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Alfred Liggins is the Other Half of Urban One’s Success Story

OMAHA STAR — “Look, my mother has an amazing story from where she came, and she’s always been more of a forefront person. A lot of people tend to think this woman built this company and she made her son the CEO, but they don’t realize how long I’ve been at the company and that it was really a joint effort. They tend to think it’s a traditional family business. But my mother is very good at giving me credit. She did it when we were in Omaha.”

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By Leo Adam Biga, The Omaha Star

The oft-told entrepreneurial success narrative of Urban One founder and chair Cathy Hughes tends to leave out a crucial part of the story: her son and company CEO Alfred Liggins III is an equal partner in the journey of this black multimedia and entertainment enterprise.

By now, the tale of this single mother’s rise from Omaha dreamer to Washington, D.C. icon is the stuff of legend. But what gets lost in translation is that her son also came out of Omaha. He was only 7 when he moved with his mom to D.C., but he was there long enough to form fond memories of school (Sacred Heart, Mammoth Park), recreation (Kellom Pool, Fontenelle Park) and spending time with extended family (his maternal grandparents Helen Jones Woods and William Alfred Woods).

For years, he came back annually to visit family. He twice lived with his biological father Alfred Liggins II.

Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t enter or inherit the family business after it was already rolling. He was there from its fledgling start and helped make it a success. He’s since taken it to unimagined heights.

But even he is in awe of his mom.

“Yeah, I marvel at her gumption and her fearlessness,” he said. “You have to remember, she’s only 17 years older than I am. The business was founded in 1980. I joined full time in 1985 when we had the one radio station, so I’ve had a front-row seat on the business journey from almost the beginning.

“She was very open in making me her business partner very early. It’s really a joint journey.”

Along the way, there’s been little time to admire what they’ve done together.

“It wasn’t like we were sitting back watching, going, ‘Oh, look at what we did.’ You’re too busy trying to keep doing what you’re doing on the right track and figuring out how to fix the stuff that’s not working and figuring out what the next thing is.”

He doesn’t mind her getting most of the pub.

“Look, my mother has an amazing story from where she came, and she’s always been more of a forefront person. A lot of people tend to think this woman built this company and she made her son the CEO, but they don’t realize how long I’ve been at the company and that it was really a joint effort. They tend to think it’s a traditional family business.

“But my mother is very good at giving me credit. She did it when we were in Omaha.”

Last May, Omaha feted Hughes at events celebrating her life, including naming a street in her honor. Liggins was content letting his mom have the spotlight.

“I never spend a bunch of time doing press or correcting people because that’s just not who I am. I love our partnership. I’m grateful and happy that people are inspired by her story, our story, and it’s a great story and a great journey. I don’t feel a need to build my own story separate and apart from hers.

“But if I get called for an interview and we start talking about it, I’m happy to lay out what my role was and what our relationship is.”

Before coming on full time at age 20 in 1985, Liggins worked at the station as a sportscaster and weekend talk-show host while a high school teenager.

“I guess it was cool I worked at a radio station, but I didn’t really want to do it. I was kind of required to do it. I didn’t really want to be in the radio business at first. I wanted to be in the record business.”

He went to L.A. to live with his stepfather, Dewey Hughes, looking to break into the music biz.

“I ended up unemployed and my mother suggested I come back to D.C., work at the station, go to college at night and get my act together and figure out what to do next, so I did that.”

What was then known as Radio One consisted of a single station. Within a decade, the mother and son built the company into a nationwide network.

“I always had a talent for sales. I went into the sales department and started to be successful pretty early on,” Liggins said.

He kept doubling his earnings from year to year until, by his early 20s, he was pulling down $150,000.

“I was young making a lot of money. That was the time I realized this would be a great career path if we could grow the business beyond where we were.”

Between his earnings and social life, he dropped out of night school. It was only some years later he applied to the Wharton School of Business executive management master’s program. Despite not being a college graduate, he got in on the strength of managing a $25 million a year company and recommendations from the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“The idea that I had doubled-back and ended up getting in an Ivy League business school was exciting to me. It kind of felt like I was beating the system in some way.

My diploma says the same thing everyone else’s diploma says. In the end, I feel like I got my ticket punched, my certification, my bona fides.”

While he took care of business behind the scenes, Cathy Hughes made her presence known on air.

