For Clear Channel, Something's Gotta Give

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Clear Channel is set to redo Ryan Seacrest's contract, The New York Times reports, handing him a raise of $5 million annually from his current $20 million deal.

You probably know Seacrest from television,but he can credit his fortune to radio, particularly Clear Channel. Like many big celebrities, Seacrest got his start in radio. He still hosts syndicated programming for Clear Channel, does a morning show on cash cow KIIS-FM in Los Angeles and recently got a major investment in his production company from Clear Channel or, more precisely, the private equity firms that prop it up, Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital.
Ryan Seacrest just got a $5 million raise from Clear Channel, bumping him up to a $25 million salary from a company saddled with more than $20 billion in debt.

Even though I am not in the demo, I have no problem with Seacrest earning as much as does at Clear Channel and elsewhere. He deserves it. He's a modern-day Rick Dees or Dick Clark. It is curious, however, that a company saddled with more than $20 billion in debt has decided to make such an investment.

If you really want to freak yourself out, start on page 44 of Clear Channel's most recent annual report. It details the company's obligations.

Of course, you would be insane to go long Clear Channel stock, but if you follow the media space, an interesting situation could be developing.

Clear Channel recently named longtime media executive Bob Pittman as CEO. In addition to continuing with the tradition of cleaning house at radio stations across the country, Pittman changed the company's name. It's no longer Clear Channel Radio; it's Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, or CCME for short.

On the surface, this sounds like a solid idea. And that's because, on the surface, it is. Simply put, traditional radio is dead. And, unless you have disrupted the medium as Pandora ( P) has, you would be foolish to keep such an outdated moniker on your letterhead. Several sources tell me that, while a nice branding move, it's most likely a strategic one designed to get the attention of prospective suitors.

At day's end, I am not sure how much longer Lee and Bain want to stick with Clear Channel. Seacrest is one thing, but, ultimately they do not need Clear Channel to ride that wave.

One of the biggest moves Pittman made was aggressively marketing Clear Channel's iHeart Radio as a Pandora alternative. He has done an excellent job. While iHeart still trails Pandora by a considerable amount in terms of listenership, it continues to gain traction. And it's a good product. Relative to Pandora's Music Genome Project, iHeart's personalization capabilities come in second rate, but you can tune in Clear Channel stations as well as radio programming from other companies online or through a mobile app.

Expect iHeart Radio to be the first thing Clear Channel spins off.

Before we explore this and other potential M&A, it's important to consider how this reincarnated Clear Channel markets itself and its moving parts. Here's how the company defines and positions itself at the end of its press releases:

CC Media Holdings (CCMO) is one of the leading global media and entertainment companies specializing in radio, digital, out of home, mobile and on-demand entertainment and information services for local communities and providing premier opportunities for advertisers.

With 238 million monthly listeners in the U.S., Clear Channel Media and Entertainment has the largest reach of any radio or television outlet in America ... It also includes Clear Channel Digital, which develops and operates iHeartRadio ... ; Premiere Networks, which syndicates 90 radio programs and services to more than 5,000 radio station affiliates; Total Traffic Network, a ground-breaking programming and technology service delivering real-time traffic data directly to vehicles and radio stations, in more than 100 metropolitan markets in four countries, ... ; and Katz Media Group, which is the largest media representation firm in the U.S. ...

As an aside, that's the same Katz Media Group that decided it no longer wanted to rep Pandora. I wonder why?

In any event, we have the CCME's radio stations, Clear Channel Digital, Premiere Networks (think Rush Limbaugh, Seacrest and Jim Rome), Total Traffic and Katz.

They're all ripe for the picking. They have to be. How can Clear Channel possibly continue along, as is, backed by private equity and wallowing in billions of dollars' worth of debt?

It cannot.

Something's got to give.

Investors in the media space should ask themselves: Who will gobble up Clear Channel's parts? Will it add value to these companies as investments? And, if anything remains other than a worthless carcass, could Clear Channel actually turn into something other than a Pink Sheets money pit?

Because I need considerable space to thoroughly address these questions, I will write and publish a Part Two to this article.

To wet your whistle, I can see players ranging from from Pandora to Sirius XM ( SIRI) making a move for select Clear Channel properties, particularly in digital. And, in addition to the obvious radio companies, such as Cumulus Media ( CMLS), several of Clear Channel's pieces likely appear attractive to other more-diversified media giants.

While I can only make an uneducated and informed guess, born out of instinct and some due diligence, I am pretty comfortable Pittman agrees, even if he would never admit it.

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