Jamarlin talks to Alfred Liggins, CEO of Urban One (NASDAQ: UONEK) about why he never merged with BET and whether going public inspired the Fox series “Empire”. They discuss the Democratic Party neglecting Black media when it comes to campaign ad spending, and the disconnect between Black CEOs and Obama. They also examine the need for more Facebook regulation, and what really happened with Roland Martin at TV One.
This is a full transcript of the conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re listening to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin. We have a go hard or go home approach as we talk to the leading tech leaders, politicians and influencers. Let’s GHOGH! Today we have the legendary Alfred Liggins, the CEO of Urban One. How’s it going Alfred?
Alfred Liggins: Well, thank you for inviting me on the show.
Jamarlin Martin: So you’re running a very big company, but we don’t really see you a lot in the media. Are you media shy? I just like to put my head down and run the business. But why don’t we see a lot of press from you personally?
Alfred Liggins: I have historically been, I wouldn’t say press shy, I’m not a press-pursuer. I’m not really crazy about just sitting around and answering a bunch of questions about what we’re doing on a day to day basis. I’d much prefer to actually be doing it and running the business. So it’s really kind of like an allocation of time. I haven’t really believed that just because you get lots of press attention that it has anything to do with the success of your business. I think the success of your business is how focused you are on your customers or your core constituency, whether it’s your viewers or listeners or advertisers or your capital partners. And so I’ve always preferred to spend my time with them than telling the general public what a great job we’re doing, etc. Now with that said, I’m the CEO of a public company. So I spend a lot of time on quarterly conference calls, and if I get requested now by a press entity that I think would be advantageous, so if the Wall Street Journal was to call us and ask us about a deal we’re doing, I would have that conversation, but I don’t actively seek out myself havIng a presence on CNBC as a pundit, talking about my view of the world and the current state of the economy.
Jamarlin Martin: Your mother, Cathy Hughes, started the company. Did you really want to be in this game, media and advertising. When you stepped into this business, did you really want to get into it?
Alfred Liggins: In high school they bought the radio station in 1980. I graduated in 1983, so I was in the ninth or 10th grade and I worked at the radio station in high school. And the answer is no, I didn’t want to be in the radio business. At that time I wanted to be in the record business. I liked music. It was sexy.
Jamarlin Martin: Who were your favorite artists at that time?
Alfred Liggins: Oh gosh. I mean that was the burgeoning of hip hop. So I definitely was into the current hip hop groups of the day. But think at the time, Run DMC was probably my favorite artist. I remember going to see the Raising Hell tour.
Jamarlin Martin: And did you have a pair of shell toe adidas?
Alfred Liggins: I had a Run DMC jacket, I used to wear it all the time. I loved it. But I also was into Sting when I was in my early twenties. I liked The Police, I liked the Rolling Stones, I liked Prince, so my musical tastes were varied. So I wanted to be in the record business and after high school I actually went out to Los Angeles and sought out jobs in the record business. And I did that for about 18 months out there. And you know, LA is a fast town for a young guy. I was working for a gospel record label called Light Records and I thought I had a job lined up at Motown and I quit my job at Light Records. And then the job at Motown didn’t ultimately come through and it ended up falling through. And so I learned my first lesson in professional pursuit is never quit a job before you have the next one lined up and in the bag. And so I was 20 years old, unemployed, in Los Angeles, and my mother said that she thought I should come back to DC, work at the radio station, go to school at night, and get my feet back up under me and then go back out to LA and pursue whatever dreams I had again at a later time. And that ultimately ended up being a fortuitous suggestion. I took it. I was unemployed. So it wasn’t that hard of a decision. But I came back and I started working in the radio station. I’ve always had a knack and desire for sales. And I was good at and I started selling radio and I started doing really well.
Jamarlin Martin: You were a gifted seller?
Alfred Liggins: I was a gifted seller and she needed young, talented, ambitious, hungry folks that wouldn’t leave because we had a small little AM radio station and everybody else would want to go to a bigger company. Why wasn’t going anywhere? So I stayed in and I started making a lot of money and that was the hook, and it just grew from there. I remember exactly, my very first year I made $60,000. This is in 1985. My second year I made $100,000 and then in my third year I made like $150,000, and that was a lot of money in 1988 for a 23-year-old kid. I was bit by the radio bug. It was good. So I was like, all right, I’m going to make the best…
Jamarlin Martin: It was a bull market in radio. You were in at the right time, would you say?
Alfred Liggins: I wouldn’t call it a bull market. At that time it was before radio had deregulated at all, you know, we had one AM station, but I found something that I could do well, I was in a position of importance because my family owned the station so I could make decisions. So I looked at my job and thought how do I expand this opportunity and make this opportunity bigger, better and more forward-looking. And the answer to that was we needed to find out how to buy an FM radio station. The other advantage I had was my mother had hooked up with two African American venture capitalists that gave her the seed money for the first radio station based in Washington. And so I had access to those guys. So here’s these two brothers that were looking to help raise money for and finance African American and Latino entrepreneurs to buy stuff. So it wasn’t like I was just selling radio, I was talking to these guys about, ‘hey, we want to get bigger, we want to buy an FM radio station’, and they knew how to raise money and find investors. They were my mother’s contemporary, so considerably older than myself. But the conversation wasn’t just, ‘well, what’s the next advertiser I’m going to get’ or ‘what’s the next radio show idea?’ It was, okay, how do we buy more stations and how do we grow and how do we do that? And that was a really exciting and robust petri dish for me to germinate in. And that’s what happened in 1987. We looked at trying to buy a bunch of different radio stations and most of them were too expensive for us to afford because even they had limits to how much money they could raise.
Jamarlin Martin: But thinking of buying other stations, is that coming from Cathy or yourself or both of you? You guys have like a thesis where, hey, we want to scale up?
