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How Cathy Hughes became the first Black woman to lead a public IPO

Breaking barriers in the boardroom and beyond

by Victor Adetimilehin
Cathy Hughes

Cathy Hughes, born Catherine Elizabeth Woods on April 22, 19471, is a renowned American entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive. Her journey from humble beginnings to becoming one of the wealthiest Black women in the United States is a testament to her resilience, tenacity, and business acumen.

Early Life and Career

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Hughes found her love for music at a young age. She began her career in 1969 at KOWH, a black radio station in Omaha. Her successes there prompted the Howard University School of Communications to offer her a position as a lecturer and as assistant to the dean of communications, and worked at Howard University’s radio station, WHUR-FM. There, she created the “Quiet Storm” radio format, which revolutionized urban radio. 

Building a Media Empire

In 1973, Hughes was named general sales manager at WHUR-FM in Washington, D.C, and by 1975 was hired as the general manager of the station. Under her guidance, WHUR-FM, which had been struggling along with $300,000 in annual sales revenues, increased its annual revenues to more than $3.5 million.

In 1980, Hughes and her then-husband Dewey Hughes founded Radio One by purchasing AM radio station WOL 1450 in Washington, D.C. Despite facing initial financial difficulties and even losing her home, Hughes’ fortunes changed when she revamped the station to a 24-hour talk radio format, making it the most-listened-to talk radio station in Washington, D.C.

Under Hughes’ leadership, Radio One grew substantially. The company acquired radio station WMMJ in 1987 and WKYS in 1995. 

Going Public and Achievements

According to Forbes, Hughes made history as the first Black female founder to take a company public in 1999. When Radio One (now known as Urban One) went public, Hughes became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. This landmark deal made her the first African American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. 

She contributed significantly in owning 70 stations in 22 markets by 2007 for radio one, with an annual revenue of $456 million in 2017. The company’s market value hit about $1.8 billion as  the stock grew over its offering price on NASDAQ within seven months.

The company used its stock to expand, acquiring 12 stations from Clear Channel for $1.3 billion and other stations in various cities. These acquisitions helped Radio One’s reach significantly, allowing it to offer package deals to advertisers looking to reach the urban market on a national basis. 

In 2004, Hughes and her son transformed Radio One into a multimedia empire. They launched TV One and acquired ownership of 51 percent of Reach Media Inc. In 2008, Radio One created Interactive One, operating about 70 online assets. As successful as the company was it faced challenges too, such as selling $150 million worth of radio stations in underperforming markets in 2006 and dealing with the financial crisis in 2008

Today, Urban One Inc. is the largest diversified media company primarily targeting African American consumers, reaching  approximately  82 percent of black U.S. households. The company operates in radio, television, and digital media. Its various offerings include a television network, a radio group, a digital division, and a creative content agency.

Revenue, Net Worth and Accolades

As of February 2022, Hughes’ estimated net worth was $460 million, making her one of the richest women in the media industry  with her wealth primarily derived from her groundbreaking work with Radio One and her creation of digital outlets like Urban One. With ownership of 65 radio stations in major cities, she is the owner of the largest black radio chain in the nation. Additionally, she  has earned over $5 million per month as a radio personality over her 25-year career. She has also been gained  more wealth through her documentaries and various honors, including an honorary doctorate from Sojourner Douglass College and being named ‘Keepers of the Dream’ by the National Action Network in 2016.

Hughes has received numerous awards and recognitions throughout her illustrious career. In 2012, she received the NAACP Image Award – Chairman’s Award, given by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to individuals who have achieved notable success in their field. The Giant of Broadcasting Award presented to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the broadcasting industry, and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the New York City Mission Society

Giving Back

 Amongst any other things Hughes is  a also a  philanthropist. Hughes established the Cathy Hughes Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to African American students pursuing a degree in media and communications. Hughes is a strong supporter of the Piney Woods School, an African-American boarding school established by her grandfather in 1909.

Huges foundation named after herself and her son Alfred C. Liggins III contributed $1 million towards the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And in 2016, Howard University, where Hughes once worked in broadcasting, renamed its School of Communications to the “Cathy Hughes School of Communications” after the media mogul donated $4 million through her foundation.

Hughes’ journey  and  persistence  has not only made her one of the wealthiest Black women in the United States but also  helped reshape the entertainment and  media  industry as whole. Her creative ideas have  made her an icon in  the industry, inspiring many to follow in her footsteps and aspire for more.

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