It was the early '80s, and Hughes was too broke to pay announcers. So she turned on the microphone and invited calls herself. When housewives phoned to chat about sex and celebrities, she could make her show buzz like a beauty parlor. But as soon as a caller mentioned being pulled over by a cop or passed over for a promotion, Hughes didn't hesitate to blame it on racism. She had a deft eye for conspiracy, and she could relate in terms meaningful to her listeners. She swore casually and thought nothing of dropping the word "nigger" on the air.
Charismatic and controversial, Hughes galvanized listeners, yet the station still wasn't making money. She explained on-air that few businesses cared to advertise to her black audience. Nonetheless, she defiantly stayed true to black topics, playing nothing but black music. When she couldn't pay back the loan she used to buy the station, creditors snatched her house, then her car. For more than a year, she slept in the station.
Such sacrifice endeared Hughes to her audience, which gathered reverently at her studio window to watch the broadcasts. They learned details of Hughes's personal struggle -- her pregnancy at 16, her marriage at 17, her divorce at 19. They also took up her cause: In a world where each race helped its own, it was up to blacks to "empower your own people," as Hughes put it.
Apparently, 1,000 watts of angry woman is enough to ignite a media revolution. By the end of the 1980s, not only had she turned her first profit, but she was rolling it into the purchase of new stations, all of which stayed true to her Afrocentric format.
As her signal expanded, so did her notoriety. Hughes crusaded for embattled Washington Mayor Marion Berry, whom she cast as a martyr being pilloried by an incestuous white political establishment. In the 1990s, she excoriated the white media for making O.J. Simpson its symbol of black male rage. At the same time, she warned her listeners about Hispanic business owners encroaching on black neighborhoods and gave on-air endorsements to anti-Semitic black leaders.
Slowly, Hughes proved that black radio could be a media force. And as her wealth grew, she enriched those around her. She gave black workers jobs at her stations. She gave black musicians airplay. And by exposing hip-hop and R&B, she gave the black community the anthems it had always had, but rarely heard.
Hughes called her company Radio One. Today, it's a media behemoth -- 65 stations in 22 markets, including four stations in Cleveland. Its assets approach $3 billion, making it the nation's seventh-largest radio chain and the biggest in urban music.
Hughes herself is said to be worth nearly $300 million. Her friends include Oprah Winfrey and Luther Vandross. And in the last year alone, she has accepted the Golden Mike Award, an Essence Award, and induction into the African American Business Hall of Fame.
The Washington Post called her "Saint Cathy, Defender of the Race," and Hughes's speeches still ring with missionary zeal. Upon receiving an award from a Maryland business group last year, she boasted that Radio One is "the stark raving example that you can improve the life of the African American community and make a profit at the same time."
But within Radio One's Cleveland stations, there is growing sentiment that Hughes is not so much leading a black cause as she is exploiting it. Her workers say they receive the smallest paychecks in this market. Black singers drop off CDs at Radio One stations, but never get called back and never hear their music on the radio. Those decisions, according to employees, are based on the color green. If you want play on Hughes's stations, you have to pay.
Though Hughes is still heralded as a black media messiah -- at least publicly -- employees and those in the music industry say she has forgotten the very people she promised to empower.
Urban radio never had a golden age in Cleveland. WZAK-FM 93.1 had long been the black station, but it favored worn R&B over the freshest hip-hop. Even so, during the late 1990s, WZAK still opened its airways to the homies for three prime-time party hours.
"They had a Rapper's Delight show that came on Saturday, from midnight to three, where they'd give local stuff a shot," says Kermit Henderson, a record distributor, promoter, and shop owner. "If a song caught on there, they would play it on the Mix Party show from 7 to midnight. And if it caught on from there, they'd consider adding it during the week. So at that time, you had a lot of local acts being added to the rotation."
As has always been the case in radio, a little money in the right pocket could sway a DJ into playing a record, say those in the industry. But artists could still succeed on merit alone.
Given Hughes's track record for airing the music of the D.C. streets and her insistence on giving black people access to radio, few worried about Radio One's purchase of WZAK and three other Cleveland stations -- WENZ-FM 107.9, WERE-AM 1300, and WJMO-AM 1390 -- between 1999 and 2000. In fact, most urban music fans were thrilled to hear that 107.9 -- formerly "The End," an alt-rock station -- would become Z107.9, serving hip-hop as the main course, with R&B on the side.
