This article was originally published Feb. 4, 2008.
WASHINGTON — Sitting behind her glass and steel desk after downing a cup of soup, Catherine Hughes ladles out a fiery gumbo of views.
Born and raised in Omaha by a nurse and an accountant, she didn't become the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded company in 1999 by watering down her opinions.
At 60, she's dramatic, emphatic and disarmingly warm.
The founder of Radio One Inc. — the country's largest radio broadcasting company aimed at black listeners — also has developed such a reputation in the nation's capital that they're renaming a street "Cathy Hughes Way."
"I view her as one of the most powerful people on the planet," says her friend Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist.
From her corner office, she voices opinions on everything, from shock at the public reaction to the Dixie Chicks' criticism of President Bush to criticism of U.S. aid to Afghanistan while hurricane-ravaged New Orleans still struggles.
As for the presidential race, she favors the woman, Sen. Hillary Clinton, over the African-American, Sen. Barack Obama.
"We don't have time to train a president," she says. "I really believe he's a dazzling, deceptive" candidate meant "to deprive us of having the first woman president."
A decade ago, Hughes packed up the company she launched in Washington and moved to a business-friendly suburb, Lanham, Maryland.
Last month, the District of Columbia City Council endorsed a plan to woo her back.
The council approved a $22 million subsidy for a development to include a new Radio One headquarters, affordable housing and small businesses near Howard University, in northeast Washington.
Bringing home Radio One will be a symbol of Washington's economic revitalization, said City Council member Kwame Brown.
Hughes could serve as a role model to many, he said. She has employed district residents for years, promoted community activism and raised her son, Alfred C. Liggins III, to take over as company CEO while she remains board chairwoman.
"I think she is a good example of what the community needs to see as it relates to family and being successful, having morals, having values and teaching that to kids," Brown said.
The "Broadcast Center One" project, as it's called, will be a good deal financially for Radio One, struggling these days like many radio companies, more so than most.
In return, city officials hope the project will foster redevelopment in a historic African-American neighborhood that hasn't fully recovered from riots in the 1960s, Brown said.
As part of the project, which could be finished as soon as late 2009, the council plans to rename a street after Hughes.
That's a long road from north Omaha's housing projects, where she grew up. But Omaha was where she learned a strong work ethic and where her interest in radio was kindled.
Over the years, she has often lectured at Howard University's campus about her struggles in starting, running and owning a business, said Jannette Dates, dean of the school of communications.
"She brings a reality to it," Dates said. "Students are blown away because she tells them the truth."
Hughes tells how, after moving to Washington in the 1970s in her 30s, newly divorced and with a young son, she began a radio career on Howard's campus as general sales manager of the university-owned WHUR-FM.
She tells how 32 men turned down her first loan application to buy a radio station before it was approved, by a woman.
She bought WOL-AM in 1980.
She tells how money was so tight, she sometimes slept in its offices. She couldn't afford on-air talent, so she began hosting "The Cathy Hughes Show," on which she interviewed local individuals and officials on city issues.
She tells how Radio One grew, operating now in Washington, St. Louis, Miami, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere — but not in Omaha.
"That's kind of hard to penetrate," Hughes said of her hometown market. "There's a media tradition that's almost like a birthright."
Her company also owns Giant magazine and TV One, a cable/satellite network aimed at a mature African-American audience.
On TV One, Hughes has interviewed actors Will Smith and Denzel Washington, comedian Chris Rock, Clinton, Obama and others, using a style more complimentary than confrontational.
Over time, she has been transformed from a behind-the-scenes executive to an Oprah-like media star.
Ebony magazine named her one of the 10 most powerful women in black America. In 2005, she was inducted into the Nebraska Broadcasters Association's Hall of Fame.
Hughes calls herself an "entrepreneurial activist."
"My whole life," she said, "has been about trying to improve the plight of my peoplehood and my community."
Her friend Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, said Hughes has achieved success few black or white individuals have and has always pushed for social, economic and racial justice.
"She's a passionate advocate," he said. "When she gets on an issue, she's got it and will shake it and force it to some conclusion or solution."
She tackles everything with a positive outlook, said Gregory, who was an early co-host with Hughes and remains a frequent guest on WOL 1450 AM talk radio's "The Power" in Washington.
Gregory, who is on the road a lot, often calls her when he's angry about some injustice or problem.
"When I talk to her I feel like there's a spirit saying: 'Richard is good.'"
The new headquarters deal might help Radio One cut costs. These days, many radio companies are struggling with declining advertising revenues and rising competition from the Internet and hand-held devices such as the iPod, said Frederick Moran, a broadcast analyst at the Stanford Group.
Once, Radio One had a secure niche in the market, appealing to African-American and urban audiences. But others have crowded in. From a high several years ago of $20 a share, Radio One's stock has plunged to about $2 a share, Moran said.
"It will remain tough sledding," he said.
Hughes sees the downturn as a cycle affecting all media.
"I think if many of us had broken out and given our readership, our listenership and our viewership information that's important to them, news that could empower them to live a better quality life, our going wouldn't be so hard now," she said.
Still, she counts two great blessings in her life: having a son who embraced her dream and working in the media.
"All of us in the media who are really serious about it are knowledge junkies. We all live to expose some injustice, corruption or solve a problem. Being a media practitioner — wow! is all I can say."