Alfred Liggins: We’re partners. She’s my mother, right? But I was generally the architect of the expansion. Yeah. I was the one who would want to seek out. By the way, she had wanted to buy an FM too, so well before I got deeply involved in our expansions activity. She had tried to lead an effort to buy WKYS, which is a station we own now, but her approach at that time, because she was doing the morning show, was to raise the money out of the black community. It was the number one black radio station owned by NBC and they had to sell it. Not a novel approach, particularly when you don’t have any money, but turns out it was illegal. You can’t just raise and sell securities over the radio. So when that came to her attention, because she had a listener that she didn’t know, a loyal listener who worked at the security exchange commission, who evidently called her one day and said, ‘Miss Hughes, I listen to your show every morning and I really applaud what you’re doing, but I want you to know that it’s actually not legal’. So ended I think raising like a half a million dollars, and gave it back. That station ended up getting sold for $45 million, way more money than we had any idea of how to raise or access. And then I found a smaller station that was going to be sold, that was going to be cheaper, had lower power, but it covered the city where our audience was and we were able to end up buying that for like seven and a half million dollars. And we own that station today. In fact, it’s our best performing station in Washington now, WMMJ. And we ended up buying that station WKYS that sold for over $45 million. We ended up buying it from the people who bought it for 45. We ended up buying it for $36 million, probably about 10 years later in 1995.
Jamarlin Martin: Can you describe your transition from, you’re hustling, you’re the sales guy, but then you start pushing buttons on the M&A side, you start buying stuff?
Alfred Liggins: I graduated high school in 1983. I came to the company full time in 1985. We bought our first FM in 1987. So that happened in a two-year period.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Wow. A lot of people don’t know your struggle where there could be a perception of, this guy his family owned the company, he had it real easy. I read something a while ago about you guys struggling as a family, where you guys were living in a radio station.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah. After I moved to LA, and my stepfather also moved to LA, the house that we had been living in for the last four, five years while I was in high school, my mother, things at the radio station weren’t going well and my mother couldn’t afford to keep up the rent on this big, nice house. So the station had some extra space in it. The station had more space and than they needed because it was an AM and FM in the space and they sold the FM to somebody else and sold the AM to my mom and my stepdad. So there was empty office space so she ended up making that office space her home, and when I moved back and she was living there for probably a year before. But when I moved back I moved into the radio station into that space along with her, and I forget how long we lived there. So maybe we lived there for a year or so. But the fact of the matter is, I am a beneficiary of nepotism. My mother owned an AM radio station, and she invited me to come work at it and that’s an opportunity, right? It takes a lot of gumption and courage to go out as an entrepreneur and start your own company, buy your own radio station. But it certainly wasn’t a profitable business…
Jamarlin Martin: But you were closing deals, right? You were rising the ranks in that short span. It wasn’t like you came over and started running the company on day one. It was more of, hey, I’m out there selling, closing deals, understanding the business.
Alfred Liggins: What fuelled my rise and my standing with my mother and the investors was, I became an anchor in the sales department. Sales started to go up, the little am station started to make money, right? Because it was losing money before that. And so I think we got it to where it was losing money. Now it was making $300,000 or $400,000 a year.
Jamarlin Martin: And you Alfred Liggins are claiming a lot of that alpha that you’re bringing to the table in terms of the enterprise? A lot of the alphas coming from you.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah. It’s just me and my mother, and four other sellers or five other sellers or whatever. And so I was leading that effort. By the way it, her direction, meaning that I didn’t, I didn’t know that business, right. She had to teach me the business, but then I would run with it. And so I think the investors were happy to see, wow, you know, this AM station that we thought our money was dead in, now has got revenue momentum, it’s now profitable and these people want to grow so let’s back them to grow. Because I was like, we can work, we can keep working this hard. But at the end of the day there is no future unless we get into the FM station game, right? And they very well could have said, ‘look, it’s making money now, just pay us our money back, or let’s sell the radio station and we’re out’. But they chose to invest in us growing and betting on us. I found the radio station and then they figured out a way to raise the money to buy it. And then we bought that station WMMJ in 1987 and we put an innovative radio format on it, urban adult contemporary because before that all black radio stations all had kind of the same format. And it was a big hit the first year. It wasn’t a big hit because we didn’t change the format. It was a soft adult contemporary station, Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow, and the bank wanted us to keep it.
Jamarlin Martin: And you guys are competing in the more mainstream.
Alfred Liggins: And we didn’t know what we were doing. And it wasn’t working in the station. Ended up falling out of the ratings. And so then we went to the bank and said, can we do what we know how to do now, and so we changed the format and the thing was a success and then we started making a lot of money over the next five years. We went from having an AM station that was making $300,000 to over the next five years, that FM station along with the AM, we were billing like $10 million and making $5 million. I mean we were doing like $5 million in cash.
Jamarlin Martin: Each radio station with their own P&L?
Alfred Liggins: No, it was always a combined P&L. So yeah, that was the start of it. And so MMJ, big success. And then it’s like, okay, where do we grow next? And so we started looking up the road in Baltimore and we bought our first station outside of Washington in 1992. And that was WWIN-AM and FM.
Jamarlin Martin: Did the writers of ‘Empire’ call you to get some consulting? It’s not probably too many family groups that have taken a business to the level of you and Cathy.
Alfred Liggins: We know Lee Daniels very well and my mother had a script and a television idea that, in fact we made a movie out of it on TV One called ‘Media’, that was very similar to this story and very similar to the ‘Empire’ story. Let’s just say the concept of a black media entertainment business family, was not a new concept when ‘Empire’ hit the air.
Jamarlin Martin: Particularly when I was watching ‘Empire’, they want to IPO, you and Cathy actually did the thing. Not a lot of us people who look like us who have gone through that process.
Alfred Liggins: When that happened, I was always focused on that. I saw all these other companies, guys, entrepreneurs buying radio stations and I was like, ‘how did they afford that? Where they get the money to do that’. Because I knew these two guys that syndicated communications and I was constrained by how much capital they had or their network of people or how they financed things and they were what you call MESBICs, minority enterprise small business investment corporations. And so they weren’t big money managers, but I saw all these other companies buying a lot of radio assets and I wondered how they did that and it turned out they were accessing the public markets, whether it was public debt, and then public equity, so I made it my business to get to know some investment bankers. I forgot how I met the first one, but there was this guy named Mark Levitt.
Jamarlin Martin: Were you just cold calling?