Nor would corporate radio necessarily be bad for local artists, the thinking went. Radio One, with its sprawling network, might even give artists a portal to the nation.
But Rapper's Delight vanished soon after Radio One's arrival, and the only addition was Home Jam of the Week, which played a single song from a Cleveland artist. Radio One reps weren't seen at rap and R&B shows, though the old WZAK management had at least made token appearances. Nor did Radio One show much interest in up-and-coming Cleveland artists.
Since the company enjoyed a near-monopoly on Cleveland's black radio stations, black artists had nowhere to go but Radio One. Still, they withheld their criticism, hoping that management had its own ideas about showcasing local talent.
One promise Radio One did make good on early was its hiring of minorities. More than 90 percent of its staff was black, and nearly all were from metro Cleveland -- many applying because they knew of Hughes's crusade.
Livable wages, they soon learned, were not part of the mission. Though the industry itself has a reputation for sweatshop pay, Radio One proved the lowest of the low. "Every single position is below market value," says one employee. "And my position pays $12,000 less than it does other places."
Some workers say they were told one salary figure in their interview, only to find out after their hiring that they would make significantly less. The stations' studio technicians make around minimum wage.
Nor did workers find an office inspired by Hughes's vision. In fact, they saw no black leadership at all. When a big decision had to be made, local management consulted corporate human resources director Steven Golsch, who is white. In the Cleveland office, General Manager Owen Weber and Sales Director David Harrison gave the orders. They, too, are white, and their management style had black workers comparing the stations to the pre-war South.
"They ran the office like it was a plantation," says one worker. "If you so much as talked to your co-worker, they would say, 'Do I need to give you something to do?' So hardly anybody talked. It was just silent."
That changed only when Weber unleashed one of his patented, profanity-laced outbursts. "He had a very short fuse," says another worker. "When he was angry, his face would turn blood-red. There was lots of yelling and swearing."
Adds another worker: "It's just a hostile environment. If a union representative walked in the door, they wouldn't hesitate to set up."
(Weber, who is no longer with Radio One, declined an interview request for this story. Harrison left the company last year and could not be reached for comment.)
Resentment toward management spread swiftly. "I just feel used and abused because of the workload I have," says one employee. And, because of her wages, "I can't even afford to go out for lunch."
This was not the environment workers envisioned when they joined Cathy Hughes's enterprise.
"She has this public image, where people perceive her to be this caring person who really is trying to give people jobs," says another employee. "When I first read about her, she was saying her goal was to employ 1,000 black people. But I guess I should have dug deeper and said, 'What kind of conditions do you want to employ them under?'"
On 107.9, you'll hear Nelly rapping a case for St. Louis. The Big Tymers and No Limit boost New Orleans -- plus the whole "Dirty South." Ludacris and Outkast evoke "the A-T-L." Petey Pablo hollers his "North Carolina!" chorus a few dozen times.
No one sings for Cleveland.
Three years after Radio One's arrival here, the station has not only failed to launch the career of a local artist; it plays only the Cleveland artists who are already hits in other cities. Those in Cleveland's music community say it's not that the region lacks talent. It's that 107.9 isn't listening.
Through his weekly club shows, Paulie Rhyme gives local rap and R&B acts a stage. Those who hype the crowd are invited back, and they generate a fan base. Rhyme is sure they'd be a radio hit -- after all, everybody roots for the hometown artist. Yet 107.9 has never shown interest, and Rhyme's events remain part of a vibrant if still obscure rap underground.
"A lot of those cats [at 107.9] know me and the other promoters," he says. "They know I throw shows. But nobody's ever called me and said, 'What's hot?' 'What's bringing the people out?'"
White-owned stations in Cleveland are just as guilty. Some of the city's best rock bands -- like Cobra Verde and Uptown Sinclair -- have fans on both coasts, yet they're not aired on their hometown stations. The difference is that the corporations that run those stations make no pretense of enriching a culture. Radio One, on the other hand, became a monumental disappointment to local musicians, because it boasted high cultural ideals and promised to give them access, only to abandon the cause while still touting those values.
