Women Make Waves: Radio During the Black Arts Movement and Beyond

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 16:  Radio One Founder and Chairperson Cathy Hughes attends the Living Legends Foundation's 13th Annual Dinner at the Westin Times Square on November 16, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)

Dyana Williams

Dyana Williams is one of the most prolific radio deejays of the Black Arts Movement and beyond. From WHUR at Howard University to WBLS, New York City’s legendary black radio station, Dyana has touched her listeners with her love of black music. She’s known as The mother of Black Music Month, which she helped found with her ex-husband Kenny Gamble, a record producer and award-winning R&B soul music songwriter. As a radio activist, Dyana campaigned for a month that would recognize the wide-reaching influence of black artists on American music. Behind the mic, she dedicates her work to perpetuating black music and culture. The relationship between the listener and the broadcaster is not one she takes lightly. She strives to bring her listeners music, plus. With an emphasis, of course, on the plus.
Dyana Williams:   The Black Arts Movement was definitely a prolific time for radio personalities and recording artists and the music of the time reflects it. From “The Last Poet” to “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five,” “Sweet Honey and the rock.” It was the birth of “Earth, Wind & Fire,” with songs like, “Keep your head to the Sky.” The messages were empowering and long-lasting and they survived into this period of time in the twenty-first century. So you had the rise of poets, like Nikki Giovanni, who did ego tripping, she did a whole album and it was played on black radio in heavy rotation. Same thing with artists like, um, Leroy Jones, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez. These were all the leaders and the pioneers of the Black Arts Movement. But it spilled over into radio, and radio was a primary resource for information, inspiration for the African-American and other communities.

Danielle Fox: In my class seminar, The Worlds of Ntozake Shange, we’ve talked a lot about how the Black Arts Movement was very gendered. I’m wondering how you weigh in on this and about your experiences.

DW: Well, you know, it was reflective, the Black Arts Movement was taking place in a time in America that reflected what was going on. Sexism was big, So you have the Civil Rights Movement, you have the women’s lib movement, which meant women wanted equality with men in terms of payment and recognition for their work rendered. And look, it’s the twenty-first century and it’s still an ongoing battle of inequity. So during the Black Arts Movement, all of these things were informing the Black Arts Movement as well because you could be in the Black Arts Movement and be against the war. And be in the Black Arts Movement and want more liberation rights, recognition and justice for women.So consider, like I said, all of these things were going on at kind of the same time. The anti-Vietnam war, the war against drugs, the Civil Rights Movement. And these things were converging and sometimes, they were bumping into each other, and then they were merging, but men were still the dominant voice in our society, and our world. Period. To this day, women make it work, but men take. And they take the credit for the work sometimes. And, I’m not saying men don’t do any work because they do. But men are in the key decision-making position in this world. Period. And it was no different in the Black Arts Movement even though there were prominent women in the movement. They were not the driving force per say, but I say definitively women were, they were the fuel, you know. Men might have been part of the tank, but women fueled it. They fueled it. As we do in most other areas of life. Not just with children. Period. You know, we make it happen. We’re the shit.

DF: It’s been really hard for a lot of DJs to carve a strong identity for themselves because of the formatting movement, so I’m wondering, how have you established yourself as such a fierce and regarded radio personality? Cause I think, I read an article where you said, “The ’70s were spent really laying the foundation down and establishing myself as a force to be reckoned with,” which I think is awesome, and I’d love to hear you expand upon that.