“My mother was doing the morning show and I was a stabilizing force in the sales department. She did some things on the air, like lead the Washington Post boycott, which really started to brand her as the voice of the black community. I was able to sell that to mainstream advertisers. We started to make money. It wasn’t a ton, but we went from losing four, five hundred thousand dollars to making a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

Reaching a more substantial audience came next.

“We owned one AM radio station, and FM radio at that time was really exploding. It was where all the audience was, AM was dying. We set out and put together a plan to expand into FM radio. I identified an FM we could afford. Investors worked with my mother and me to figure out how to finance it. It was like a $7.5 million purchase. I think they needed like 10 different minority-focused, venture-capital entities to put up the funding. And we got our first FM.

“That first year the bank required us to keep it in an adult contemporary format that wasn’t black-targeted because they wanted to have the cash flow. But we didn’t do that very well and we fell out of the ratings book. We were like, ‘OK, can we change the format to something we know?’ So, we changed to an urban adult contemporary and it took off like a rocket.”

For the first time, the company recorded serious profits.

“Five years later the AM and the FM were doing $10 million of revenue and $5 million of profitability. We became a wild success. Then we bought into the Baltimore market – our first market outside of Washington. Then we kept going from there. I felt like we were on this mission to build this business. I felt optimistic and empowered and energetic and vigorous.”

In charge of day-to-day operations for more than two decades, Liggins has led subsequent strategic moves – from taking the company public in 1998 to brokering deals that created TV One and Interactive One (now iOne Digital) to entering the casino-gaming industry. He’s also guided the company in divesting itself of low-performing stations and other media segment drags and in acquiring Reach Media, whose national radio lineup includes Tom Joyner, Erica Campbell, DL Hughley and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“We built our company around serving the black community,” he said.

That’s why getting into television was key.

“BET was created in Washington in 1980 – the same year Radio One was formed. We knew BET founder Robert Johnson. The people who invested in Radio One were also involved in BET. One of our lead investors was actually on the BET board, so we had a front-row seat to see that success.

“It was clear there was only one network targeting black people in the entire country, and that didn’t make any sense. But we were building the radio station and TV remained off our radar for a time.”

But there was no getting around that radio was “a tertiary medium,” Liggins said, “and if you wanted to really grow the platform to serve African-Americans you had to be in the places where they’re at – and they don’t just listen to radio.

“I’ve always looked at us as in the black people business and not just the media business. BET was wildly successful and there was only one of it, so I always wanted to get into the television business.”

The opportunity to enter the TV space came, he said, when “Comcast decided they wanted to expand in content, and I went in and made a big pitch to them.

“I said, ‘Look, I know we’ve never done television before, but we know how to market and program to black people. You have the distribution, but we’ll put up all the money.’

Lots of people were wanting to start a cable network, but they wanted Comcast to put up all the money. Eventually, $134 million was raised. Comcast invested $15 million in it. They got a big piece of the company just for giving us the distribution. We invested $74 million and I raised another $30 million from people I had done business with before. That’s how we got started in TV.”

The once monolithic TV industry, he said, “is disintermediating now with cord cutting” and streaming.

“We’re trying to figure out how to pay for and deliver more content and what other distribution opportunities or systems there are for us to monetize that content.”

To hedge against media volatility, the company’s diversified into the casino gaming business with partners MGM and a casino resort in D.C.

“It’s been a great investment for us,” Liggins said.

Meanwhile, the radio business that’s been the foundation of the company, he said, is “a declining, mature legacy media business that probably will have further consolidation.” He added, “We’ve got to figure out what our role in that is.”

Urban One carries “a lot of debt,” he said, “because we piled up a bunch of debt buying radio stations over the years, and then when the Internet hit all traditional media took a hit – print taking the worst of the brunt.”

“Our debt’s come way down but still not low enough, so were continuing to reduce our leverage. We’ve been buying back stock for 10 years, which is good, because we’ve been buying it back at low prices and paying down debt. Hopefully, we’ll make that transition to the new media ecosystem and have a reasonable level of debt and have increased holdings for the shareholders who decided not to sell.”

Then there’s the new phenomenon of black culture and content being in great demand.

“Everyone wants to be in that space,” Liggins said, “which makes it more competitive for us because we’re up against big guys like Viacom, A&E, HBO, Warner. Everybody’s got black content, and some of these players have got a lot more money than we do, so we’ve got to be smart and nimble in what we produce and how we finance it.”