Cleveland hasn't had a rapper dent the national charts since Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in the mid-1990s. Kermit Henderson heard the crew in a talent show, then helped deliver them to music big shots in Los Angeles. Long one of the most powerful figures in Cleveland music, even Henderson has given up lobbying Radio One for airplay.
"In the past, 107.9 was very supportive -- before Radio One took over," he says. "Now, I don't know of any local group that's getting any regular airplay."
In the absence of Radio One's support, one desperate promoter concedes that he's begun marketing to drug dealers. He passes them his clients' CDs, and if the dealers like the sound, they tend to bribe club DJs into spinning a track.
One of the few locals to score airplay on Radio One Cleveland is Avant, whose silky voice and sultry lyrics compare favorably to R. Kelly, minus the felony charges. His album is a national hit, yet Avant admits he's an R&B sensation not because of Cleveland radio, but despite it.
"I wasn't stressing Cleveland radio, because I knew I had to go somewhere else to get noticed -- and then bring it back to Cleveland," Avant says.
So he shopped his wares in L.A., New York, and Chicago, finally signing with a manager and an independent label that connected him to a fledgling label financed by former L.A. Laker Magic Johnson.
If this is what it takes to make the big time out of Cleveland, it may be years before another native gets on the air.
Radio One Chief Operating Officer Mary Catherine Sneed, who works out of Atlanta, claims that 107.9 is heavily influenced by local music. "We're probably the most active station in the market from a community standpoint," she says. "We have a lot of local songs being mixed out of that market."
Sneed declined to say exactly which songs and what groups were receiving play. Cleveland Program Director Sam Sylk would know, she says. But despite Sneed's guarantees to the contrary, Sylk did not return calls for this story.
Those in the music industry believe that local programmers are powerless anyway. It's the company that gives the orders. "I know Sam [Sylk] is a supporter of local music from his days in Chicago," says Paulie Rhyme. "But he's not going to stand up against corporate. That's his job. You can only tell your boss so much before you get fired."
Dale Edwards learned this lesson the hard way. He had been managing WJMO for 20 years before Radio One bought the gospel station. During that time, Edwards treated the playlist as a sacred duty. "That's my lifeline," he says of gospel.
Edwards accepted tapes and CDs by the bushel, lending his ear to each. Local artists captured the majority of airtime. Edwards's simple rule: "If people liked it, then we played it."
But not long after the sale to Radio One, corporate began sending Edwards a list of artists he was required to play. None were Clevelanders. One artist on the list was Jeff Majors. A harpist, Majors also happened to be religious director for Radio One's gospel station in Baltimore -- and the longtime boyfriend of Cathy Hughes.
Edwards says he was ordered to put Majors's harp music on heavy rotation. Employees remember it being played multiple times per hour.
That still wasn't enough. On Hughes's lone visit to Cleveland in February, Edwards was called into a meeting to account for his treatment of Majors's record. At that point, Edwards says, the record was getting 30 spins per week. But Majors, who was at the meeting, said that "he should get more than 30 spins," recalls Edwards. Majors also wanted his CD played at exactly noon each day, which would require the station to interrupt a church service it had aired at that time for five years. Edwards refused. "If that is a condition of my employment, tell me," said Edwards.
"It is," Majors told him.
With that, Edwards was fired. (Majors did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
Edwards's daughter, Danelle Caldwell, worked as an announcer at the station. She was on vacation when her father was fired. Upon returning to WJMO for her morning show, Caldwell discovered that her keycard didn't work. She knocked on the station door. The person who answered had instructions not to let her in. This was how she learned that she, too, had been fired.
By the time Edwards was dismissed, the job meant nothing to him. Corporate had long since sapped his authority to air Cleveland acts. "They told me, 'Don't play any local artists, because they don't pay,'" says Edwards. "They were that blatant about it."
He describes Radio One's practices as "pure payola."
Willie Adams, who tended to finances for the four stations, saw thousands in checks from record companies made out directly to Radio One. He says Lance Panton, program director at the time, told him they were for "promotions." But Adams says artists on those labels just happened to enjoy the most airplay.
Employees say musicians also found other ways to pay for play. When a rapper came to town, 107.9 would showcase him at a nightclub, then charge the public for entry. Edwards says 107.9 would then pocket the door fees, essentially allowing musicians to work off their payments to the station.
