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An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks – The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks

The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-star-phyllis-hicks/)

 

 

 

 

When the story of the city’s longest-running African-American-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star, is written, three women will dominate its 80-year narrative.

Founding publisher Mildred Brown ran the ship from 1938 until her death in 1989. Her niece Marguerita Washington (a career educator), who spent time working for her aunt growing up, succeeded her. Phyllis Hicks joined the paper in 2005 and took over more and more of its operations after Washington fell ill. Upon Washington’s 2016 death, Hicks officially became publisher and managing editor; in truth, she had been running things for some time.

Hicks—the last survivor of this troika of black women journalists—never intended getting so deeply involved with the paper. Brown was only an acquaintance and Hicks’ association with the Star was limited to reading and submitting news items to it. She only joined the staff as a favor to her mother, who was close to Washington. Hicks studied journalism in school, but besides writing occasional press releases for her work in the public and private sectors (including her coaching of the Stepping Saints drill team), she had nothing to do with the Fourth Estate.

Fate had other plans, and thus Hicks, like Brown and Washington before her, became the matriarchal face of the paper. She did it her way, too. Lacking the entrepreneurial and sartorial flair of Brown, Hicks nevertheless managed attracting enough advertisers to keep the Star afloat through troubled economic times and declining ad revenues and subscriptions. Without the publishing and academic background of Washington, Hicks still found ways to keep the paper relevant for today’s readers.

After more than a decade with the paper, Hicks—who turns 76 on March 7—is looking to step away from the paper due to her own declining health. She broke her ankle in 2017, and then, last year went to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia; she was discharged with a dysfunctional kidney requiring dialysis.

She is eager for someone to carry the Star torch forward. As this issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, a management transition involving the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center was in progress.

Whatever the paper’s future, Hicks is glad to have been part of its legacy of strong black women. That legacy extends to her late mother, aunts, and grandmother (Emma Lee Agee-Sullivan)—all independent achievers from whom she drew much inspiration.

When Agee-Sullivan was young, she was a member of the church pastored by the Rev. Earl Little (Malcolm X’s father). Agee-Sullivan was with the Little family when a lynch mob came looking for Earl Little. The family hid him and covered for him, and the Littles fled Nebraska the next day. As an adult, Hicks says, Agee-Sullivan was active in the Baptist church and started the state’s first licensed, black-owned home daycare.

Hicks had aunts who worked in finance and another who was a championship golfer (who would have gone professional “if she had come at another time”), she says, adding that her paternal grandfather, the Rev. J. P. Mosley Sr., led a demonstration to integrate swimming pools in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1954, and “built Mount Nebo Baptist Church from the ground up” in Omaha.

When the challenge of the Star or anything else presented itself, she was ready. “I just did it because it had to be done,” Hicks says.

She followed the path laid out by other “black women taking the leadership role.”

At a time when few black women owned businesses, Brown launched the Star only a year after moving to town. She originally worked for the city’s other African-American paper, The Guide. She left its employment for her startup, which competed against The Guide for advertisers and readers. The Star soon won out thanks to her entrepreneurial savvy and not-taking-no-for-an-answer grit. The publisher made her paper a bastion for civil rights and community pride.

Following Brown’s death in 1989, Washington took command. By the early 2000s, the
paper struggled.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ mother, Juanita, befriended Washington. When Juanita fell ill, Washington helped care for her to allow Hicks to manage the Stepping Saints. Then, when Juanita’s house got flooded, she stayed with Washington for six weeks.

“They kind of adopted each other and threw me in the mix,” Hicks says.

Hicks was retired but, at the urging of her mother, she offered to assist Washington at the Star. Hicks soon took on editorial and business duties.

“I went to do a little marketing for Marguerita, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. “I discovered there was a lot of help she needed. The paper was in dire straits. And I just started doing some of everything.”

Along the way, Hicks and Washington grew close. “It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” she says.

Together, they formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a fundraising and scholarship vehicle.

As Washington’s health failed, Hicks became her caregiver and eventually power of attorney. By the time Washington died of multiple malignant brain tumors in 2016, Hicks transitioned the paper from a weekly to a biweekly as a cost-savings move. She also got the paper’s archives digitized online.

Hicks continued running the paper, she says, because “I just felt an obligation. When I take on something, I try to see it through.”

Woodcut of Phyllis Hicks by Watie White

The Star is believed to be the nation’s oldest African-American paper owned and operated by women. Through the Great Depression, the late ’60s riots, the 2008 economic collapse, the death of publishers, and declining print ad revenue, it has never ceased publication.

Hicks admires how Washington took up the mantle after Mildred Brown died.

“She wanted the paper to go on as a legacy to Mildred because Mildred put her all into the paper. Plus, Marguerita felt the paper needed to be in the community to allow the black community a voice. She felt the newspaper was another way to educate people.

“She made the ultimate sacrifice and put her life on hold to keep somebody else’s dream alive,” Hicks says.

With Washington and Brown as her models, she ensured the Star’s survival.

“I take satisfaction in knowing I kept it from going under because it was close to going under,” she says. “With some personal sacrifices, I’ve been able to keep the doors open and pay people’s salaries. I paid off allThe Omaha Star bills. There were several years of back taxes. All that’s been caught up to date.”

Hicks came to believe, as Brown and Washington did, the Star serves an important role in its “ability to tell it like it is in the community, without it having to be politically correct.”

Just don’t expect crime reporting.

“I’ve tried to keep the paper in the light that Marguerita and Mildred did in positive news,” she says. “We don’t report who got killed, we don’t report crime, we don’t report any of that, because there’s a mess of that being reported already. What we try to do is paint a bright picture of what’s going on in the community—people’s accomplishments. We try to put information out there that builds the community up as well as inspires the community.”

The Star’s long been home to strong voices—from Charlie Washington and Preston Love Sr. to Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks—calling for change. For many black Omahans, including those living elsewhere, it remains a main conduit to their shared community.

Hicks wishes more young people used the paper as a resource and recognized its role in fighting injustice and championing black self-determination.

“It’s a legacy for them,” she says. “It’s a part of this community’s history, and it’s a vehicle for them to tell their stories. We invite young people to submit stories.”

The Star intersects with young people through internships it offers students and scholarships granted by the Study Center. Engaging with community youth has been a priority for Hicks for years.

Long before joining the Star, Hicks made her community mark as co-founder and director of the Salem Baptist Church Stepping Saints drill team. The team was originally organized in 1966 to perform at a single event. But Saints dancers and drummers wanted something permanent, so the group became a fixture in area parades and at Disneyland, Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and many other attractions across the nation.

Hicks says, the last time she counted, the Saints had performed in 38 states and some 2,000 youths had cycled through the team’s ranks over time. Some veteran Saints have seen their children and grandkids participate, making it a multigenerational tradition.

The Saints celebrated 50 years in 2017. The team is still going strong. Even though Hicks no longer takes an active hand in things, she’s still the matriarch.

Just as she never meant for the Saints to be a long-term commitment, her Omaha Star gig turned into one. Her promise-keeping may be her enduring legacy.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I’m going to try to see it to the end,” she says.

Hicks wants the paper to remain black-owned and managed and based in North Omaha, where its red brick building (at 2216 N. 24th St.) has landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Visit theomahastar.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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Alfred Liggins is the other half of the Urban One success story


Alfred Liggins is the other half of the Urban One success story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Omaha Star

 

 

Profile image of Alfred Liggins, IIIAlfred Liggins III

 

 

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

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

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

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

But even he’s is in awe of his mom.

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, my mother has an amazing story from where she came and she’s always been more of a forefront person.

A lot of people tend to think this woman built this company and she made her son the CEO, but they  don’t realize how long I’ve been at the company and that it was really a joint effort. They tend to thing it’s a traditional family business.

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

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

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

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

 

Son and mother in the early days of Cathy’s radio career

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The idea that I had doubled-back and ended up getting in an Ivy league business school was exciting to me. It kind of felt like I was beating the system in some way. My diploma says the same thing every one else’s diploma says. In the end, I feel like I got my ticket punched. my certification, my bonafides.”

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

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

 

Cathy Hughes

 

Reaching a more substantial audience came next.

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

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

For the first time, the company recorded serious profits.

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

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

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

That’s why getting into television was key.

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

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

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

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

 

Alfred Liggins 2019 Winter TCA Tour - Day 16

Alfred Liggins III, ©Gettt Images

 

 

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

“I said, ‘Look, I know we’ve never done television before, but we know how to market and program to black people. You have the distribution, but we’ll put up all the money.’ Lots of people were wanting to start a cable network, but they wanted Comcast to put up all the money. Eventually, $134 million was raised. Comcast invested $15 million in it. They got a big piece of the company just for giving us the distribution. We  invested $74 million and I raised another $30 million from people I had done business with before. That’s how we got started in TV.”

The once monolithic TV industry, he said, “is disintermediating now with cord cutting” and streaming. “We’re trying to figure out how to pay for and deliver more content and what other distribution opportunities or systems there are for us to monetize that content.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alfred Liggins 43rd NAACP Image Awards Viewing Event

Alfred Liggins III and Cathy Hughes, ©Getty Images

 

 

He nurtures the team he’s cultivated around him.

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

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

Ego has no place in his business approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.

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