Alfred Liggins: I don’t remember how I met Mark, but somewhere along the line when we were small, Mark became a friend and he was at Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer was a small bank. It wasn’t like Bear Stearns or one of the big Wall Street banks. And I think I may have met Mark Levitt through a guy named Ragan Henry, who was a big African-American owner who has now passed away. They had a big company called Us Radio. And so Mark was my first entree into learning how the public markets ultimately worked. And then I started reading up on it and he came down and talked to the board and I said, look, this is a direction that we need to head in, and then I got a call after we’ve made a few more acquisitions. We bought into Baltimore, bought our competitor in Baltimore. Then we doubled back and bought WKYS here in Washington DC. And then we entered Atlanta. We did all this with bank debt. I got a call out of the blue from a woman named Christine Allen from Credit Suisse First Boston. And they were the bank that had been taking everybody public, all the big radio companies. And so she called me and introduced herself and she’s like, ‘this is Christine Allen from Credit Suisse’. She started talking and I was like, ‘I’m very familiar with who you are’. And so they were a real Wall Street bank and they introduced us to high-yield debt, otherwise known as junk bonds. And they did our first high-yield bond deal and we got rid of the banks, and put the high yield debt in…
Jamarlin Martin: You had a star banker, I think around this time?
Alfred Liggins: Frank Quattrone.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. Did you ever meet him?
Alfred Liggins: I don’t think I ever met Frank, but he was doing all the Silicon Valley deals. When I discovered high yield debt, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because I’d been financing these deals with bank debt and you have covenants and you had to hit certain revenue and cash flow numbers and your leverage had to come down every year or quarter. And the banks, they got to a position also where they really wanted to lend to the bigger companies and didn’t want to do smaller deals. It was really challenging to deal with them. If they had bad real estate loans then all of a sudden they get negative on radio. But the high yield market, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because basically they’ll lend you money for eight years and you pay interest only and you don’t have to pay it back until the end. Right? And I was like, ‘well, that’s great’. And no covenants, right? So your money doesn’t come due if you miss a number.
Jamarlin Martin: The junk bond king…
Alfred Liggins: Michael Milken.
Jamarlin Martin: Michael Milken. Yeah. Where was he at?
Alfred Liggins: He was at Drexel Burnham.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got it. Did you guys ever deal with them? Is this around the same time?
Alfred Liggins: No. I think Drexel was in the early eighties. And now when I’m doing all of this stuff, we did our first bond deal in 1997. Yeah. I think Drexel was gone by then. I don’t remember the exact day. We have to look it up. But I think I met Mike Milken years later, after he’d been sort of excommunicated out of the industry.
Jamarlin Martin: I dunno. With Frank Quattrone and Michael Milken, it seems like a lot of the famous guys, they got in trouble.
Alfred Liggins: They circled back. They got in trouble, they circled back. Milken’s got a whole new platform now, with his big conference in the whole bit. I mean he made hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, who knows, maybe even billions. He made a lot of money.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you go back to a UPenn, Wharton? Did you go back before the IPO or after?
Alfred Liggins: I went back before. I went back in 1993, I graduated in 1995 and we went public in 1999.
Jamarlin Martin: And what were you thinking at that time where you’re already a success story, you got some stuff going, why do you go back to school?
Alfred Liggins: My mother always wanted me to have some sort of degree.
Jamarlin Martin: She thought that the kind of corporate establishment will respect you more?
Alfred Liggins: Yeah. And I think from where she came from, that was Important. She never ended up getting an opportunity to graduate from college. So I think she wanted that for me. I went to night school at the University of the District of Columbia for a year. Right. And then I dropped out to sell radio. And so I hadn’t followed in that path that she would have lIked to have seen me take. And so I was reading the newspaper, the Washington Post, the business section prospecting for advertising leads and I saw an ad for the Wharton Executive MBA program. And the way it was described in the ad, it’s like, ‘hey, you go on the weekends. It’s the same professors, the same curriculum, it’s for executives who have to work. And I was like, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, so I don’t know what possessed me to actually call up and find out if you needed a college degree to get into the executive program. And I talked to the assistant head of admissions, a woman that still works there named Kathy Maloney, and I asked her if you need a college degree, and to my surprise she said, ‘No, it’s not a requirement, you apply, you take the GMAT like everybody else, recommended. And we look at you. More importantly, people wanted folks that had business experience. And I had a ton of that, right?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. You may get a geek who has a high GMAT score, but hey, I can also scale a business up.
Alfred Liggins: So there was something very intriguing about, A, I could go on the weekends. So it wasn’t like, because me stopping working and going back to school for two years was a nonstarter. So the setup of the program played to my current situation, and second, it was very sexy that it was Wharton and I was like, ‘well look, this could be a neat way of ending up with an Ivy League degree. Right. And so I decided to pursue that because I liked that idea that the guys at Syncom, Terry Jones and Herb Wilkins, were both graduates of Harvard Business School and so that was a badge of honor that they had and they like that stuff. And so I thought it would also be impressive to them if I went back and got my MBA from a very well respected school. So it was like getting your ticket punched. At the end. I didn’t make any real contacts that helped me with my business relationships that came out. No, I probably lost money because the radio industry was just starting to consolidate and if I’d spent more time buying more radio stations, that ultimately would have risen in value.
Jamarlin Martin: So it was a net distraction, where, hey, I didn’t really get any big relationships or..,
Alfred Liggins: No. Let’s put it this way. It’s only a net distraction if I assume that I would have spent more time figuring out how to buy more radio stations, and that may not necessarily have been the case probably one radio station that I’m, I’m, I might bought, I had the opportunity by WDAS in Philadelphia and I got nervous about where we were going to get the money from before we signed up and I backed away from it and this happened while I was in school, it’s probably the single biggest radio deal that I regret. I had a letter of intent to buy for $23.5 million dollars. I ended up walking away from it. The guy, Jean Jackson, African-American guy, sold it to this company, Beasley Broadcasting, George Beasley for about $28 million., Beasley and those guys did what we did in Washington with an urban adult contemporary format, made it very successful. Ratings went up, they turned around and sold it five years later for like $100 million dollars. So in my mind I screwed up, but I’m really glad I went back and I did it.
