'How I Built This': Cathy Hughes On Radio One
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, next we're going to hear about how a young girl who wanted to be on the radio grew up to build a broadcasting company worth $400 million. To introduce her is my colleague Guy Raz, who is host of the TED Radio Hour and also host of a new podcast called How I Built This. He's been coming into the studio to talk about some of the stories he's been hearing. Hey, Guy.
GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So just start by reminding us what the podcast is about.
RAZ: Well, David, the show is about what it takes to start with an idea and build it into a business, you know, more or less, from nothing. And over the next year, we're going to be speaking with incredibly successful entrepreneurs, like the woman we're about to meet, Cathy Hughes.
GREENE: OK, cool. Tell me about her.
RAZ: Well, she's one of the wealthiest self-made African-American women in America. She's the founder of a media company called Radio One. It has dozens of radio stations across the country. And as I've been doing these interviews, I've been looking for, like, common qualities among many of these entrepreneurs. And one of the most obvious ones is confidence, right?
GREENE: It seems like something, naturally, you'd have to have to be that successful, yeah.
RAZ: Right, we think of confidence as something that, you know, if you're lucky, you build up over time. But with Cathy, it seems like she's one of those people who was just born with it. Like, even when she was little, growing up in Omaha, Neb., in the 1950s, she knew she would be on the radio one day.
CATHY HUGHES: I grew up in a household where there was six of us - one bathroom. I did my radio show every morning in the mirror with a toothbrush, and everyone thought at that time there was something wrong with me. I mean, there are no black people in radio, particularly no black women.
GREENE: So how does she break into the business?
RAZ: Well, she first works at her college radio station at the University of Nebraska, and then through a series of twists and turns, she ends up in Washington, D.C., at WHUR. Now, this is the radio station connected with Howard University, a historically black college.
And she eventually becomes the station manager there and basically puts that radio station on the map, in part, by launching this incredibly successful music format. And it's so successful, in fact, that it spreads to cities across the country, but it actually starts in Washington, D.C.
HUGHES: The city had a sizable population of single, unattached young people who still wanted to feel good about a Friday night or a Saturday night, even if they were by themselves. So I structured a format called The Quiet Storm.
GREENE: The Quiet Storm - so it's kind of the soundtrack for single people on the weekends who wanted to have some fun.
RAZ: That's right, and beyond. I mean, this was in the mid-'70s. And, basically, it was a radio format that was really chilled out music, sort of soothing songs from people like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole. And it was all hosted by, like, a silky voiced DJ. And this really gentle vibe, you know, turned out to be a really popular antidote to things like disco and Top 40. So as that format spread to other places, it also boosted her station into one of the top-rated stations in D.C.
GREENE: Which must have been a great thing for the woman who really launched the format.
RAZ: Right, exactly. And eventually, she was hired away to manage another radio station in D.C. And here's where things get interesting for Cathy Hughes because this new station that she was managing ran into some trouble.
And one day, there's a meeting where the investors ask Cathy if, you know, if she'll work with them to get more financing for the station. And she says, yeah, sure, I'll do it, but you have to give me a share in this company.
HUGHES: And one of the members said to me, if you think that you're smart enough to own a radio station, you should do it for yourself. He was being facetious, but I took it verbatim, seriously. I was like, oh, my goodness. I should do it for myself.
RAZ: And as Cathy tells it, she kind of takes his comment as a dare and decides, you know what? I'm going to go out and buy a radio station. She goes to 31 banks. They all say no. They won't give her a loan. The 32nd bank gave her the loan. She buys the station, and that begins a long journey into what would eventually make Cathy Hughes a major media mogul. Her company owns more than 50 radio stations across the country today.
GREENE: That's a cool story. Thanks, Guy.
RAZ: Thanks, David.
GREENE: NPR's Guy Raz - he's host of the new podcast How I Built This. It features interviews with dozens of successful entrepreneurs like Cathy Hughes. And you can hear Guy's entire conversation with her at guy.npr.org.
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