular culture, and there were a lot of disenfranchised African American viewers. You know, most of them were black women that were over the age of 35, and we knew from the radio business that you can have a young-targeted radio station and an older-targeted radio station. You can lean a station male, you can lean a station female, and we had the most success with female-leaning adult targeted radio formats. So my original idea that I went to Alan Dannenbaum and Tom Hurley at Comcast with was, “Hey, I’m just going to — it’s going to be me too,” right, but when — by the time we got to Comcast and we were public, we had a good size market cap, we had resources, we had access to a lot of money, I had refined my thought process more to, it needs to be positioned and you need to be a network that was positioned differently, offering things that BET did not, and the mantra was, “No music videos. No infomercials.” And, look, at the time, I remember being in Miami in my condo there for the millennium and watching BET and they had this countdown show that was on and I was looking at the production quality of it, and I thought it was a retro show. I thought this was like a throwback from the early days, and I realized — and it was interesting because it was a video soul countdown and it was Donnie Simpson who now — we — works with us in Washington, but I literally thought it was a show that was 20 years old because the production quality was so bad. And I remember saying, “I’ve got to get in this business because I can do better than that,” And it wasn’t — look, it’s not — I think Bob was a pioneer brilliant businessman, but, look, you get away with what the marketplace allows you, too, right, and if you can have music videos for free be the base level of your programming, make a lot of money, I don’t think he had any obligation not to make as much money as possible. He was in business. We think about it differently at Radio and TV One. You know, we always have and that comes from my mother, right. We much more view the platform as our contribution to society and our interaction with black America, because otherwise we would’ve sold a long time ago. I would’ve sold to Bob, right?
LIGGINS: I could’ve sold m– I could’ve sold our radio group to Scott Ginsburg, who was the founder of AM/FM radio. He ultimately sold out. I could’ve sold to Mel Karmazin, who wanted to buy us, but we always liked what we did and felt like we had a mission, and so when I saw that, I was like, “I can do better,” you know, and I’d never been in the television business before. That was a real watershed moment for me, and so I just — I seriously pursued getting into the business, and the idea was to come up with an alternative because I knew there would be a — I knew there was a marketplace for it, and I knew that black adults would be — would welcome it, and ultimately what I didn’t know is when we launched TV One in 2004 advertisers flocked to it because they were tired of having one option, and so it was the right concept and the right time, early enough still — not too late — it was getting there, but not too late where cable operators were still launching new services.
LIGGINS: They were tamping down what they were willing to pay for those services, but they were still launching some new services, so about the time that we launched, Comcast launched I think Sprout, they launched a network called G4, SiTV, which is now Nuvo, launched, Gospel Music Channel, now UP, launched not long after that, so there were new networks that were getting launched. NFL Network launched not far after that, and I’ve got to say that of all those networks launched about that time save for the NFL Network, right? They’ve got a decent brand —
ARENSTEIN: Sure. I’d say so.
LIGGINS: — so I mean — TV One was the most successful of all of those by a lot, and so that’s how we thought about the positioning of it. That’s how we still think about the positioning of it today, but I can tell you when we went on the air in 2004 — the kind of black programming that existed, particularly on BET and then we came. I believe the TV One competition changed the entire landscape for African American viewers because BET is a million percent better today than they were. They didn’t really invest much in original programming back then; they do a lot now. There’s a lot of black programming on networks like VH1 and OWN and WE and BRAVO, and, in fact, the networks had abandoned at that time a lot of black shows, and we were able to secure the rights to lots of classic black sitcoms because none of the other cable channels were showing them, and that was it. I remember the Comcast pitch because they were talking to a number of people. They were trying to get into programming. Not get into programming; expand their programming portfolio. They had more distribution; they wanted to build it up, and so they saw the African American space as something that was underserved, you know.