Alfred Liggins: Is your mind sharper, or are you a better CEO because he and I had that. I have that experience. I know what an Ivy League business school is like. I know how they think, what they teach, it’s something that I have in common with other people that I interact with.
Jamarlin Martin: Did you actually feel the corporate establishment assigning more value or, ‘hey, I never really saw anything different in terms of my pedigree of education’.
Alfred Liggins: I gotta tell ya. I have, on numerous occasions had people, people were impressed by it. Bankers, they yell. Exactly. They, it’s like a club, you know what I mean? You know, oh, I went to Penn. Your opinion guy or I went back to business school and because they all did it. And so it’s like a club.
Jamarlin Martin: I won’t question your intellect as much because I know you come from Penn or I or I know you’ve gone through the same educational process, you know, at the level that I have. So I’m, you know, it’s like, you know, your tickets punched. That’s just the way they view it. Doesn’t mean that it’s true. Some of the smartest people, most successful people dropped out of college, didn’t, you know, there’s, you know, there’s so many stories of people who had gumption, and brilliance that didn’t have an Ivy League degree. But that’s why I did it. I wouldn’t have. If it had been the university of Maryland, I wouldn’t have done it, no offense to the university of Maryland. But I’m just saying it’s kinda like, you know, it was my first aspirational, you know, vanity play instead of like wanting to get a Louis Vuitton duffle bag, right? I wanted to have a Wharton business degree.
Jamarlin Martin: As you know, the game has changed in terms of the massive debt loads students are under. Do you think at a macro level in this country that, going to B-School, we need to rethink the risk-reward in terms of how we approach elite education, expensive education.
Alfred Liggins: I gotta tell you, man, I’m really just starting to wrap my brain around this whole student debt thing because, I didn’t deal with it because I went to college at night, right? The University of District of Columbia, it was $1,500 a semester. It was nothing. When I went to business school, it was more expensive. I forgot. It was like, I forgot what it was. $45,000 a year, whatever the company paid for it. That may be one of the reasons why I got in because I didn’t ask for financial aid, right? It’s like we’re writing a check. However, today as I sit at 53 and I start to talk to young people and quite frankly my girlfriend is a dentist that went through school with student loans, etc. And you know, when I realize what it takes to come out and go through that program and the debt that you amass over that period of time, it’s just shocking to me. And that’s at a professional degree. But even if you’re coming out of college and you’re coming out with a $120,000 or $200,000 worth of debt, that’s a big hole that you’re i from the start. And I think ultimately people are starting to make the risk-reward sort of calculation in their head, but you Have a problem because having education is still ultimately, you know, um, uh, a marker for whether you’re going to be more successful or less successful. It just happens to be that it’s super expensive now. And so I don’t know what the answer, I don’t know what the solution has a up to 50 percent of indebted students not paying on their loans. And of course, as you know, some people are predicting that the massive amount of student debt where the wages are not going up, that that’s going to be the next crisis that, that debt load is, is, is building up a, like a subprime mortgage bond situation that we experienced. I mean, it’s like, you know, you’re coming out and if you’ve got a half a million dollars in debt, you got to make a lot of money to pay that off and you’re paying interest on it.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you see anything nuanced, where student debt could impact our community, the African-American community a bit more where, ‘hey, it’s a problem for the country’, but is it magnified? Do you see anything where it’d be magnified for us?
Alfred Liggins: I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I probably would be willing to bet of, as a percentage of our community that goes to college, we have a higher ratio of, of folks that have taken on loans to get there because there’s less money in our community you know, for our parents to go ahead and just write a check. Right? And educate as debt free. And so we’re probably suffering more under the weight of this debt phenomena than other.
Jamarlin Martin: We have less parental support, less financial support.
Alfred Liggins: Absolutely.
Jamarlin Martin: And we’re reaching, we’re reaching.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah. We don’t have the historical household wealth-pools to fall back on, to educate our kids. Now, I got to tell you it definitely is a problem all across the country because we’ve got a pretty well diversified company in terms of ethnicity and stuff like that. And I mean I’ve talked to a lot of young white people that don’t come from wealthy families, right? Because even if you grow up in a middle class white neighborhood and you’re not poor, when it comes time to foot a $60,000 or $70,000 or $80,000 college bill for a year, those families can’t afford that. There’s kids who are going into debt.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah, definitely. I just think it’s magnified for our community in terms of less legacy wealth, even on a small scale.
Alfred Liggins: You’re starting from less. That means your hole’s deeper.
Jamarlin Martin: You bought back the remaining stake of TV One from Comcast. From my perspective, you’re a deal guy in terms of, you like to do deals, you want to think about scaling up in terms of, ‘hey, I got to be big to really matter’. Why haven’t you hooked up with BET, where, I could see the big agencies and the advertisers, they’re playing us against each other. Why haven’t the big boys, you and BET hooked up?
Alfred Liggins: I forgot what year it was. Actually, I do remember what year it was. It was right before BET sold to Viacom. So, I forgot what year it was, where they sold, but Bob Johnson tried to get me to merge with them.
Jamarlin Martin: You didn’t like the price?
Alfred Liggins: No, it didn’t even really come down to price. At the end of the day, probably economically, we had opportunities to sell the company a number of times.
Jamarlin Martin: For a really big number?
Alfred Liggins: The radio company got offered to be bought by, what at that time was a company called Evergreen, which became AMFM, which ultimately became Clear Channel. This guy, Scott Ginsburg, tried to buy the company. Mel Karmazin, who built Infinity and then ultimately ended up getting CBS, and was running Viacom, he tried to buy the company, and we didn’t want to sell. We liked what we were doing, we’re making money, we’re going to create value. And I never looked at it as, okay, I’m going to sell, $50 million or $100 million in my pocket, and then I’m done. Right? I always thought I’d go and build a big enterprise and stay in the game and make a lot more money down the line. Now, if I had taken those offers, I’d be wealthier today because the traditional media business ended up contracting. And actually a lot of the radio companies, including what was Clear Channel, now iHeartMedia, went bankrupt. Citadel went bankrupt. Inner City Broadcasting went bankrupt. Cumulus went bankrupt. Now we didn’t go bankrupt, but certainly our radio cashflows are half of what they were. And the only reason we’re around today Is because we did diversify. We got into the cable business. We’re in the gaming business. Now, as you know, we’re in the digital business. I don’t know where that’s gonna end up, but we’re in it. And so we did have an opportunity to match up with BET, when we were just a radio company. I said, ‘no, one day I’ll want to be in the TV business and the cable business’. And he said, ‘well, you can’t get in the cable business’. And I said, ‘well, why is that?’ And he said, ‘because my partner’s John Malone, and John Malone is never going to give you distribution to compete with BET. And so I was like…
Jamarlin Martin: Man, that sounds like a real boss move. But that’s how the game works.