DW: Wow. Sounds like something I would say. Sounds like me. So I am a product of the Bronx, Harlem, Bayamon Puerto Rico, and uh Culpeper Virginia, which is where my daddy was from. So I had the southern roots, I’m latina–my mother is full-blooded Puerto Rican–and I lived in Puerto Rico as a child for a period of time. My first language was Spanish. My upbringing was in a black, middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. But it was a black neighborhood, people who owned their homes. And I give you this context because I want to paint the picture of where I came from. To be able to substantiate my blessings. And the beautiful, ongoing, magnificent life and career that I’m having. That I came from those roots. So my father–we used to listen to WABC. The Good Guys. I loved radio. Radio was a dominant force in most black homes. And my daddy would blast the radio. And I also heard WWRL. AM signals for most black stations were not the strongest, but I still heard them. So I heard James Brown, Say it Loud, I’m Black Enough–I heard all this great music growing up-I believe that being a product–because I was born in 1953–and so I grew up as a small child in the ’60s. In the Civil Rights Movement, and I saw the images of protest, I heard the stories of Martin Luther King while he was still alive, speaking, you know, the great march on Washington. I witnessed history. And I was the product of parents invested in me. They kept me informed. They taught me to be hungry for information. And all of these things went into me becoming a radio personality. And me seeing my position on the microphone as more than just playing music. Sure I did that–I played music and I played great music, and I’m talking about a time where people where playing instruments and really singing! There was no auto-tune. There was no faking in the era of music I came up with. I came up with Otis Redding and The Staple Singers and the Isley Brothers, and you know, Aretha Franklin, Coming out of a Church, Sam Cooke. I am a product of Jimi Hendrix. I’m Buddy Miles. I am The Last Poet. I am Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. I am all of that. So when I had the opportunity as we talk about the juxtaposition of the black arts movement, we talk about the women’s lib, the evolving of feminism. I came out of that. I graduated from high school in 1971, the year that Marvin Gaye released his seminal, signature album–What’s Going On. And that’s what informed me. That kind of thinking. I was a young woman, but I was concerned about the war. I was concerned about pollution. A lot of the same problems we have today still. But at that time, I had a big Angela Davis fro, we were very conscious. We were saying it loud. We were black and proud. And, like I said, I grew up in a home where my parents stressed pride. I was informed of a home of great culture and  with a father who loved black music, and loved radio. And instilled it in me. It was just drilled. I heard it all the time. Music was integral and black radio was integral to our family. So no surprise to my family when I went into it because I knew a lot about music, and I had an appreciation for it, as I still do. And more importantly, I love serving the community. I believe in super-serving the community. So I’m the kind of radio personality that uses the microphone to give information. So, you know, it’s music, plus. But for me the plus part is critical, and I’ve always been that kind of radio personality. So that has lent to my longevity, it has informed my style and approach, for which I’m known–I’m known for this–it’s my signature, it’ll be my signature until I’m dead. You know what, to be on the radio still, I started at WBAI. I started on the radio there, I think it was ’72.

DF:  Yeah, I think it’s been over four decades for you.

DW:  Oh no question about it. ’72 is when I was on the air at WBAI. And at City College at WCCR–our carrier current–I did a radio show there, so I’ve been on the radio a long time. I’ve done internet radio. I’ve done syndicated radio. I hosted my own syndicated radio show years ago. I’ve been doing it a long, long, long, long time. And it’s a blessing to continue to do it. I took a break when I had my first baby. But after that with the other babies, I just kept, I would have the baby and go back to work. And get on the air and say, “Yeah, his name is Soledine, he was eight pounds.” And this is social media. Social networking and stuff, so radio was, that was it.

DF: So to backtrack just a little bit, because I’m curious about when you started at WHUR in ’73, I know your show was called Ebony Moonbeams…I’m wondering, what kinds of artists did you play?

DW: Ebony Moonbeams was a very unique radio experience. It was my first terrestrial J-O-B. I was making 6,000 dollars a year, and you couldn’t tell me anything. I was like, “I am getting paid to be on the radio.” I was the second woman on the air at WHUR. And I was hungry, ambitious, very eager. And I used to play everything from Miles Davis to George Clinton Funkadelic. And you have to remember, the times. These songs were coming out. They were being released. It was not like now music–you know old school music–no this was, it was brand new to music. I remember, I would go from playing maybe Donny Hathaway “Someday we’ll all be free” into Miles Davis, “On The Corner,” something like that, and then go into you know, “Parliament.” And then maybe come back and play Grandmaster Flash. It was a mix. Initially Ebony Moonbeams was on at night. And Ebony Moonbeams was taken from a TV show that I produced in New York when I was at WCCR at City College at our former school. I did a cable TV show on teleprompter cable. It was based in Harlem on 125th street–the public access channel. And I produced an hour-long cultural art TV show. And I named it Ebony Moonbeams because everything was black, you know, ebony, back then, again, the whole pride of blackness. And I was walking down the street with a friend one day, and I saw a spotlight shooting through a full moon and I looked up and I was like, “Whoa, look at that. It’s a moonbeam. It’s so beautiful.” So I put it together. I put Ebony Moonbeams to articulate the spectrum. You know, the beauty I related to. I’ve always related to a full moon. And it’s gravitational pull. And that’s what I thought my show was. It was an array of music, interesting interviews with compelling people, and then my personality. I mean, I found an air check where I was doing some poetry, honey. Dyana poetry. Okay. And I went right back to the music, and I was like, Oh, girl, you were doing that. I was 19. I was a baby! I was a baby.

