By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006
Clear Channel Communications Inc. has agreed to sell the company to a consortium of private-equity firms and plans to shear off more than one-third of its 1,150 radio stations, dismantling a giant that dominated the industry and became the bogyman of media consolidation for the past half-decade.
Clear Channel is hard to avoid in Washington. It owns eight local radio stations, including popular rocker DC101, top 40 station Hot 99.5 and sports-talk WTEM-AM. It sells ad space atop hundreds of taxis and on the sides of bus stops and provides traffic updates through its Total Traffic Network unit.
The buyers, led by Bain Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners, agreed to pay $26.7 billion for the company, which includes the assumption of $8 billion in debt.
In a separate transaction also announced yesterday, Clear Channel said it would seek buyers for all of its television stations and 448 of its smaller radio stations, presumably because the private-equity buyers are not interested in owning television or small-market radio. The stations marked for sale are all outside the nation's top 100 markets, which would exclude Washington, the eighth largest.
The sell-off will mark the end of the consolidation era for the radio industry and its largest player, Clear Channel, and an acknowledgment by the company that it no longer is interested in smaller radio markets.
The predecessor to Clear Channel was founded by L. Lowry Mays and Red McCombs, former owner of the Minnesota Vikings, with the purchase of one San Antonio radio station in 1972. The company went public in 1984 and grew remarkably in the 1990s as the result of favorable Federal Communications Commission rules allowing for radio consolidation. The company topped out at more than 1,200 stations in 2000, just before radio ratings and ad revenue began to flatten as listeners moved elsewhere.
As the company grew, it received unfavorable press for its size and influence on music playlists and artist development. Clear Channel was criticized for homogenizing the sound of FM radio and strong-arming acts into playing company venues in return for airplay. The criticism became so intense that the company posted a "myth vs. facts" section on its Web site to answer charges.
Mays's sons, Randall and Mark, will continue to operate the stations under new ownership. As part of the sale, all three received substantial payouts, the value of which was not disclosed.
Bain and Lee also are bidding for Tribune Co., which owns several newspapers and television stations. That process is ongoing. But now that the two private-equity firms are set to own Clear Channel, an additional purchase of Tribune could force the private-equity firms to sell certain papers and television stations to comply with FCC regulations prohibiting one company from owning a newspaper and radio or television station in the same city.
Clear Channel stock closed up $1.24 yesterday to close at $35.36. The buyers paid $37.60 per share, the highest price the stock has seen since mid-2004, and a 25 percent premium on its average price in the month ending Oct. 24. Last year, Clear Channel radio reported more than $3.5 billion in revenue, tops among radio groups. CBS Radio was second at $2.1 billion.
It's been all downhill for Clear Channel stock since its high of nearly $100 per share in 2000, and a buyout likely represents the greatest value its owners felt they could get for their shareholders and themselves.
The buyout is a "significant milestone in radio industry history," said BIA Financial Network radio analyst Mark R. Fratrik, noting the move of traditional media from public to private ownership.
"By going private, these companies and their financial backers believe that they can grow in value over the long term without being concerned about investors' quarterly targets," Fratrik said.
Bennett Zier, who managed Washington's Clear Channel stations until January, when he left to launch Daniel M. Snyder's Triple X ESPN Radio venture, said: "We're private, and we love it."