Alfred Liggins: It was true, right? Yeah. But look, I get it. It makes sense. Why are you going to create more competition for an entity that you’re a part owner of? So Bob was right about that and then he said, ‘but I can get into the radio business’. So I think he toyed after that with buying…
Jamarlin Martin: He’s threatening you that he could come. ‘If you don’t take my deal, I’ll come after you, but you can’t come after me’.
Alfred Liggins: Basically. But he was right. And Clear Channel had bought AMFM and they had to spin off a bunch of stations, like 200 stations. And Bill Kennard was the chairman of the FCC, and he told them that ‘you should sell a lot of these stations to minorities’. And so they were selling all these stations and Bob was at the table and he was going to buy a bunch of stations, as we were, we were going to buy some stations too. But we were competing against him. Ultimately he decided, now economically it was the right decision, against buying radio. And I think they probably had ultimately decided that that time they had taken BET private, that they were even gonna sell BET. So he didn’t end up getting in the radio business. We bought all the stations that we wanted from Clear Channel, doubled the size of the company, we were public by then. But in the end, the better economic decision would have been for us to sell, because he’s sold BET for $3 billion. And if we’d been part of that sale, we’d have a lot of money In our pocket. But we’d also be starting over, right? We wouldn’t have our platform today, so if having a platform and building and staying in the game is important to you than it wasn’t the wrong decision. And then later on after we created TV One, I forget how many years we’d been on the air anyway, even gone into our fourth year, BET had reached out. Debra Lee reached out to us about buying TV One and we weren’t interested. We wanted to keep doing what we were doing. I’ve had several overtures from bigger strategics.
Jamarlin Martin: But not BET, after you get into the game with TV One? And actually I thought, I remember reading in the paper, I believe you were testifying in congress. I thought I read that Bob Johnson was trying to block you with something related to the FCC.
Alfred Liggins: It was set top boxes. Yeah. There was a move. Silicon Valley was trying to get the cable industry to open up their set top box data, and let them write basically software for those set top boxes and get access to the data and content, and try to do it by sort of federal regulation. And A, that stuff’s proprietary, B, content owners don’t want Silicon Valley anywhere near the box because they’re just going to try to create user interfaces and sell advertising around it just like Google does. Right? And Bob was on the technology side because he’s got a new streaming service, Urban Movie Channel. So he’s looking for the ability to have access to these cable homes without having to go through the gatekeeper, the cable and the satellite company. So we were on the opposite side of that issue, and ultimately we won that issue. But he’s a good friend. I have a lot of respect for him. He created something, many things out of nothing. And I was admiring, quite frankly, reason I’m in the cable business is because I saw him do it and I wanted to emulate him. There’s two guys who created successful black television networks that make money in this country. Bob was the first guy to do it and I was the second guy to do it.
Jamarlin Martin: Bob’s CEO at the time for RLJ Entertainment, years ago, he wanted to buy my company. It was around Christmas, we were supposed to really crank it up a notch and Bob didn’t want to do it. And apparently he got into it with the CEO, who was really bullish…
Alfred Liggins: But Bob’s done a lot. He’s been in so many businesses and, a lot of people don’t know this, he’s the largest African American owner of car dealerships in the country. He has like a billion dollars of revenue. I don’t know if Carlyle is his partner. I don’t know how he’s financed it, but it got like a billion dollars of revenue and I don’t how many dealerships that is, you know what I mean? He had two lodging hotels, right. I mean he’s done so many things. And one of the things that he had done was he’d been in the internet business. He did the deal. He had BET.com when it first started up, you and I both remember that and then he bought Russell Simmons’s 360HIPHOP. So by the time it came to do a deal with your company, I think he’d had his fill of the non-successes of the digital content business. Right? He was early in it, and he probably said, ‘I prefer car dealerships’.
Jamarlin Martin: You guys decided to go in another direction with The Roland Martin Show. And I thought about, Debra Lee’s comment in the press. They canceled their news program. People were complaining about BET, and Debra Lee came out in the media and she said, ‘hey, you guys want positive programming, but we put on the positive programming. You guys don’t show up in defense of BET and the criticism’. And so what I had thought at the time is, hey, if you guys have been feeding the community crack for decades, and then you start trying to give them vegetables with talk shows, that, that’s not gonna work. People already have an appetite for something. I saw similar criticism with TV One on Roland Martin, but being in that business, I know that, ‘hey, who’s going to pay the bills if the people are not supporting the programming?’, meaning that it would be irrational for you to pull Roland Martin, if it’s making money, a good number.
Alfred Liggins: Now look, the Roland Martin decision was a hard decision. I decided to put the show on the air in the first place, so it was kind of my baby and ultimately it didn’t get a large audience, but we knew that it wasn’t going to get a super, super, super large audience. But what ultimately really happened is the pay TV business got tougher, right? You started to get cord-cutting and you start to see subscriber losses. Ratings are going down because the universe is getting smaller. Right? And so your programming budgets end up getting constrained because your top line is getting constrained, and so then you have to make decisions and we had it on and we had it in the morning and we ultimately had to make a decision and it was a very expensive show. We were spending $5 million a year to produce that show.
Jamarlin Martin: Wow. Yeah.