He’s arrived at a leadership style that suits him.

“I’m an information-gatherer. I ask a lot of questions of a lot of people and I throw a lot of ideas on the wall. Then I debate them with folks. Even though I ask people a lot of questions I’m not necessarily a manager by consensus all the time. I’ll take that info and chart the path. I’m a big believer in hiring people who know more than I do in certain areas and have skill sets I don’t.

“When we were building the radio company, I made a point of hiring people who had worked for larger radio companies. People we brought in taught us about research and disciplined programming and sales techniques, so I’m a big believer in importing knowledge. What happens in a family business when it’s the only place you’ve really worked at is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You have to import that knowledge in order to grow the business.”

He nurtures the team he’s cultivated around him.

“I try to be collegial in my style with folks even though like my mother I can be very direct. Some people may say I’m aloof. I would say generally though the people who work with me like working with me. I nurture a positive relationship with those people.

“Sometimes when you have to ask people to do difficult things or you have to address negative issues or shortcomings it’s better if it’s coming from a place of constructive criticism in a joint goal as opposed to an ego-driven place where you’re trying to prove your smarter than that person.”

Ego has no place in his business approach.

“In a corporate environment I could see where infighting could cause managers to want to make sure they get credit for the idea and they look like they’re the smartest person in the room – because they want to get that next promotion. Well, fortunately, being in your own business I don’t have to worry about that. I’m more focused on just getting to the right answer and I don’t care who gets the credit.”

Liggins, a single father of one son, acknowledges he’s given some thought to a third generation in this family legacy business.

“It would be great. My son’s 10. He talks as if he wants to. It’s still early on. He’s got to earn his way into that, too. But I like the idea that he would want to follow in our footsteps. But it’s up to me he’s got a company to even consider taking over by the time he comes of age.

“I’m still trying to navigate our transition in the media business – reducing our leverage so the company isn’t at risk and so it is set up for the future.”

Whatever happens, Omaha remains home for him and his mother – a reality impressed upon him when they visited last spring.

“It’s like you come full circle. This is where we both recognize we’re from. We’ve got deep roots there. There’s a track record of successful African-Americans from that community. We’ve always come back.

“To have a street named in her honor is a big deal. You feel like your business career and your life have meant something. It was an amazing experience.”

(Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.)

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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Children’s Defense Fund: State of America’s Children Reveals that 71 Percent of Children of Color Live in Poverty

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Part One of an ongoing series on this impactful and informative report.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

The child population in America is the most diverse in history, but children remain the poorest age group in the country with youth of color suffering the highest poverty rates.

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Dr. Wilson’s remarks come as the Marian Wright Edelman founded nonprofit released “The State of America’s Children 2021.”

The comprehensive report is eye-opening.

It highlights how children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates. For instance, of the more than 10.5 million poverty-stricken children in America in 2019, approximately 71 percent were those of color.

The stunning exposé revealed that income and wealth inequality are growing and harming children in low-income, Black and Brown families.

While the share of all wealth held by the top one percent of Americans grew from 30 percent to 37 percent, the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent between 1989 and 2019.

Today, a member of the top 10 percent of income earners makes about 39 times as much as the average earner in the bottom 90 percent.

The median family income of White households with children ($95,700) was more than double that of Black ($43,900), and Hispanic households with children ($52,300).

Further, the report noted that the lack of affordable housing and federal rental assistance leaves millions of children homeless or at risk of homelessness.

More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, and 74 percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households, lacking reliable access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and more than 1 in 7 children – 10.7 million – were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat.

Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as White children.

The report further found that America’s schools have continued to slip backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation, perpetuating achievement gaps.

For instance, during the 2017-2018 public school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of White students.

More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 60 percent of White students.

“We find that in the course of the last year, we’ve come to the point where our conversations about child well-being and our dialogue and reckoning around racial justice has really met a point of intersection, and so we must consider child well-being in every conversation about racial justice and quite frankly you can only sustainably speak of racial justice if we’re talking about the state of our children,” Dr. Wilson observed.