DF: Can you remember anyone you interviewed while you were there?

DW:  Yeah so I mean, I interviewed Angela Davis, all kind of people. All kind of people. And my show moved from nighttime to daytime, it became so popular, they took it off nighttime, and then I did 10am to I think it was 2 pm. Yup, so I did mid-days. I had Marion Barry, you know who was a councilman and later became the mayor, all kind of people.

DF: So when you started at WHUR, isn’t that the year that Cathy Hughes became General Sales Manager?

DW: You’re good girl. Absolutely correct. Cathy Hughes was when I arrived at WHUR, she was there, and she was in the sales department, and she did elevate to the General Sales Manager and then ultimately became the GM–the General Manager–after I left and went to WBLS in New York in ’75. But that’s where she and I met, and it was love at first sight. We became girls. And we became good girls. And we became good friends, She is the founder of Radio One, TV One, anything with a one in it. I tell the world–look at the dollar bill soon and see her face on it.  WHUR–it was a breeding ground for great talent, and she’s one of the biggest success stories to come out of, out of WHUR, and I will raise my hand as well, but there was several other people who came out of that era, that period, who went onto great successes and other things. So I’m honored to, I’m a graduate of WHUR, I went there for undergrad, and then I did my grad-work at WBLS 107.5 with Frankie Crocker. I graduated from Frankie Crocker University.

DF: Can you tell me a little bit about WBLS, and after that I’d also love to hear about being the first African-American woman rock DJ at WRQX.

DW: First of all, I was going back home. I grew up in New York, so this was an opportunity for my mother and father to hear me daily. And the people I went to school with, the people I grew up with, my teachers–whoever. And it was high cotton honey for me to go to WBLS. The woman who I patterned myself after stylistically–Vy Higginsen— was the first woman on WBLS. When I listened to her, it sounded like she was smiling, it sounded like she was speaking directly to me and that I was sitting in her living room, her kitchen, and we were just listening to music and talking about life. And that became my stylistic approach to radio and still is to this day. I really, when I’m on the air, I’m like, “How you feelin’ today? You good? What’s going on with you?” Even though I know, and my listeners know, I’m talking to hundreds of thousands of people at one time. But WBLS was a breeding ground for the best radio personalities under the very best radio programmer of any genre ever: Frankie Crocker. And he was the sun, we were the planets`that revolved around Mr. Crocker and his programming style, which became WBLS at that time was the number one station, was the top stations in New York City, and so considering that New York is the number one market in the country for television and radio, it was a significant thing for me as a young woman. I had just turned 21 when I moved back to New York to WBLS. A lot of people I went to school with were looking for jobs and couldn’t get them. And meanwhile, I had dropped out of college, had great success in DC, but here I came back, victorious, to my hometown, and that’s it. Most people I know want to work in New York. It’s the number one market. And I felt honored. Even though I did overnight, I was doing midnight to. I didn’t care. I was making more money than my mother and father combined salaries, I was living very well, I had just met Kenny Gamble, who became the ultra love of my life. You know, I had a fine man, who had his own record company, he was producing The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and Billy Paul, and Jerry Butler, all these great people, and I was on the radio, and I was like, uh, uh, honey, Jay-Z and Beyonce step aside. So I felt validated, I felt humbled, super grateful to be in that environment to learn from some of the best, not just Frankie, but my other colleagues, Luciano, Lamar Renee were still there. Although she and I didn’t interact very much. She and I were the only two women on air. And Ken Spiderweb. Sadie Holiday. These were some of my colleagues. Honey, we could go into any club, we were invited to every A-list party. All the artists wanted to talk to us, to be with us. We were breaking the music. So yeah it was great girl, it was beautiful. I was young, in love, doing what I wanted to do, in my hometown, you know I’m smiling quite broadly. Everybody should have that opportunity in life to do what they want. You known to do what they want. And when you do it under the veneer of love, of the passion of romantic love, it enhances the experience.

DF: Why did you leave WBLS for WRQX?

