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Tuning Into Westwood One

You're driving along, listening to the game, and then, when the action stops, you hear it: "This is the NCAA on Westwood One (NYSE: WON  ) ."

Yep, I listen to a lot of radio. And when I want to get out-of-town sports coverage, I usually end up listening to a station that carries Westwood One's network. (We don't get a lot of Syracuse hoops and Yankees baseball out here in the Rockies.)

Alas, sometimes brand recognition doesn't indicate underlying business strength. The broadcast network -- which brings more than 150 news, sports, and talk radio programs to some 7,700 stations around the U.S. -- reported this morning weak earnings. Revenues for full-year 2003 were down 2% to $539.2 million, and full-year net income slipped by 8%, to $100 million.

Management attributed the poor results to a number of factors, including lower revenues from local stations, the loss of advertising dollars from the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the war in Iraq. (Seriously. The firm said revenues were down some 6% during last year's second quarter and that March was one of its worst months during 2003.)

Yet in the face of the bad news, executives waxed optimistic during the conference call, arguing that Westwood One is turning some 60% of its operating income into free cash flow. The firm's free cash flow dipped to $107.2 million for 2003, from the prior year's $116.2 million. But Westwood One still should be commended for generating more free cash flow than it did net income, and for issuing a cash flow statement with earnings. That's more than many companies offer investors.

However, Westwood One is trading at 28 times its free cash flow. That's not cheap, especially when compared with competitor Clear Channel Communications (NYSE: CCU  ) , which generated $1.39 billion in unencumbered moolah over the trailing twelve months, and trades for less than 20 times that total.

Still, Westwood One has the personalities to generate a wide audience, including News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) Bill O'Reilly of the O'Reilly Factor and a new show featuring Ron Insana of General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) CNBC. And this year, the network has the Athens Olympics, which should juice advertising revenues.

While the stock is probably overvalued now, Westwood One, to its credit, is keeping a lid on expenses and is being conservative with its guidance, suggesting only single-digit sales growth -- both good signs.

It may not be the time to buy, but I don't think it's time to turn the dial either.

Is Westwood One a future Hidden Gem? Join Tom Gardner and his band of Fools as they seek the next Microsoft. You can tryMotley Fool Hidden Gemsrisk-free for 30 days.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned.

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