Paxson tuning out

In about-face, honcho sells radio biz

NEW YORK — Paxson Communications Corp. agreed Monday to sell its radio station and billboard businesses to Clear Channel Communications Inc. for $678 million, giving Paxson the cash to complete a recent spate of TV station acquisitions.

So far this year, Lowell (Bud) Paxson has committed or has spent $700 million buying TV and radio stations and, last week, the Travel Channel cable network. And Paxson is committing to buying more TV stations: He plans to lift his audience reach from 58% now to 70%.

The sale of his radio station holdings was unexpected: Paxson told Daily Variety Thursday he wanted to buy more radio stations, not sell.

“Well, I lied,” Paxson said Monday, adding that after he denied published reports of a possible radio sale several weeks ago, he was approached by Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays about selling.

Included in the deal are Paxson’s 46 radio stations, six radio networks, two sports teams and billboard division. Included in the radio station group are five stations Paxson has agreed to acquire, but hasn’t closed on, that account for $68 million of the purchase price.

The advantage of the sale is that it allows Paxson to abandon plans for a stock and debt offering, he said. After completing deals already announced and paying down a small amount of debt, Paxson said the company would have $200 million left for further acquisitions.

Clear Channel is paying the hefty price of 18.4 times the radio station’s 1998 expected earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Mays said in a statement that the deal was “a rare opportunity to purchase a group of stations with superior growth prospects.”

Most of Paxson’s 46 radio stations are in Florida, and the deal will give Clear Channel, which already has seven Florida stations, a stranglehold on the state. Clear Channel will have “huge clusters in every major Florida market,” Lehman Bros. analyst Tim Wallace said.

He said Clear Channel should be able to increase the stations’ earnings from their current profit margin in the “low 30s” (as a percentage) to the “mid- to upper 40s,” which would more than justify the price paid. On Monday, Clear Channel stock dropped 62¢ to $61.50, while Paxson stock rose 50¢ to $12.87.

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