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Emmis surges as industry anticipates radio sale

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The rocket ride taken by shares of Emmis Communications Corp.’s stock on Wednesday and Thursday has industry insiders buzzing that the company may be close to selling off some of its radio stations.

Emmis’ share price soared 42 percent on Wednesday, a day after the company reported improving revenue and reiterated that it is “actively pursuing” sales of its assets. The stock closed the day at $1.22 per share. It gained another 13 percent on Thursday, closing at $1.38.

But for many months Emmis has been saying it is shopping its radio stations.

“We are in discussions,” Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan wrote in an e-mail Thursday morning, “but it is impossible to say that anything is imminent.”

Still, investors parsing the legalese in Emmis’ quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission this week may have perceived a bit more urgency from the company.

The company said it has enough cash to get through the end of February, but made no promises for after that. It also disclosed that on Sept. 1, Emmis' debt obligations will be more restrictive, further pinching company finances.

“Absent asset sales, which the company is actively pursuing, the company believes it is unlikely it will be able to maintain compliance with the financial covenants after Sept. 1, 2011,” Emmis attorneys wrote in the regulatory filing. Failure to comply would put Emmis in default on its $345 million of senior bank debt, causing it to come due more rapidly.

Emmis’ debt levels are staggering for a company pulling in roughly $240 million a year in revenue. Through the first nine months of its current fiscal year, which ends Feb. 28, Emmis earned a profit from its operations of $24 million. After a 27-percent decline in radio revenue the previous year, Emmis has enjoyed a 4-percent rise so far this fiscal year.

Emmis has identified three radio stations that are for sale. It reportedly asked for $100 million for rock station WRXP-FM in New York and the same amount for a pair of stations in Chicago: WLUP-FM and WKQX-FM.

A sale “would really help them, because it’s bleeding the company,” said Art Vuolo, a radio industry veteran who now runs Michigan-based Vuolo Video. “The stations, they cost so much, the talent costs so much. It costs a lot of money to operate one of these radio stations in these really big markets.”

Tom Taylor, who writes a daily radio industry newsletter called Taylor on Radio-Info, speculated that The Walt Disney Co. is one of the potential buyers for the New York station.

“We know that Disney would give a Mouse ear to have an FM signal in New York to put ESPN Radio on,” Taylor wrote, referring to Disney-owned ESPN’s current New York presence on an AM station with a weaker signal. “We know it’s talked with Jeff Smulyan. This TRI Newsletter told you late year that Jeff wanted $100 million for his underperforming New York FM ... Now we hear that Smulyan and Disney got closer together on price. It could be that the September 1 deadline for 'more restrictive' covenants is driving Jeff to bargain even harder.”

But Taylor also took the stock run-up—which includes trading volume 12 times as high as normal—with a grain of salt.

“Or on the other hand, maybe this is all wishful thinking by the market,” he wrote.

Emmis would have had no problems selling these stations—if the credit markets hadn’t blown up two years ago and remained tight, said Robert Unmacht, a partner at iN3 Partners, a Tennessee-based investment banking consultancy focused on radio.

“If credit were easy, there would be plenty of buyers,” he said of Emmis’ New York and Chicago stations, adding, “They definitely would be of interest to others because they’re in markets where everybody wants to be.”

Last year, Emmis negotiated a lease-to-buy deal for one of its Los Angeles stations to Mexico's Grupo Radio Centro for $110 million.

It still has one station in Los Angeles. And it would keep two stations in New York, even if it sold WXRP. Emmis also owns radio stations in Indianapolis, St. Louis and Austin, Texas. And it runs a publishing division, which prints such magazines as Indianapolis Monthly, Texas Monthly and Country Sampler.

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