"They didn't even try to hide it," he says. "At one meeting, I stood up and said, 'That's illegal.' They said, 'No, it's legal.'"
Actually, it's hard to say what's legal anymore. Direct payments from a record label in exchange for play are illegal. But it is legal for record companies to pay middlemen, euphemistically called "independent promoters," who are under contract with a radio company. And since independent promoters pay the radio company for access to the playlist, critics say it still boils down to pay-for-play.
The bottom line: Record companies that use independent promoters get their artists on-air, and everyone else hits a dead end. "It is becoming harder for new and interesting music to be heard," says U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), who introduced legislation in June that would eradicate independent promoters.
Radio One's own Sneed also condemned the practice in a Los Angeles Times article in March. "The way it works now at urban radio is that [middlemen] give cash under the table to the program director at the station and then kick back money to the vice president of promotion at the record label," Sneed alleged. "It's not legal. We can't operate like that. Radio One intends to clean up this mess."
Yet rival executives mocked her assertion. Only a month before, Radio One signed an exclusive contract with Venture Media Group, an independent promoter. For all Sneed's posturing, rivals note that she was only trading one kind of corruption -- programmers accepting bribes directly from a label -- for another form of corruption: middlemen funneling money directly to the broadcaster, thus bypassing programmers.
Today, Sneed winces when the subject comes up. She regrets making payola an issue.
"It's very weird," she says. "I had never been involved with an independent. And the only reason we did it was because everybody else was doing it. It's legal. It's another revenue stream. At some point, we were foolish for not being involved in it."
But Radio One has accepted money from independents, according to Willie Adams, the former business manager for the four Cleveland stations. The year before the contract was signed with Venture, Adams says, there was a mysterious category in the budget called "independent money." Adams knows now that that money came from record companies via independent promoters.
"Between the two FM stations [93.1 and 107.9], that amount was a half-million dollars last year," says Adams.
Sneed remains ambiguous about the Venture relationship. "They don't recommend music. The programmers are the ones that recommend the music. Venture Media just makes the program directors aware of the product."
Which, of course, invites the question: Why would labels spend hundreds of thousands of dollars simply to make stations aware of their music, when they could do this for free?
"They just make them aware of it," repeats Sneed, making it clear that she's not going to elaborate.
Venture is no more forthcoming. When contacted in New Jersey, Operations Manager Judy Hales refused to explain -- even off the record -- what her company actually does. "We don't talk to the media," she said and hung up.
But Edwards says that Radio One's programming decisions follow a simple philosophy: Artists with money talk, and everyone else walks. "She's the biggest liar that ever walked the face of the earth," he says of Sneed. "I was a programmer. I was on the conference calls three times a week. I had to go to the seminars where they teach you how to program. I know the way they do things."
Cancer couldn't keep Business Manager Willie Adams from a full workday. He scheduled chemotherapy sessions in the mornings, before work, or in the evenings, after. He didn't need special treatment --or even sympathy -- from the people he worked for.
That's good, because they weren't offering it. When Radio One corporate phoned, it was not to ask about his health, but to request his time sheets. Cancer or not, "We still want our eight hours," they told him.
He only wishes his employers had been so attentive to his benefits package.
Adams needed a stem-cell transplant to root out the cancer. At a minimum, it brought a month in the hospital. If Adams survived, which was a long shot, he'd face an agonizing recovery. Either way, his family would depend on his disability insurance.
After the operation, as Adams coped with the excruciating pain, his wife told him that his disability checks were bouncing. Only then did Adams discover that Radio One had allowed its disability insurance to lapse. HR Director Golsch told him it would be a while before the company renewed it.
As weeks passed, Adams and his wife sweated through their mortgage payments and maxed out credit cards. Adams waited two months, during which time he ruined his credit and nearly lost his house, before finally receiving his check.
Even then, his boss wouldn't stop phoning. "They were calling me up at home, saying, 'When are you coming back? Things have to be done,'" says Adams.
Management was unfazed by physicians' notes stating that Adams needed at least five months to recover. So he returned to work two months ahead of that schedule, despite his doctor's warnings that his immune system wasn't functioning properly and that he was risking his life. At the very least, they told him, he should limit his workday to four hours. But Adams says that in those first few months, he averaged about 12 hours a day. He was in visible agony, yet his dedication went unnoticed. "All that time, no one said a simple 'Thank you' or 'We appreciate you coming in.'"