DW: I left to have my first baby. I took a year off, had my first child. Gamble and I had our first baby Caliph, and then I was used to working. I just loved radio. And I started looking around, and after a while, I got the job at WRQX. My program director knew that I had been in New York at WBLS, and it was such a regarded radio station, it gave me a cache, and this was a part time job. I was on only on the weekends. I had, had my second son, Salahdeen, but I wanted to work, I love radio. And this was a great opportunity, and I didn’t know much about rock music, but I was like “Hey, I’m a radio personality, I can do any format! I can do classical music!” That’s what I used to say to myself and I’m glad I had that kind of attitude because I wouldn’t have gotten the job probably and girl my first show was five hours and I had to program my own show. I’m talking Led Zepplin and I mean. I almost collapsed. I remember almost falling out of the studio because it was riveting. I didn’t know the music that well. I mean I knew the James Taylors and that kind of soft rock, but I didn’t know the heavier rock, and we played a mix. But it was a blessing. So the staff was really white, and here I was this latina, afro-rican woman walking up in the joint, but I had cred, I had BLS, I had New York number-one-market credibility, and that conveyed, and it worked. And I enjoyed that job. But Yeah girl! I can rock, I can rock with the best of them!

DF: What are your favorite rock bands?

DW: Rock bands let’s see. I love The Eagles, I used to play The Eagles. I know that’s kind of like–I’m not a heavy rock girl. I like the softer side of rock. My favorite, favorite–I don’t even know if they should be called rock, cause they’re like a hybrid–is Steely Dan, but we played Steely Dan on rock stations, so. Yup, I love, I’m a Hendrix, Buddy Miles, that kind of rock. And black people don’t get their props when it comes to black rock, the creation of rock. Lil Richard, Chuck Barry, I like that kind of rock. Bo Diddley. That was all rock, and it was assimilated by the British artists and American artists, and they created, you know, a hybrid of it. But the founders of rock are black. Muddy Waters, the hybrid of blues. All of that. And British and white rockers took it someplace else. And some of them credit black artists, like The Rolling Stones. They named themselves after a Muddy Waters song. So they know. They knew. Look, Mick Jagger knows. Eric Clapton knows. They know. And they cite black artists as the originators.

DF: Yeah, and going off of that, something I haven’t gotten to ask you about yet, you’ve been a media activist over the years, ultimately earning you the title of, ‘The Mother of Black Music Month,’ so I would love to hear you talk about that and I also, I had watched an interview with you where you were talking about getting the presidential proclamation signed… if you could talk about that a bit, that would be great.

DW: My ex, Kenny Gamble, went to Nashville, which is called Music City, and he was extremely impressed with the Country Music Association. And what they were doing in terms of a development of a place. And he wanted to replicate that in Philadelphia. More importantly, he wanted to replicate the concept of a music organization for black music. So he was one of the co-founders of the Black Music Association. And we were a couple at that time, so I was very involved, very active in the national as well as the local chapter. More in the local chapter. And then he came up with the idea with Ed White and myself. We would talk about the establishment of a period of time, like black history month, where we could acknowledge, and celebrate the achievements of black people behind the scenes, as well as the folks who are well known. The artists, the musicians. And so, the birth of Black Music Month. And then many years after The Black Music Association went out of existence, I started a foundation, an organization called The International Association of African-American Music, and we produced it during Black Music Month, and I wrote president Clinton, asked him to host a reception, much like Jimmy Carter had done in the 1970s. The first Black Music Month event was held on the lawn at the White House, with president Jimmy Carter. At that point, President Clinton’s people came back and said, well we see that President Carter hosted this event, and all the people that were there. But he did not find a presidential proclamation. So from our vantage point, we’re like, “Okay, go get some legislation and come back to us, and we’ll do something.” I mean really, that’s how it went down. And I put some good, comfortable shoes on, and I went lobbying on capitol hill. I didn’t know what I was doing, other than I knew I was passionate about–I wanted people to sign off and say okay. I wanted someone to help me get legislation from congress that said June is Black Music Month, and it is one of our greatest assets, a national treasure, one of our greatest exports. And it’s a multi-billion dollar business. Those are my talking points. And so here this little girl from the Bronx and Harlem–I got senators to sign up. I got congressmen to sign up. I got congressman Chaka Fattah to introduce it into congress, and the bill passed. And then I went back to the Clinton administration. I went back to the White House, and said,”Okay, I got the legislation, it’s called the African-American Music Bill.” And they were like “Okay. We’re setting up a meeting with you and the president in the oval office.” And I went to the White House, and I met with Bill Clinton, and he gave me props, so that was meeting with him in the oval office. My second one took place sometime later with The Isley Brothers. The White House called and said, “The president would like to meet with you, but by the way, can you bring The Isley Brothers.” And I was like, “Okay.” I had two private meetings with Bill Clinton in the oval office during his administration. So this is something my ex and I are passionate about. He and I are still partners in Black Music Month. Last year, I did an interview with him for Billboard Magazine. And, you know, we were talking about Black Music Month, it’s relevancy still after all these years. And the reality is that Gamble is 73, I will be 63 soon. You know, we’re up in life now. The kind of energy and vitality you have, we don’t have it quite the same because we were on the front-lines. We were fighting, pushing, and not that we aren’t anymore, because my ex-husband is a freedom-fighter extraordinaire, and he’s an amazing man. I mean, he’s the most amazing person I know. Other than my mama, it’s him. And you know, he has eleven charter schools, he has all kinds of businesses. He employs hundreds of people. I have great respect for what my ex-husband has done with his money that he made from the music industry. How he recycled it into the very neighborhood he grew up in, and has transformed it. And me, same thing. I’m still president of the Philadelphia chapter of the recording academy–The Grammy’s. I have about almost a thousand people in my chapter. I’m still very engaged in music activism, and all of this came as a result of my relationship with Kenny Gamble, our almost decade-long relationship, and intimate, romantic, family, marriage. But now we are still partners in life in terms of our activism and our perpetuation of black music and culture.