LIGGINS: It wasn’t rocket science. Everybody knew that there was just BET, and they were talking to a lot of the usual suspects — Russell Simmons, and the hip hop guys, and they all wanted to come in and do a better BET, and then I said, “No, that’s not where it’s going to be successful.” But it’s really kind of hard fighting star power, right, and so it was a beauty pageant — it was a horse race — but I think ultimately I think two things won the day for us. One I think that we were a family-owned company. You know, mother, son, Comcast is a family company, and literally Comcast is a pretty flat organization, so we met Amy Banse, who was doing programming investments at first, but when we were going in and making a pitch, it was — there was Steve [Burke] and there was Brian [Roberts] and Ralph [Roberts] came in, you know. I just — I mean, I think David Cohen was in for — I mean, they’re hearing the TV One pitch, right? I’m sitting there — and so I think the — I think that family-owned connection was important. I think the other part, because they’re great business people, is unlike the celebrities that we were talking about we were willing to put up — we were going to bring all the money. They eventually invested 15 million dollars, but there was 130 million dollars I think raised, and we brought the other 115 — 74 — and we would’ve put up the whole 130. They bought up their interest. We gave them a big stake just for the distribution deal, but Radio One put up 74 million dollars and I had some initial venture capital investors, some who had invested in Radio One prior and then another gentleman by the name of Dennis Miller, who was at a new VC fund at the time, and he had seen the opportunity in the space, and he was more rabid about trying to take advantage of the opportunity than I was to the point he actually wanted to launch the cable network without a distribution partner, and I was like, “Mm…don’t want to do that.” But anyway, so we put up the money, yeah, and celebrities don’t generally like to do that, so I think those two things won the day and said, “OK, you’re a good partner,” and it turned out great for everybody. You know, they made a lot of money on it, although a lot of money is relative. They made many, many, many, many, many multiple times their investment, and we got into the cable business and quite frankly our diversification into the cable business and success of TV One saved our company because the radio business started to decline, ad revenue and all traditional mediums — television– I mean, excuse me, actually broadcast television. The ad revenue and broadcast television is anemic. It’s really retrans fees that saved that business, but the newspaper business, eh, the magazine business, and the radio business is held up better than all these other traditional mediums, but, it used to be a 20 billion dollar business and it went down to 15 billion. You know, now it’s probably about 17 and it didn’t grow for 10 years, and so — actually, it didn’t grow for eight years, and then it went down, and the fact that we had TV One and it was successful really stabilized us, helped us, because we had paid a lot of money for radio stations. It really helped us make the turn.
ARENSTEIN: So let’s get to today, a little bit today, maybe a little bit of tomorrow as well. You look at TV One now, and it’s got a good recognition — people like Roland Martin are well known — rightfully so. What’s next? What — where do you want TV One to be in a few years, you know?
LIGGINS: So, look, TV One was created as the alternative, right? So it needed to stand for something, not just entertain. It needed to be — every– this always drives me crazy. Everybody who wants to get into the TV business always — and particularly black TV business — says, “I want to offer quality programming,” and then once they get into it, they realize it’s expensive and they end up going and buying the reruns that are cheap and nobody else wants and it’s the thing they can afford. But TV One I think has really fulfilled the promise that it started with in being a meaningful channel for African American adults that offers quality programming, so today, I mean this is 2016, we are going to make 14 original movies. I mean, we’re in 2016, the network is 12 years old, and this is like our third year of original movies. Fourteen is the most, but we started with six and then we went to 10. We do the only daily news show for African Americans. We’re the home of the NAACP Image Awards that cost us millions of dollars to produce that. It was on broadcast. We have an award-winning bio-doc series called, Unsung that chronicles the lives of R&B music stars, and now we do Unsung Hollywood, so we do the unheralded black actors and actresses and the stories of the movies or the TV shows. We do original sitcoms, and so I do think that we have fulfilled our promise to bring quality, original programming to black people. We don’t trade as much — like every network does the celebrity thing. I don’t think we trade as much on that as BET has in the past, and I think that you’ll see TV One continue along this trajectory in continuing to fulfill that mission and just up the level. So we haven’t done an original drama to date, and you know what? Black dramas today — this is 2016 — Tyler Perry is killing it on OWN, but you know what? They’re the only ones doing black drama, right? And what it’s telling you is black-oriented soap opera like dramas — Empire on Fox does really well. Tyler Perry’s doing well. We haven’t done it yet, but we have one in development. Actually, it’s being produced by my mother. It’s really good, and it’s going to start out as a two-hour movie and we’re going to — I really like it. She’s really proud of it, and I think it’s really good. Ironically, it’s about a black media family. Not us, but that’s like the next evolution because they’re more expensive to make, but it just shows the level commitment of us continuing to try to move the needle and raise the bar, particularly when we’re not operating with the kinds of resources that a Discovery has to fund OWN, or Viacom has to fund BET.
ARENSTEIN: I understand. An industry question now. Is the cable business a good business to be in at this point?
LIGGINS: Well, look, you’re talking to a guy who’s been in the radio business, so in comparison to the radio business, it’s an amazing industry, and when I say — yeah, I want to be — I want to be clear because the radio business is a good business, right, but it’s just not as good —
ARENSTEIN: As it was.
LIGGINS: — as it was, and it’s not as good as the cable business is. It’s always great when you can actually get paid for your content. It’s great when you can actually own your content, and so radio is 100 percent ad-supported and we don’t actually own the base content, which is the music, but as I said before, it’s a good business. It’s free, it’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, people still listen to it in droves, so it’s a great compliment to what we’re doing. The cable business, while it’s not as good as it has been because I think the pay television market is saturated. Pay TV prices are very expensive now, so people are looking for other alternatives, and they have many other alternatives. I think that it will settle out, right?