Adams survived the operation, and his cancer is now in remission. But as business manager, he held the demoralizing task of being the liaison between Radio One's Cleveland workforce and corporate headquarters. "For a company that boasts about assisting minorities," says Adams, "it's a place where no one is happy." In his mind, it was a company that had moved far from its roots.
He recalls the employee who needed a pay advance for a colon operation, which had left the man on the brink of bankruptcy. Another worker sought an advance after being threatened with eviction. "I can count three times while I was there that employees were in dire straits and needed a pay advance," says Adams. "Each time, they were denied."
Because Adams oversaw all four stations' finances, he knew that Radio One was performing exceedingly well in Cleveland, enjoying profit margins of 40 to 50 percent. Yet when Adams suggested that corporate offer raises to workers -- none of whom had received them after their first year, as promised -- the idea was rejected.
It is a particularly tense environment for women. Station sources say that at least two female employees have written to corporate about being sexually harassed by a manager who punished female workers for not dating him. Golsch, who is the contact on such matters, did little to defuse the situation. Workers say the offender was neither transferred nor fired. Rather, he was simply told to stop speaking to the women altogether. A lawsuit is expected soon from one of the victims. (Golsch did not return calls for this story.)
Edwards says that management also used crude methods to drive employees out. Announcers would be speaking into their microphones only to discover that they had been turned off. It was management's way of rattling workers, to induce them to quit, Edwards believes. And most did.
One pending suit against Radio One suggests that hostility prevails, not just at the Cleveland office. Moraima Kelly Ivory was an announcer at Radio One's Jenkintown, Pennsylvania station. According to her complaint, men at the station told her that she had "big tits" and a "rooty booty," and that she should be an exotic dancer. She also claims that managers turned off her microphone while she was on the air. Her bosses expressed disappointment when Ivory told them she was pregnant. Six weeks later, she was fired.
In the three years that Radio One has been in Cleveland, Hughes has set foot in the St. Clair Avenue offices only once -- in late February, when she was in town to accept a commendation from the city for her "distinguished service to the community as an entrepreneur and mentor for young women." (Hughes did not return repeated phone calls.)
It was another example, some workers believed, of Hughes collecting an honor that she hadn't earned. "That was the final straw," says Willie Adams, who walked out of Radio One the next week. Staff was told to attend the event, but Adams says most boycotted it.
Edwards can't believe Hughes's conscience allows her to accept awards.
"You can't holler, 'I'm the minority station. I'm the champion of the people. I'm helping my brothers and sisters,' when at the same time [you're] treating people worse than any non-African American company is," he says.
Though many employees are bitter, Adams still manages to chuckle about the glowing press Hughes receives. One Ebony article said that, while Hughes has left Radio One's day-to-day management to her son, she still keeps busy "spearheading the company's community and philanthropic efforts."
Adams knows she's not spending any time -- or money -- in Cleveland. As he drew up a budget for this fiscal year, Adams also allocated $20,000 to local charities. It was only fair, he believed, since "those four Radio One stations are budgeted to take about $19.5 million [in revenue] out of Cleveland."
"Then [corporate] went over the budget. First they cut it to $12,000, then to $8,000. Finally they just took every single penny out."
After leaving Radio One, Adams joined Edwards at WABQ, a gospel station Edwards purchased that was one of the few black music stations in Cleveland not controlled by Radio One. The station has so many ex-Radio One staffers, it might pass for a former-employees recovery group. And their wrangling with Radio One still isn't over. Former workers say that Golsch is refusing to pay them for unused vacation and sick time. In some cases, he even held onto their last checks. None received COBRA paperwork, as required by law. Adams had to pay an attorney to pry it away.
Edwards unabashedly admits he's still plotting vengeance. He claims to have files full of evidence of Radio One's sins and plans to go after the company with a lawsuit. "What we'd really like to see is them suffer punitively for how they've ruined people's lives," he says.
Those in urban music have another idea: a listener boycott. It would be a powerful message to send to a company born from street activism. "If they don't care about us, stop listening to that mess," says Paulie Rhyme. "Get a pirate radio station and play music from Cleveland."
Jennifer Binstock provided additional reporting.