DF: So I was also wondering because I know that you also teach a lot, what advice do you have for young people looking to get into radio?

DW: Pursue your passion if that’s what you want to do. When I first started in radio, people used to say to me, oh it’s male-dominated, it’s so tough, it’s so competitive. Well that went in one ear and out the other. If I had let that–no for real–if I had let that if I had let that bother me and stop me, I wouldn’t be having a 40-plus year, radio, TV, music industry career. Mmmm. Mmmm. I didn’t let it deter me, so what I say to young people is follow your passion. But I wouldn’t encourage to go into radio right now. Because I know so many unemployed radio people. Create a radio station, create a product. That’s what I say.

DF: What do you think about podcasting and the opportunities that provides?

DW: I think they’re great, too. I would say to young people, use the technology, use the internet to your advantage. And podcasts, you set yourself up as an authority, as a source of information. You know, create your following. Knowledge is power, and the more  information, or the more you have a force of something that motivates and encaptures other people, do it. And that doesn’t cost a lot. You don’t need a lot of resources to do podcasts. So use everything you have available to help propel your brand.

DF: I know you’ve been interviewed many times. Is there a question you’ve never been asked about your career that you think is important?

DW: Wow, I just can’t even think. For me to be lost for words, that is such a profound question that would require greater thought and time to respond to. But I’m good girl. It’s a joyful experience. I’m happy. There’s not much, I’m not leaving much on the table. When I leave a body here, it will be said I’ve lived a very full experience. And as far as radio is concerned, it has been the perfect medium for me. I tell you, I walk into the radio station still, Danielle, and I feel fortunate and I feel happy. That is just my environment. It’s like I’m living out loud. My boyfriend came to visit me recently and he saw this book—I’m on the cover of a book.

DF: What book?

DW:  Invisible Stars by Donna Halper. And when I got the book, girl, she had me on the cover! And I did not know she was putting me on the cover. I’m on the cover with legendary women. One of them being Oprah Winfrey. My man was like, “Baby you’re a cover girl!” What an honor to be on the cover with American broadcasters, because that’s what I am, I’m an American broadcaster, whose specialty, whose area of great interest and passion was black music, black culture. That’s just it.

Dyana Williams Music Playlist

Cathy Hughes

Cathy Hughes is the founder of Radio One, the largest African-American broadcasting company in the U.S. In the 1970s, she got her start at Howard University’s radio station, WHUR, where she launched the format “The Quiet Storm,” the most successful format in the history of urban radio. She, then, switched gears from music to talk radio. She intended to provide what was not available at the time: information from the nation’s capital from a black perspective. Today one of the most prolific radio executives and personalities, she stresses that she is still a work in progress. Cathy Hughes believes radio hosts have a responsibility to tell the stories that are most affecting their communities. And that her success can only be defined by how she uses her mic as a tool to serve.

Danielle Fox: What was it like working at WHUR when you first started as General Sales Manager?

