Don't Touch That Dial

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Radio has slowly begun to rebound from what some call "a weird first quarter."

After a flat January, Paul Sweeney, managing director, Credit Suisse First Boston, sees much better numbers for February and March, with February up 2%-3% and March up 7%. But he includes a caveat: "These months offer easier comparisons against the impact of the Iraq war in 2003. Plus, we are seeing a modest improvement in pricing and inventory." He predicts second-quarter gains of 5%, with auto and telecoms "fairly strong."

Maribeth Papuga, senior VP/director of local broadcast, MediaVest, disagrees. "Those numbers are a little high." Backing off from earlier predictions of 4%-5% gains, she now sees first quarter as flat to up 3%.

For the second quarter also, Papuga sees mixed signals. "We were thinking it would be up 3%, that March would blow the top off things, but we're not seeing much coming in. Actually, we're seeing some pullback." She, too, says telecoms and automotive are strong but cautions retail is "flat, if not down."

Traug Keller, president, ABC Radio Group, is more optimistic. "Second quarter is very solid. We're writing business at a brisker pace than last year." He's seeing gains in the "mid single digits." Stu Olds, CEO, Katz Media Group, concurs: "Pacing is running ahead in the high single digits."

At least one buyer is enthusiastic about radio. Speaking at a RAB 2004 presentation, AutoNation chief John Drury said he spends "in excess of $30 million in radio" annually, second only to print. AutoNation buys 33 radio markets and, last year, ran spots on 350 stations.