Some more of the startling statistics found in the report include:

  • A White public school student is suspended every six seconds, while students of color and non-White students are suspended every two seconds.
  • Conditions leading to a person dropping out of high school occur with white students every 19 seconds, while it occurs every nine seconds for non-White and students of color.
  • A White child is arrested every 1 minute and 12 seconds, while students of color and non-whites are arrested every 45 seconds.
  • A White student in public school is corporally punished every two minutes, while students of color and non-Whites face such action every 49 seconds.

Dr. Wilson asserted that federal spending “reflects the nation’s skewed priorities.”

In the report, he notes that children are not receiving the investment they need to thrive, and despite making up such a large portion of the population, less than 7.5 percent of federal spending went towards children in fiscal year 2020.

Despite Congress raising statutory caps on discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 to 2020, children did not receive their fair share of those increases and children’s share of total federal spending has continued to decline.

“Children continue to be the poorest segment of the population,” Dr. Wilson demanded. “We are headed into a dark place as it relates to poverty and inequity on the American landscape because our children become the canary in the coal mine.”

Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children.

The $1.9 trillion plan not only contained $1,400 checks for individuals, it includes monthly allowances and other elements to help reduce child poverty.

The President’s plan expands home visitation programs that help at-risk parents from pregnancy through early childhood and is presents universal access to top-notch pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The American Rescue Plan carried significant and powerful anti-poverty messages that will have remarkable benefits on the lives of children in America over the course of the next two years,” Dr. Wilson declared.

“The Children’s Defense Fund was quick to applaud the efforts of the President. We have worked with partners, including leading a child poverty coalition, to advance the ideas of that investment,” he continued.

“Most notably, the expansion of the child tax credit which has the impact of reducing poverty, lifting more than 50 percent of African American children out of poverty, 81 percent of Indigenous children, 45 percent of Hispanic children. It’s not only good policy, but it’s specifically good policy for Black and Brown children.”

Click here to view the full report.

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She Bought Freedom for Herself and Other Slaves Today a Park is Named in Her Honor

Alethia Browning Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised. 

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Alethia Browning Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

In her early years, Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables in a produce stall near President’s Square – now known as Lafayette Square – in what is now Northwest Washington, D.C.

According to the D.C. Genealogy Research, Resources, and Records, Tanner bought her freedom in 1810 and later purchased several relatives’ release.

She was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street), and Turner owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews – one of whom later sold the property for $100,000.

Named in her honor, the Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.

The park sits near the corner of Harry Thomas Way and Q Street and is accessible by foot or bike via the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just north of the Florida Ave entrances.

“The first Council legislative meeting of Black History Month, the Council took a second and final vote on naming the new park for Alethia Tanner, an amazing woman who is more than worthy of this long-delayed recognition,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 ahead of the park’s naming ceremony.

“[Her upbringing] itself would be a remarkable legacy, but Ms. Tanner was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions,” McDuffie remarked.

“She contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School. Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church.”

Born in 1781 on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, historians noted that Tanner had two sisters, Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook.

“Upon the death of Mary Pratt (Tobias had predeceased his wife) in 1795, the plantation, known as Chelsea Plantation, was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt,” historians wrote.

“Mary Belt’s will stipulated that Laurena be sent to live with a sibling of Rachel Pratt’s while Sophia and Alethia were to stay at the Chelsea Plantation.”

Tanner sold vegetables at the well-known market just north of the White House in Presidents Park. It is possible – and probable – she met Thomas Jefferson there as he was known to frequent the vegetable markets there along with other prominent early Washingtonians, according to historians at attacksadams.com. 

“There are also White House records suggesting she worked for Thomas Jefferson in some capacity, likely doing various housework tasks,” the researchers determined.

Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised.

“Self-emancipation was not an option for all enslaved peoples, but both Alethia and her sister Sophia were able to accomplish this, almost entirely through selling vegetables at the market,” the researchers continued.

“Alethia Tanner moved to D.C. and became one of a significant and growing number of free Black people in the District. In 1800, 793 free Black people were living in D.C.

By 1810, there were 2,549, and by 1860, 11,131 free Black people lived in D.C., more than the number of enslaved peoples.”

Historians wrote that beginning at about 15 years after securing her manumission, Alethia Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All accomplished with proceeds from her own vegetable market business, they concluded.

“Alethia Tanner, it’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work, and perseverance,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said at the park’s dedication.

“I just learned about this history through this, so it shows how when you name a park, you really educate people on the historical significance.”

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