Cathy Hughes: It was incredible being on the campus of Howard University because I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. So coming to Washington, DC and seeing an abundance of black professionals—doctors, lawyers, college professors, scientists, astronauts—this was a cultural experience for me as well as the start of my career path. Everyday was more exciting than the day before. Just absorbing the culture of Howard University, the citadel of black education.

DF: Do you remember any particular individual or professor who really struck a chord with you, maybe a specific conversation you’re still thinking about?

CH: Dr.  James E. Cheek, the president of Howard University touched me both personally and professionally, very deeply. Once he recognized my willingness to do whatever was necessary to be of assistance to the university, he invested a lot of time, energy, and resources in me becoming a competitive and successful manager of a broadcasting facility. I was the first woman in the nation’s capitol to be a Vice President General Manager of a broadcast facility. And that was after the door of opportunity was open for me that Dr. Cheek, the then president of the university, was willing to invest time and resources to help me be successful in turning his radio station around, but also in launching my career.

DF: Right, cause, one thing that I read, it’s really incredible, you’re famous for increasing revenue from 250,000 dollars to three million in just a year.

CH: It was actually about 18 months. The internet has editorial liberties.

DF: Oh, Okay.

CH: So it was about 18 months.

DF: Did you expect to hit that height? How were you approaching sales?

CH: Luckily because the station was doing so poorly when I took over—it was only billing like 250,000 dollars— the sky was the limit for me. I didn’t have a budget. Once I came in at three million that certainly became the barometer, that become the budget point for the future years because  what it exposed was the station’s revenue potential. And that had never been exposed before because no one had ever structured a sales strategy and put a plan in place.

DF: What did you learn managing the station at WHUR that you then took on to other stations later in your life?

CH: Oh, how to build a station, how to structure a sales presentation, how to hire and identify talent for on air. The whole nine yards. As I said, it was my experience at Howard that empowered and enabled me to be able to work for myself because I had done it without the risk for the bottom line.

DF: I also spoke with Dyana Williams, who describes you as a great friend and inspiration.

CH: It was great working with Dyana. Because Dyana still in my opinion is the best woman broadcaster—TV, radio, black, white, asian, latino, hispanic—she’s the best. She crosses all lines. The very best broadcaster I’ve ever heard on the microphone.

DF: What is it that she does that you think is so special?

CH: She takes it seriously. It’s a passion with her. It’s not an occupation, it’s a vocation for her. So we became great friends because we both absolutely, positively love radio.

DF: Something Dyana said you often don’t get credit for is launching the format The Quiet Storm with Melvin Lindsey. Where did that format come from?

CH: Remember I said Dr. Cheek invested in me and provided me with resources. One of the resources he provided me with was studying a summer at the University of Chicago, and I took a course called psychographic programming, and that course caused me to create a program, a format called The Quiet Storm, a format. The Quiet Storm format is the most successful format ever in the history of Urban Radio. At one time 483 radio stations were playing my format.

DF: Do you recall some of the first musicians and artists you played on air?

CH: Oh, Carmen McRae, Earth, Wind & Fire, Jean Carn, Norman Connors, Roy Ayers. Oh so many. I remember them as if it were yesterday. Natalie Cole, Nat King Cole.

DF: What did you hope the format would achieve?  

CH: It was format that would keep people company who were single, living a single lifestyle, but who wanted a romantic Friday and Saturday evening. It’s popularity was such that it expanded to seven nights a week, but it started as a weekend program.

DF: I’m going to switch gears just a little bit, for our class seminar been studying impact of the Black Arts Movement from 1965 to ’75…how did the movement inform radio—if you think it did?

CH: Anything that came into the entertainment industry would come into that umbrella. That ten-year period when anything black—film, black music, black concerts had a heyday.

DF: Do you think the movement was gendered?

CH: Oh, absolutely. It still is male-dominated.

DF: We talked about that a lot in our class seminar. I listened to a Pacifica radio interview with Shange and Thulani Davis talking about music in 1977, and Shange expressed that she…

[clip] The other problem is that music is such a male dominated thing, sometimes I resent having to even speak about it.

CH: It’s so true. Still. Absolutely still. The whole hip-hop and rap industry. You can count the number of females on one hand, who had any type of success, yet on the other hand, you can go on forever with the list of male success stories.

DF: Going back to your personal career, in 1980, you bought WOL and founded Radio One, which is now the largest owned African-American broadcasting company in the U.S., but at the time, life had presented you with some tough challenges. How did you find the strength to keep going? Were you ever afraid that your career had peaked at that time?

