It was the mid-1980s. Alfred Liggins was out of work in Los Angeles and his mom, Cathy Hughes, urged him to come home to Washington and work at the family radio station, WOL(AM). Doing so turned out to be a great decision.
Liggins had left D.C. after high school, heading West, selling direct mail ads for GTE, then records, then hymnals and sheet music over the phone for a gospel record label while joining the publishing arm of CBS Records as a production coordinator, a post that included work on the “critically acclaimed Mr. T rap album,” he says with a laugh.
But with the promise of a new gig at Motown, Liggins quit, learning what he calls the first lesson of true adulthood: “Never quit a job until you have another one.”
The Motown job was not signed, sealed or delivered.
Then his mother called, he reconsidered and returned to sell ads during the day and go to college at night. Eventually he dropped out because he was making so much money. “I’m a sales guy,” he says proudly.
His mom was on the air and the format was talk—and “fairly radical,” he says. His job was “to convince white advertisers that this radio station was the voice of the black community and there was no reason to be afraid of it.”
That little AM station started making money. It was, needless to say, the start of much bigger things, namely, Radio One (then TV One), the largest African-American-owned broadcaster in the country.
Liggins says the goal was to grow a company “rather than just buying an asset, flipping it and moving on.” While he concedes his company’s significance, he calls a comparative disparity unfortunate; the other players are so much smaller because consolidation has squeezed out minority owners. And when considering the choice between getting bigger and getting out, Liggins says they chose bigger.
That would take some time, however. WOL was doing well, and Liggins decided FM was “where it was at,” but the money to go big fast wasn’t there yet. So they went big by starting small and growing. WMMJ-FM Washington was for sale at $7.5 million, which still took beating the bushes for investors, but they got it done.
The station remained Soft AC because the bank required it. Liggins said the company knew nothing about Barry Manilow, which is why the ratings dropped. The bank let them switch to Urban AC. Liggins says they were one of the first stations in the country with that “Motown and more” format, so while Motown had earlier failed to employ Liggins, Liggins employed Motown to help make his company’s fortune.
The station took off and the strategy was set—buy affordable stations, switch to Urban formats and grow the audience and the bank account.
The sound tactic worked for Liggins, who rose from sales to station management to president of Radio One. The man in charge is intimidatingly smart, befitting the recipient of a Wharton MBA, though Liggins says the parchment may actually have cost him something more than the tuition. Had he been more focused on business than on the degree (which he earned to please his mother, who is now Radio One chairperson), he may have caught some better deals.
Liggins’ humor is self-deprecating but knowingly so. He convinced his mom to name him president so he could join the Young Presidents Organization for networking purposes; he then forgot to join.
While the company is called Radio One—Liggins says a new name for the umbrella company is likely in the offing—it now includes not only 52 radio stations in 15 markets, but a digital arm, Reach Media, with eight syndicated shows on 225 radio stations, and cable network TV One, a co-venture with Comcast that launched in 2004 and is now in 57 million homes. Liggins says of getting into cable that, while he loves radio, “some advertisers have to have a picture.”
Radio One is also an investor with MGM in a new casino being built across the river from Washington at the National Harbor in Maryland.
“It is clear that Alfred is a visionary businessman with insight, skill and courage to step outside of conventional strictures in pursuit of excellence,” says Adonis Hoffman, former chief of staff to FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
When asked about mentors, Liggins says his mom tops the list. “I would not be in this business if she hadn’t drilled into my head that this was an opportunity to build a substantial enterprise. What she built into me is the importance of entrepreneurship.”
And what of the urban (contemporary?) legend that they lived at the radio station? True, he says, when his mother couldn’t afford to pay rent on both the house and the radio station. “I lived there with her for a year,” he says.
They still butt heads when he says you can’t roll that boulder up the mountain and she says, “yes you can.” At least she makes him try to roll it, he says.
Other shout-outs go to Terry Jones, the founding investor from Syndicated Communications that gave his mother the money to buy that first station. “He is the person I learned my first financial skill set from,” Liggins says. He also salutes former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, who gave him great advice and helped in “immeasurable ways.” Measurable, too, since Parsons helped get him a distribution deal for TV One.
Now that he joins his mother as a Hall of Fame broadcaster, with his own track record of success, what advice would he give a young black entrepreneur? “Do not believe there isn’t access to capital. Wherever we really needed money, so long as we had a great idea and a plan on how to execute it, we have been able to find capital,” he says. “Second, watch what the successful guys are doing and you can emulate that play. Quincy Jones told me once there are no new ideas, just different arrangements.”