Smulyan grooving to debt-reduction rhythm

Emmis Communications Corp. founder and CEO Jeff Smulyan recently told Billboard that getting a better grip on debt after the Great Recession “is probably the most gratifying thing of my career.”

The economic downturn left many companies with an unsustainable capital structure.

“And while we never dreamed it was unsustainable going in, you have to say you failed in not anticipating the economy’s collapse,” Smulyan said.

The Indianapolis-based radio and publishing conglomerate lost $283.9 million, or $7.81 a share, in its fiscal year that ended in February 2009. It sold a number of unprofitable stations and took actions such as buying $78 million of its own debt for $45 million.

Last October, the company said it would seek to reduce debt by paying down a $63 million term-loan with excess cash flow, which it estimated will be $14 million this year.

The company, whose holdings include WLHK-FM 97.1 in Indianapolis and Hot 97 in New York, has since returned to profitability.

Smulyan said the lesson he learned from the gut-wrenching experience “is that the 100-year flood occurs every three years.”

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