CH: No never. People see things from the outside and you see it differently when you’re on the inside. I didn’t see tough challenges. When you start something, there’s a start up period of usually three to five years. It took me seven. But I was never discouraged. I never felt like I was having a rough time. I just felt like it was taking longer than it should have, and one of the main reasons was because the American economy was in shambles. Interest rates went up to 26, 27 percent, so I was just patient and kept trying to plan my work and work my plan.

DF: You revamped WOL into talk format station, and hosted the Cathy Hughes Talk Show for 11 years.

CH: I did it because I couldn’t afford a talk-show host. My first format after I bought the station was talk and news except. Because I had always done music radio before, no one had informed me and I had missed the point that talk and news were the two most expensive formats to do. With music, you can have one person—a disc jockey—and they can do everything in the studio. When you have news or talk, it takes multiple staff people to research, to answer the phone, to cover the stories. So it’s a lot more expensive—it’s the most expensive radio format of all. So I did not want to give it up totally. And my lender said to me, you’re not growing fast enough, you’re not servicing your debt, you have to go back to music, and I refused to go back doing music. And one of them said to me, you can’t afford to pay a talk show host, so if you want to do a morning talk show, then you need to do it yourself. And that’s what I did.

DF: Why did you gravitate towards talk instead of keeping going with music?

CH: Because anytime you put a new station on the air, you do a format search if you’re wise. You find out what’s missing. And what was missing in Washington DC, the nation’s capitol, was news and information from a black perspective. There had never before been a 24-hour news talk radio station in this country from a black perspective. And yet there were numerous white stations that were just really beginning to get their legs and take off and soar. And I felt like since that was missing in a city that at that time was 72 percent African-American. And the citadel, again, of black intelligence. I mean, Howard University has been around since the 1800s. And so this was a highly educated, highly affluent and prosperous black community.

DF: Reverend Al Sharpton said you took the mute button off of black America, which is a very powerful statement.  

CH: That’s right because no one had given news and information from a black perspective. Right now, this police brutality issue—we talk about it everyday on my talk station. Every day we talk about an incident, somewhere in this country, where the police are acting more like vigilantes than they are as officers of the law.

DF: Because those issues are so often unfortunately overlooked by mainstream media.

CH: Absolutely, we index higher with those problems than other groups. We may be a smaller percentage of the population, but we are the overpopulation in prisons, arrests, okay, police shootings, beatings. And nobody was talking about it. I mean, how many times have you turned on your news  and seen a news story about a black child who was missing. I was honored that he would say that because that was precisely my intent—to shine a spotlight and to give a voice to issues that were plaguing our community. And also the other side to: success stories. How often do you hear success stories? You know, black man kills. H ow about black man who takes 12 years to finish college, working nights, okay. What about success stories? What about children who have reared themselves in the ghetto and have turned out to be doctors and lawyers, and politicians?  So it’s not just the mute button off of tragedies that we encounter in our community, but also taking the mute button off the success stories.

DF: Do you remember some of the key issues you were highlighting during those years?

CH: The same issues we have today. Employment, economics, housing, education. I mean, during the eight years of the Obama administration, it has become harder for black folks to vote than ever—it’s like before we got voting rights legislation passed. We’ve made progress, but we have not advanced.

DF: In an interview I read with you with Ad Age, you said, “Just because an advertiser reaches a consumer, it does not mean they have touched that consumer. There’s a big different between reaching and touching.” How do you think this message translates to your successes as a media personality?

CH: Credibility. Respect. Connection. Every community wants to hear what they consider the truth from their own people. And that was not occurring. Our people don’t just hear us from afar, they see us in the community working side by side with them to correct injustice, or make certain a community project is successful. They know us. They believe in us. We have a responsibility. I said many years ago, Catherine Graham was like a mentor to me, and she once asked me what I wanted to do with my career, and I said to her that I wanted to have the same level of relevance to my community as you have had to yours. And this was shortly after the watergate and she kind of teared up and said that was so beautifully put. I said you impacted not only your community but the history of the entire United States. I said I would like to be of that type of assistance to my people.

DF: Over the years you’ve been a media personality, but I think you’ve also been a media activist.

