CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves rocked the broadcasting industry last week with his announcement that the company planned to sell off its iconic radio stations, setting off speculation about who potential buyers might be.
The decision leaves question marks over the future of CBS Radio’s six L.A.-area stations, which include its West Coast flagship station, KNX-AM (1070), and KCBS-FM (93.1).
The most likely bidder for the group is thought to be Atlanta’s Cumulus Media Inc., which owns hundreds of terrestrial radio stations across the United States. In Los Angeles, it operates KABC-AM (790) and KLOS-FM (95.5).
Those holdings could trigger an antitrust suit if the company makes a play for the CBS stations, according to industry experts.
“But there are ways of solving those issues, such as spinning the stations off,” said Tom Taylor, partner at RTK Media Inc., a Colorado Springs, Colo., media marketing firm.
CBS had to sell one L.A. station, KFWB-AM (980), in January to comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations.
Taylor added that other potential buyers could emerge at the National Association of Broadcasters show next month in Las Vegas.
“That’s where deals are made quietly in this business,” he said.
In a statement, Cumulus Chief Executive Mary Berner said the company would consider making a bid for the CBS stations.
“As we’ve been saying for years, the combination of both companies would certainly be compelling on a number of fronts, so we will take a look,” she said. “That said, job one is turning around Cumulus and we are singularly focused on that right now.”
Company officials declined further comment.
Questions about the viability of legacy media operations in an increasingly digital-oriented space linger over any effort to sell the stations.
“The challenge with CBS and this market is that the vast majority of what CBS Radio does today is still traditional radio stations and broadcasting,” said Jan Dawson, chief media analyst at Jackdaw Research in Provo, Utah. “Yes, it has websites and apps and so on as well, but the business is very different from what Spotify or Pandora do, which is much more customized to listeners’ tastes.”
Even as it competes with digital stations, the winning bidder will also have to deal with pressure to boost ratings in competition with terrestrial brethren.
The number of U.S. residents listening to online radio every week reached 119 million last year, according to data from Edison Research, but traditional radio is still more accessible, reaching 236 million American listeners a week.
The current major player in that market is iHeartRadio, a subsidiary of iHeartMedia Inc., which changed its name from Clear Channel in 2014 as part of an overall rebranding as a media company.
“IHeartRadio has done more to create digital properties which are more like those of digital-first competitors than CBS Radio has, so that’s clearly a direction CBS Radio could go in if it were independent or acquired by another company,” Jackdaw’s Dawson said. “But it would have a very long way to go to be truly competitive in a direct way with Spotify and Pandora in that sense.”
Declining ad sales are behind CBS Corp.’s decision to cut ties with the 117 radio stations that were once a major part of what made it the media giant it is today. In addition to KNX and KCBS, local holdings are KAMP-FM (97.1), KROQ-FM (106.7), KRTH-FM (101.1) and KTWV-FM (94.7).
Ad sales on radio are declining – Moonves cited a 6 percent drop in overall radio revenue last year in his remarks at the New York investor day gathering where he announced his plans for a sale – and the company is shifting its focus to more profitable areas.
In an emailed statement, a company spokesman said, “It makes sense that CBS Corp., a company that is now focused primarily on premium video content, would choose to unlock the value of its radio operation.”
Depending on the interests and tastes of the successful bidder, a sale could impact popular local programming, including KNX’s daily “KNX Business Hour” with host Frank Mottek, which airs immediately after the close of the stock market.
All-news KNX has maintained its format for more than 47 years and features specialized local original programming such as “Ask the Mayor,” a monthly call-in program with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
More than 1 million people tune to KNX each week either over the radio waves or online at CBSLA.com, according to the station’s website. It is the eighth-ranked station in the market, according to Arbitron’s February book.
KRTH is CBS Radio’s highest-rated L.A. station in L.A., despite sliding to a 4.7 rating in February from a 5.1 in December. KTWV saw a slight boost in ratings, to 4.2 from 3.8, in the same period.
The top two spots in the market are both held by iHeart stations, KOST-FM (103.5) and KIIS-FM (102.7), Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
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