Alfred Liggins: And so we had to make a decision in order to best serve our audience and to be competitive, can we afford to invest that kind of money in a morning news program or should we redirect those dollars into other day parts where we can get a larger audience. And ultimately we decided that we were going to pull the plug on that show, we’re going to revisit what our next sort of news vehicle is going to be. And in the meantime we’re going to reinvest those dollars into prime time programming, and we got a new exciting, daily show opportunity coming in 2019 that we’re outselling in the upfront that will run in prime and late night, where it has an opportunity to gain a much wider audience. And it’s the same $5 million, just re-purposed. And those are hard decisions that you have to make. If business was stronger then you could continue to carry a news program that is more of a community service and less of a profit engine, but that’s just not the situation that a network like ours being smaller, not owned by a big giant media company is in today. Hopefully we can grow to a position where we don’t have to make a decision like that.
Jamarlin Martin: Let’s talk about that, hard decisions, because I probably don’t know anybody who has made more hard decisions from a business perspective, as you. You’ve been in the trenches making hard decisions. Talk to younger CEOs and entrepreneurs about making the hard decisions where you become a friends with folks who work with you, folks who help you, help you build your company. You begin to love these people, however, from a business perspective and industry changes, performance changes, you have to break up. Can you talk a little bit about that, I’m sure at some poInts you struggle making those tough decisions with, ‘hey, the business is telling us to do this, but it’s impacting my personal relationships’.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah, I mean, look. So two things, yes, it’s hard, but B, it’s business. This is not a family household. I mean, even though we look at our employees as extended family. But the reality is that, it’s not an immediate family and immediate family household. It’s not a group of friends that are gathered to socialize. It’s a business here that is built to serve a community, and to serve it well with integrity and profitably. So you have to approach those decisions in a business-like manner.
Jamarlin Martin: And have you always been like that or you grew into the kind of comfortability, like ‘hey, I got to be the gecko this time’.
Alfred Liggins: I’ve kind of always been. Look, the gecko greed is good…
Jamarlin Martin: But I mean, you have to look at the decision as transactional in the sense that ‘hey, I gotta save my company, I got to grow the company, It’s not personal’.
Alfred Liggins: Here’s the thing, I can’t be of assistance to my immediate family or to any of my friends if my business is not successful. Let’s start there. I like to think that I’m a resource for my family. I’m a resource to my friends. But that only happens if my business footing is sound and if I have resources. So the minute that I let that not be the case, I’m a less effective person in my personal and my family life in order to be helpful on that level. So yeah, I’ve always protected that. And although the business family is personal to us, it’s personal but we’re here at the pursuit in the success of the business because if the business is successful, then each of us then can also be successful at home. Right? So if you are running a unit or you’re a manager of a successful part of any company, this company, then you know that you’re going to reap the benefits of that success at work and that success and those benefits are going to filter back into your personal household. Right? And that’s gonna [inaudible] to your wife, to your kids, to your mother, to your cousins, out to your friends, etc. And so that’s really kind of the premise of how I looked at it. So you gotta make the right business decisions. I’ve seen so many places go down because they got emotional about things, they got attached to stuff, they wouldn’t let go with something, because they were so close to it. Yeah. But if you go down in flames, you can’t help anybody from a cultural standpoint.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you believe that African-American CEOs, based on the fact that you’ve rubbed shoulders with folks all around the American business establishment, but do you feel like if you come from a traditional American experience with these hard decisions you have to make in the corporate environment, there’s too much heart and not enough brain in terms of making these difficult decisions?
Alfred Liggins: You started off with African-American CEOs. Look, there’s, I don’t want to say a whole bunch of, but there are a number of the African-American CEOs that I know, Richard Parsons, Ken Chenault or Stan O’Neal.
Jamarlin Martin: Not at that level.
Alfred Liggins: Those guys make decisions with brands, right?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah.
Alfred Liggins: But yes, I have seen particularly with small minority businesses, family-owned minority businesses, they’re afraid to take on partners and expand and raise capital. They won’t let go of a dying line of business and transition to something new.
Jamarlin Martin: Like a nickel and diamond investor.
Alfred Liggins: You know what I mean. And those are ultimately mistakes, because, you know, sometimes you gotta bite the bullet on, on something that was your idea or it was the start of something and pivot and go in a different direction in order to be successful. As they say in football, ‘run for the daylight’, and I’ve seen people struggle with that.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So I want to talk to you about political advertising with HRC and Trump. We didn’t get any direct money from the Democrats in terms of our digital platform. From your perspective, do you feel like black media is short changed because there’s a rational philosophy that, ‘hey, you black folks, you Negroes don’t have anywhere to go, where are you going to go?
Alfred Liggins: You didn’t get any money because we took it.
Jamarlin Martin: So it’s kinda like, ‘hey, you guys are going to show up anyway’, but even if you do get money, maybe you’re not getting the proportion that would be commensurate with the black vote.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah. I’ve argued about that a lot. It happened a lot during the Obama administration. I remember in his reelection bid, I remember going to see his campaign manager and Chicago, Jim Messina and was trying to sell him on the need for black voter turnout, etc. And he informed me, he was giving me the election on the electoral college, that’s all he was focused on. He wasn’t really all that concerned about black voter turnout and our platform. And so I’ve always felt that the black voter has been taken for granted and organizations have underspent to reach it. Now, we’re in the middle of a political year right now and we’re doing pretty well with it. We don’t do phenomenal, but we do probably better than some other formats in constituencies. But it has been a problem. We also have a focus on it now, we’ve got a person in our organization who focuses on nothing but political and governmental ad dollars, right? But now there’s way more at stake, right now particularly. This year they don’t have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.
Jamarlin Martin: They’ve got to work harder. I’ve been thinking that in some cases MAGA could be a good thing for black America. And one is, ‘hey, if you don’t take that black vote seriously, the democrats, you guys got big wallets out there in terms of your media advertising and your outreach and how you’re going about things’. Yeah. You know, the people are voting 90 percent democratic, but we can stay home.
Alfred Liggins: I got to tell you. When the republicans started to spend money in the last election, Trump-Hillary, the republicans started to spend money before the democrats had on our stations.
Jamarlin Martin: On the black stations?
Alfred Liggins: On us in particular. We had a meeting with the RNC and immediately I had a personal meeting with Reince Priebus. Because the way they looked at it, is I don’t have to win the black vote, but if I can affect it by one or two percentage points, okay, that’s the difference between winning and losing in a lot of places. And they spent money and got out early, and the democrats didn’t do that. And I think durIng the election I would tell people, I said, black people are going to respond to Trump. This was early on. This is before all of the stuff that has happened now, right? But early on when he first started to run, the Donald Trump that black people knew was Trump the billionaire, ‘Art of the Deal’, Taj Mahal?