LIGGINS: Even when I didn’t have any money and I was 18 years old and I got my first apartment in Los Angeles, I ordered every cable channel that they sold, right? You know, now I was a millennial then — because I wanted the variety and I think that programming will always be sold in some form of bundles, some larger than others, and so I think it settles out. You know, we’re going to go through a tough time now until you get there. I don’t know what digital video ultimately ends up doing — it’s going to be big — but the fact of the matter is video costs a lot of money to make, and if the only way you can ultimately monetize it is selling advertising that consumers can block when they want to, that’s a business model that doesn’t actually allow you to create the most high-quality programming. So I think there’s going to be a day of reckoning with online — on digital video as well, so content will ultimately be king and there will be many distribution avenues. And for us, the way we see it — those of us that are in the cable business now, it’s important for us to position ourselves and be those content producers that then ultimately monetize the content in whatever way the consumer is interacting with it and using it, so yeah, yeah, I believe it’s still a good business. I don’t believe the content of the media business is going to go away, it’s just how are consumers receiving it, who are they paying their subscription to, and we’re really not just in the content business — I mean, the cable business, we’re in the content business, right? You know, and the cable operator — the cable operator — the guys that own the systems, they’re clearly not just in the video business. The vast majority of their growth and their revenues are coming from other revenue streams, and so I’m grateful that we were able to get into the industry and I think it’s got a bright future.
ARENSTEIN: Last question. Is there a story about the cable industry? Is there something that people don’t know about the cable industry that you’d like them to know?
LIGGINS: A story about the cable industry or a story about us in the cable industry?
LIGGINS: Either? Actually, yeah, I do want to tell one funny story. I don’t like to spend a lot of time pontificating about the industry as a whole because the industry has been good to us. I mean, I haven’t — I hear a lot of people who want to do what we did, complaining about the cable industry. The operators — “They won’t carry me. They won’t do this.” You know what, we didn’t have — I didn’t know John Malone. Hell, I didn’t know Brian Roberts, right? We went in and we told our story to Pat Esser, to Steve Burke, and they liked the story and they took a chance on it, so when you hear about people saying that the cable industry is insular and you can’t get in, every industry — every big industry is that way. We were successful because I think we put together the right business proposition at the right time backed by the right resources and we told the story in the right way. So I’ve got nothing negative to say about the cable industry at all. In fact, the cable industry does more for diversity than the broadcast industry does. I mean, the broadcasters don’t have a week like Kaitz. You know, they don’t have any — they have — that I know, they have very few. They certainly have a foundation — I mean, they don’t, right? Yeah, so I’m a cable fan — industry fan — so I’ll tell a story about me in the cable industry and my introduction into it, and it was part of our pitch to Comcast. So I originally started the pitch, I had a little PowerPoint deck. This is before everybody was using a lot of video and laptops and all of that. So I’ve laid out the network and what it was and I’m pitching it. I think I’m in a meeting with Amy Banse and I’m going through the deck, and then she says, “OK, great, yeah,” she goes — and this was before the last big one. She goes, “You know, we think that we might want to do something, but you’ve got to — we’ve got to see what — we’ve got to see what the cable — what it’s going to look like. What’s the programming going to look like,” because I described what the channel would be. So I went back through the deck and I started showing — I said, “Look, I just told you, this” — she goes, “No, we need to see what it looks like. This is television. We have to see.” So she was basically telling the radio guy, “I need a video dude,” you know, (laughs) because we didn’t make sizzle reels in radio — I mean, this is like — I guess in radio we had spec tapes, but that was just for the commercial. The client wants to hear what their commercial — I was like, “If you want to hear what the radio station sounds like,” and we turned it on. So I guess in the cable business — or the cable programming business — you needed a demonstration video, and so I was like, “OK.” Light bulb went off, you know. Dummy, it’s a television business. So I had to go out and create a reel for what the vision for TV One was, and Johnathan Rodgers, who was our first CEO, I was talking to him at the time. He put me in touch with a guy out of New York who had done a lot of reels for him at Discovery, and that was a cool process of actually putting together this network. We did mock shows and stuff like that, and it ended up being a pretty damn good reel, but that’s a funny story. It’s like, “No” — it’s like “What’s it look like?” I said, “I just told you.” (laughs)
ARENSTEIN: That’s great. Well, Alfred, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
LIGGINS: I appreciate it. All right. Thanks.
ARENSTEIN: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW