John Hughes, GM for music station KPVU in Prairie View, Texas, died Sept. 5 in Houston due to an apparent heart attack. He was 71.
Hughes’ death was announced by officials at Prairie View A&M University, which licenses KPVU.
“Prairie View A&M University will be forever grateful to John Hughes for his tenacity and commitment to PVAMU and our students,” said Dorie J. Gilbert, dean for the Brailsford College of Arts & Sciences, and James M. Palmer, provost and SVP for academic affairs, in a news release.
Hughes joined KPVU in 2016. During his tenure, he rebranded KPVU to “The Art of Soul” to bridge gaps between neo-soul, jazz, world music and Latin music. He also helped KPVU, traditionally a jazz station, introduce modern R&B and hip-hop programming to its schedule. Now it is common to hear newer acts such as Ari Lennox on the station alongside D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. The music is also streamable alongside local broadcasts.
“He always talked about ‘surprising & delighting’ the listeners & how soulful music is the glue that bonds us all together. From Boomers, Gen X, Millennials & Gen Z,” said Marquis K. Lofton, KPVU’s PD and operations manager, in a LinkedIn post. “He loved the students and his door was always open for advice. John Hughes is like a school. I’m grateful to have attended the ‘School of John.’”
Maria Moffitt, a marketing and development consultant for KPVU, said Hughes’s greatest contributions to public media were advocating for greater diversity in programming, mentoring students of color at historically black colleges and universities, and helping to create a broadcast engineering program at Prairie View A&M University to increase the number of Black engineers in the industry.
Hughes was born June 21, 1951, in Princeton, N.J., as the third son of Ernest W. Hughes Jr. and Sletta Estella Hughes. He was one of eight children and was known by extended family as a member of “The Big Eight.”
Hughes as a teenager was a “skillful young scoundrel” who traveled all over New Jersey with and without his parents’ approval, according to a family obituary. He was at times placed on “house arrest” but always seemed to find inventive ways to sneak out.
According to family lore, Hughes’ career in public broadcasting started with a wager. On his 18th birthday, Hughes bet his oldest brother that he could secure an interview and get a job with the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority. Hughes eventually cold-called station executives, and a leader, admiring his tenacity, sought permission to hire Hughes. But Hughes’ mother and father rejected the offer and pushed their son to attend Rutgers University as an English major in the fall of 1970. Hughes graduated from Rutgers in 1974 as a Paul Robeson Scholar, which is awarded to distinguished students in the school of arts and sciences.
After college, Hughes worked for New Jersey Public Broadcasting before leaving to hold executive positions at Georgia Public Broadcasting and WABE in Atlanta. Hughes went on to become GM for Clark Atlanta University’s radio station, WCLK, and later moved to Washington, D.C., to become a program executive at Howard University’s WHUT public television station. He was also GM of WPFW, the Pacifica station in Washington.
“His willingness to teach and learn from others gained him respect and offered him the opportunity to enact his vision and the vision of others,” said Jim Lyle, former executive director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, in a PVAMU news release. “John will be remembered and missed in the public broadcasting industry.”
Hughes was a lifelong lover of music. Some of his favorite artists were Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Gil Scott-Heron, Celia Cruz, Donny Hathaway, Grover Washington Jr., Nina Simone, George Benson, Stevie Wonder, Gregory Porter and Paul Robeson.
Dubbed a “hazel-eyed don” by family, Hughes was said to have a “stunning wit,” “soaring intelligence,” a “mischievous sense of adventure” and a “boundless charm” that made him the life of the party and a “harbor in a storm.”
“John’s light shined brightly; his storytelling captivated us; his antics thrilled and infuriated us, and his love of international travel, food, sports, politics, Cuban art, and culture moved us,” the family said in his obituary. “The ultimate wingman, John’s love for his family and friends, was endless. His decades-long friendships with his Groove Phi Groove brothers, his Atlanta, D.C., and New Jersey crews, and his infinite love speak to the enormity of his heart. Amid a riotous party or family gathering, John, with outstretched arms, would declare, ‘Ain’t we living!’”
Hughes’ parents and oldest brother, Thomas, are deceased. Hughes is survived by siblings Charles and Douglas Hughes of Trenton, N.J.; Nancy Holley Hughes of Boston; Ella Noyland Hughes and Ernia P. Hughes of Silver Spring, Md.; Sletta Hughes Arobo of Columbia, Md.; and an extended family of cousins, nieces, nephews, a godmother and godchildren.
Funeral Mass services will be held Friday at St. Paul Parish in Princeton, N.J. A separate celebration of his life will be held later in Atlanta, where Hughes spent a great deal of his life and career. A scholarship fund in his name is also in the works.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Hughes added R&B and hip-hop programming to KPVU as part of CPB’s Urban Alternative initiative. KPVU was initially selected for an Urban Alternative grant, but KTSU in Houston ended up implementing the format instead.