Jamarlin Martin: The cool guy.
Alfred Liggins: The aspiration.
Jamarlin Martin: The boss.
Alfred Liggins: That’s what they know. They don’t know Trump, the businessman. They don’t know who Trump really is personally. They don’t know any of those things. They know that this guy was a billionaire, flashy, Trump Tower, and that’s not a negative to them right now. Fast forward to when he starts talking about his policies and this, that, and the other, and you get reactions like you did in Charlottesville, right? African-Americans have a different perception altogether. But I’m talking about on the early days when he first started running. You know what I mean? So I was telling democrats, you need to protect against that. You need to market against that. Because I said it’s not like they look at George Bush and go, ‘oh, that guy, he’s definitely not for me.’ Trump had a swagger and an aspirational aura around him.
Jamarlin Martin: So let’s try to take you out of Urban One and let’s take you hypothetically as Barack Obama’s advisor. So our people love Barack Obama, love Michelle. Hey, the spreadsheet is saying these people, when you look at the dollars, I have $200 million dollars. These people coming out for me no matter what. These people crazy about us. These people are coming no matter what. So financially I’m putting my cold accountant analyst hat on. If these people are coming out and I don’t gotta do anything, I need to put my money where it’s a little kind of in the middle. What would you advise Obama to do in terms of if you’re just going by the data in terms of getting a bang for your buck?
Alfred Liggins: Look. Because we had the excitement of a first black president, because he’s such a great orator, brilliant guy. People really didn’t talk about the fact that there really wasn’t an agenda for African-Americans during that.
Jamarlin Martin: He’s like ‘hey, I’ll help everybody’.
Alfred Liggins: And lots of people argued, well, we were the bedrock 90 plus percent turnout vote that…
Jamarlin Martin: We’re not getting the dividend, like the Cuban vote.
Alfred Liggins: Mostly the way politics has worked in the past is you reward those people who have helped you get there, particularly if they need it. Right? And so I was in lots of conversations, high circle conversatIons with CEOs, entrepreneurs and business people. They’re all trying to grow their businesses and felt like they really didn’t have an angle or an access or an opportunity with the Obama administration, but nobody would talk about it publicly.
Jamarlin Martin: Because everyone loves him. He’s like the Jesus.
Alfred Liggins: You don’t want to disrespect, but believe me, everybody talked about it and they still talk about it.
Jamarlin Martin: So you’re saying that there was a club of CEOs that felt like, ‘hey, Obama, thIs is our time. Let us holler’. And you’re saying that there was just no connectivity.
Alfred Liggins: There was no connectivity. Let’s put it this way. Most of the people that I knew didn’t see it, and I knew a lot of well-placed people, and he chose to not play that path, right? So going back to your question, if you say the data, ‘hey, we’re going to get these people anyway’, my advice would have been, you’re a great president, your legacy is going to be you’re the first black president and this constituency helped you get there. They’re in need. I would think that you would need to give that constituency a nod in some form or fashion.
Jamarlin Martin: Wait. It sounds like now you’re talkIng about objectively wasting money though. I’m saying that…
Alfred Liggins: I don’t ever consider advertising or marketing objectively wasting money at all, because…
Jamarlin Martin: I’m saying in terms of which pots you put it in, do you go after the kind of confused or middle of the road white independent who can go either way? Do you put your dollars a over there or, ‘hey, I got all these people over here…’
Alfred Liggins: I call it shoring up your base. And so now I don’t look at it as objectively wasting money because, first of all there was a billion dollar spent on the campaign. There was no shortage of money.
Jamarlin Martin: And even in the battleground states, you could still do something more with black outreach.
Alfred Liggins: That was one of the disappointing things. There was not a specific plan for our audience, this community, but it was what it was and I think that people who felt that way were cool, respectful and we all operate it and moved on, and quite frankly people now are looking in the rear view mirror and you still don’t have a plan ahead of us in this new administration. And I think from a presidential tone standpoint, Obama is looking like George Washington right now, compared to the tone of the country and what’s coming out of the White House today. So my advice would have been shore up your base, reward those who have been loyal, and there wasn’t a lack of money.
Jamarlin Martin: They got themselves a big slush fund.
Alfred Liggins: I don’t know if there’s a slush fund, but I forgot what the number was, but it was like they had a billion dollars. They had tons of money, right. I tell you what. I raised money and gave money to candidates that I know can’t win because they’re African-American and they’re trying, and who knows, maybe one day. When Al Sharpton ran for president, I raised like $150,000 for him, and I called my friends and they were like, ‘Why are we doing this? He can’t win’. I said, ‘that’s not the point’. The point is this is an advancement of our community and our representation.
Jamarlin Martin: It pushes.
Alfred Liggins: And our seat at the table. And so, I look at that is the same as spending money to shore up your base, even when you know that they’re not good, they’re gonna be there anyway.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. That’s what some of our people said in Florida. they said, I’m not backing Gillum because he doesn’t have a shot. And what does he do? He wins.
Alfred Liggins: Yeah, you’re right. You gotta keep pushing your agenda.
Jamarlin Martin: So Facebook has been in the news, they have hired some black executives that go after multicultural dollars, advertising dollars, and before the scandal some folks in the industry said that they had a plan where they were going to really build out a push to get more multicultural dollars to the audience. A lot of the ad agencies, not a lot, but they have separate, multicultural budgets.
Alfred Liggins: The head of our Chicago office went to run that.
Jamarlin Martin: They picked her off. Right? So I was hearing kind of behind the scenes that Facebook has this push that we want to go into the black advertising budgets and crush that too. Do you feel like Facebook has any responsibility where they come in and start taking billions of dollars out of the ad marketplace and where the black media just crushed. Right? Do you feel like, ‘hey, they don’t have any responsibility, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They want the black money too.