CH: Oh absolutely, I believe that that’s the main function is to organize, mobilize and uplift the community that you have been licensed. Now remember radio licenses are airwaves. Air belongs to everybody. Okay, and so, you have been given a special opportunity to make money with air because that’s what we sell. That’s how it comes to you. And I believe that carries a special obligation to give back to the community. That’s a very special, special blessing. All of media, in my opinion—be it electronic or print—has an obligation to leave the world in a little better condition. One of the things that I am right now seriously committed to is climate change. It’s like AIDs was several decades ago. People have their heads buried in the sand.

DF: I’m part of a few organizations on campus, and we talk a lot about how climate change is disproportionately affecting lower class communities and communities of color.

CH: Absolutely! It’s amazing. I was like do tornadoes have a thing against trailer parks. Why is it that they always are hitting the most vulnerable communities, you know?

DF: And also,  when climate disasters do hit, how different communities are portrayed in the media.

CH: Are rescued! Are rescued. Yes, absolutely. I believe that as a media broadcast entrepreneur, it is my obligation to disseminate as much information as I possibly can on issues that directly impact my audiences’ lives.

DF: I guess, a more philosophical question, you describe yourself as a “work in progress,” which for someone who is so successful, I’m wondering why you refer to yourself that way?

CH: I think that success is a word that is applied incorrectly. I think that you can only be judged for if you were successful when you’re gone, quite frankly. I think that it’s egotistical. I think it’s self-serving for us to be considering ourselves and others successful. I think we’re all works in progress. I think that the end analysis is how many people you have helped. And that determines how successful your life was. Not how many titles you have or how many degrees you have, and particularly not how much money you have. It’s how many people have you helped with your life because I really do firmly believe that it’s our obligation. I do believe that we have blessings for the soul purpose of helping others with those. I do not think that god empowers any of us to do special things for ourselves. That we’re just vehicles that are used to help other individuals achieve their goals. So to me that’s why I say I’m a work in progress. I think we all, and I think when we close our eyes and tally up, how many people did you help? Did you help more than you hurt determines if you’re qualified to be called successful.

DF: Is there a particular time you can think of that a listener came up to you to tell you about how you had touched them?

CH: My favorite story. So I used to smoke cigarettes, and so during commercial breaks, I’d go outside my building, and I’d have a cigarette. At this time, I mean I have a skeleton staff, I’m doing 14 jobs—I’m doing a morning show, I’m selling airtime, I’m programming music, I’m doing everything. So one morning I’m standing out there, and two or three of my staff members are conversing with me, and a crack addict comes across the street.  And he’s literally staggering and drooling white mucus from his nose and mouth and everything, and he looked up at me and said, “Why the hell are you looking at me like that, Cathy Hughes?” He lived in the neighborhood, and my radio station was right on the corner. And it was in a hardcore drug area. And so he said, “Why the hell are you looking at me like that, Cathy Hughes?” And I said, “Because I want to give you a hug.” And my staff panicked. And he said, “You want to give me a hug, ha, ha, ha, you wouldn’t put your hands on anybody looking like this.” And I walked up to him and I hugged him, and my staff just about panicked, and me and my staff are disagreeing when I go back inside, and he walked on down the street. About maybe six, seven years later, a very well-dressed, young man comes into my studio. And he has three children with him. He said, “Ms. Hughes, I came to introduce my children to you because I talk to them about you all the time.” So I’m thinking he tells them radio stories. I said, “Oh, really! Do any of them want to be broadcasters?” He said, “No, ma’am, that’s not the story I tell them.” He said, “Several years ago, I was a crack addict, and I crossed the street, and I was cursing you out, and you hugged me.” He said, “That hug went through me like an electrical charge, and I went and checked myself into rehab that day.” He said, “I have graduated from college, these are my three children. I’m now back in their lives, and I wanted them to see and meet the woman who had touched me and changed my life.” And I just start crying. It’s about to make me cry now. It was just unbelievable to me that, that random act of kindness touched him to the point where he gave up crack cocaine, went to college, got a degree, and went and got reunited with his children.

DF: That’s a really beautiful story.

CH: So yes I have some stories, but that is my favorite of all-time because I couldn’t believe that I had done that. I don’t know why god told me to put my arms around this junkie. But I did.

DF: I think it goes back to not just being a voice on the radio waves, but a member of the community, you know?  

CH: Yes, it’s the connect. The community connect.

Cathy Hughes Music Playlist


    Publisher’s Note: Because we were not able to locate the owners of many of the wonderful images Danielle discovered in the Schomburg, this slideshow contains a fraction of her original work.


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