Radio a Beacon for Clear Channel Amid Ad Market Fog

Though Clear Channel Communications' (CCU) stock took a hit Wednesday from disappointing earnings, the media company appears to be dredging its way out of a weak radio advertising market.

Clear Channel, which operates the nation's largest string of radio stations, disappointed investors Tuesday evening with fourth-quarter financials that fell short of expectations.

But investors Wednesday took a measure of comfort from the company's positive outlook on its radio business, which accounted for 48% of the company's revenue in the quarter ended Dec. 31. And as all media investors rummage for signs of an advertising recovery following a weak 2001, any hint of a turnaround is welcome.

Clear Channel's shares were trading at $46.35 on Wednesday afternoon, down about 5.6% from Tuesday's close. (Clear Channel is a partner in TSC co-founder James J. Cramer's radio program, RealMoney with Jim Cramer.

Wednesday's decline wasn't exactly a cause for celebration, but SoundView Technology Group media analyst Jordan Rohan points out that it's actually an improvement over where Clear Channel was trading Tuesday evening -- down more than 8% at one point -- in the after-hours trading that preceded the company's conference call with Wall Street.

"The commentary on the call was better than the press release," says Rohan. The analyst, whose firm has not done banking for Clear Channel, has a strong buy rating on the company.

The best news to come out of the call, says Rohan, was that radio sales for the first quarter of 2002 are running 1% to 3% higher than year-ago figures, and that sales are better than at any time in 2001.

"Radio is coming out of a deep hole," says Rohan.

The same can't be said for the company's outdoor advertising and live entertainment divisions, both of which reported lower fourth-quarter revenue and poorer earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, a common bottom-line yardstick for media companies.

Companywide pro forma EBITDA, adjusted for foreign exchange fluctuations, of $348.1 million, was about $90 million short of expectations. About $80 million of that, said Clear Channel, was due to one-time costs covering layoffs and reorganizations. Rohan trimmed his price target from a range of $60 to $65 down to $55.

But though Rohan said the additional $80 million in expenses had led him to be a little more cautious about the company's valuation, he downplayed the importance of Clear Channel's disclosure that it expects to take a pretax noncash writedown of $15 billion to $25 billion to follow new Financial Accounting Standards Board rules related to impairment of intangible assets. That's a mind-boggling number for a company that had $7.8 billion in revenue in 2001, but it's short of the $40 billion to $60 billion in similar charges that AOL Time Warner ( AOL) has been warning it will take.

But Rohan says these media company writedowns reflect two conditions: one, that media companies have suffered severe stock drops, and two, that media companies tend to have low tangible book values relative to the cash they generate. Both of these are "less than blinding insights," says Rohan.

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