Alfred Liggins: No, I don’t think they have any responsibility. They don’t have a responsibility not to compete. The people who have the advertising budgets have a responsibility to decide, ‘how do I want to use my marketing dollars? Because you know when you buy Facebook or Google, you’re just buying reach. You’re not buying context, you’re not buying relevant content and you can make a decision that you think advertising that is more contextually relevant is more effective or advertising that’s mass and cheap is more effective.
Jamarlin Martin: Well, I would argue that with their new video push, that they’re buying shows. Jada Pinkett Smith is on Facebook, so they’re getting original programming. They’re coming in that space. Let me just give you a hypothetical. Facebook hires 100 ad sellers and says, I want to go to Burrell. I want to go to Union World. I want to go to whatever’s left and I want it all. And they have the stuff that you’re talking about. They can do deals with influencers and celebrities and they want it all.
Alfred Liggins: Well, first of all, there’s not enough money at Burrell for them to hire 100 sellers to go after. Right?
Jamarlin Martin: I’m talking about the what’s left, let’s say MediaVest…
Alfred Liggins: I just was at a national associated black on broadcasters, you know, conference yesterday and Marc Pritchard, who’s the CMO of Proctor and Gamble, was there and he gave an outstanding presentation about his company’s commitment to diversity. Traditional media, they’re starting to move more money back into radio, out of digital, because they’ve had issues with…
Jamarlin Martin: The shady practices…
Alfred Liggins: A lot of shady practices. He talked about the importance of contextual relevance, right? And he talked about all the myths that were out there. Hey, I get black people in my general market buy, or there’s enough black people in our ad that we’re going to appeal to everybody. He was very specific that they think that targeted, tailored media is more effective. And he was also positive on the need to support Black-owned, Hispanic-owned media and to support those communities. He’s the largest advertiser in the world, right? Because they sell to those communities. At the end of the day, Silicon Valley’s job ultimately is to do more with less people, with less human beings. That’s what technology ultimately is. I remember, I was having a conversation with this former big GE executive who had risen to the top ranks, African-American and I’d read all the six sigma stuff and all these things about GE, their system, their playbook, right? And they all talked about productivity and I was like, what the hell is productivity? Because I’d read the Jack Welch book and I said, ‘tell me, what does productivity mean?’ And he just said, ‘doing more things with less people’. So you got a factory where it took five guys to man the machines to make something. Productivity is figuring out a way to make it two guys standing back manning these machines and getting it done. That ultimately kind of flies in the face of artisan, creativity, the next level sort of connection, ideation, and Facebook is a big technology platform. They’re going to be able to reach more people and be cheaper, but we’ve got to find out what’s our differentiation.
Jamarlin Martin: But this relates to, let’s say, Facebook comes in…
Alfred Liggins: I’m sorry. So we find out what our differentiation is and then we have to sell it to the advertisers and I think the responsibility is ultimately for a Proctor and Gamble or for a Kroger or for a Coca Cola to see that as value and not just a tonnage, that you can buy. And I get that they’ll have some content there, but they’re probably not going to go headfirst into the content business, they buy a content company.
Jamarlin Martin: Have they, have you ever reached out to you in terms of building a relationship?
Alfred Liggins: No.
Jamarlin Martin: Why?
Alfred Liggins: I don’t know. I don’t know anybody there.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re the biggest platform out there. Well back to responsibility. I would counter that. As you know, the practices of Facebook where admittedly, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, they say, ‘hey, we were too focused on growth, being productive, and just killing everything in our way’. What we’ve learned is that the big wallets out of Silicon Valley, they’re doing stuff where, ‘hey, we want to kill everything, we want to do it with as few employees as possible and make it that much more profit. Fuck everybody, this is our job. But when they do that, what society is starting to see and what foreign governments are starting to see, what the senate and the U.S. Congress is starting to see is that they’ll be doing these things, but at that scale, if you don’t consider the consequences in terms of how this could disrupt certain segments of society, our democracy…
Alfred Liggins: So that’s where the obligation is on the government. These companies are rapidly becoming today’s monopolies. They’re becoming today’s Standard Oil, today’s AT&T, and the government’s got to look at that. Silicon Valley under the Obama administration…
Jamarlin Martin: Well he was in the bed with them.
Alfred Liggins: They had an open door, as if they were garage startups, right? These companies are monopolies now and they’ve got more data and they know more about you and me than the government does. They know more about anything ever. Right? And so ultimately the government’s got to figure out how do you regulate that so that the playing field stays as level as possible because what’s scarier and different about them and technology is this is technology disrupting mainstream businesses and they’re going to continue widdling down the employment base as they take over those businesses. They’re going to do more for destroying job opportunities and they’re creating jobs. But there are fewer jobs and they’re in highly specialized technology fields that, particularly our community, we’re not going to make that loop back around in order to get those jobs, and it may not just be one generation that it doesn’t happen. It could end up being multiple generations before somebody is able to circle back into whatever the new economy is. And I’m not saying you need to stop the progress of technology. I’m saying we need to be well aware of the effects of technology because those effects are going to happen a lot faster than people can actually try to recover and re-train themselves and re-orient.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. In terms of my knowledge of Facebook’s secret plan to go after the black dollars where they started picking off your sales team. I think the reason they never approached you about a partnership or, ‘hey, let us kind of figure something out’. We’re coming in this space is because they’re trying to take you out.
Alfred Liggins: I don’t think they’re thinking about us. I mean, to be honest with you, I think the reason we haven’t heard from them is because we’re small potatoes. It’s chump change, right?
Jamarlin Martin: Why would they have a multicultural sales force?
Alfred Liggins: Put it this way. AOL for a long time they had black voices, right? I was looking at Comscore the other day and they got like a million and eight. There’s no attention or focus there and they were competitive and so all of these companies, they get so big they think, ‘oh, we need to go into this genre’. But they don’t ultimately pay any attention to it. And the main reason why they don’t pay any attention to it is because the dollars aren’t so big. Right? Amazon starting up an advertising platform. They’re not thinking about us, multicultural. They’re aiming at Facebook and Google’s money.
Jamarlin Martin: Thanks everybody for listening to GHOGH. You can check me out @JamarlinMartin on Twitter and also come check us out at https://moguldom.com/. That’s M O G U L D O M.com. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. You get the latest information on crypto, tech, economic empowerment, and politics. Let’s GHOGH!