MEDIA HEADLINER: Ambitious Clear Channel chief sees opportunities in UK radio

Mays will exercise caution in his approach to buying UK media, Ian Darby says.

This week Mark Mays, the president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel, conducted a whistle-stop tour of the company's European operations. Monday was London, Tuesday Paris and on Wednesday Rome for a pow-wow with Clear Channel's European management.

In the UK, Mays had some pretty important business to attend to, making the announcement that Clear Channel is rebranding More O'Ferrall, its UK outdoor operation, as Clear Channel.

The rebranding follows More's acquisition of Score Outdoor and the creation of a national outdoor offer for advertisers. The feeling at Clear Channel's UK operations was that it was the right time to trade on its parent company's strong global brand.

Clear Channel is a massive global operation. The bulk of its revenues still stem from its US operations, where it owns more than 1,200 radio, 37 television stations and a large outdoor business, as well as entertainment and content divisions. It also owns equity in radio stations in 250 overseas markets and has outdoor operations in 65 markets outside the US.

Mays can be forgiven for compressing his tour of Europe into a few days.

The first nine months of 2002 have been a rollercoaster for Clear Channel in its home market and, in any case, he explains: "We are very decentralised. There's no call from San Antonio (its Texas HQ) to tell people what to do."

At one point this year Clear Channel was taking something of a battering.

In June, its share price, already falling, hit a new 12-month low when, in the aftermath of WorldCom, rumours began circulating that its financial health was shaky. Mays acted decisively to put out a statement denying the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating its accounts.

Clear Channel stock has rallied slightly since and better second-quarter results and signs of increased advertiser confidence in the US have bred new optimism.

Aside from building a market-leading outdoor business, Clear Channel's UK ambitions extend to radio. It is selling its minority stake in Jazz FM to Guardian Media Group but has been portrayed in recent months as a predator waiting to snap up a considerable chunk of the UK radio market if and when the proposed Communications Bill goes through.

This June, Mark's father, Lowry Mays, the founder and chairman of Clear Channel, made it clear during a speech at the UK Radio Festival that he does not see Clear Channel as a hostile acquirer but as a "white knight".

"Nothing would give me more pleasure than to be able to bring one of the leading UK radio groups into the Clear Channel family," he said.

Talk circulated of interest in Capital Radio but Mark Mays is cautious about committing to the UK radio market: "We look at all opportunities.

That said, we also look at every investment opportunity based on its rates of return. We will not invest in the UK regardless. If there is a gap and it is right to move into it, then we will."

In the US, Clear Channel is a genuine cross-media operation. Mays and Stevie Spring, Clear Channel's UK chief executive, argue that in the UK this model will also work - its separate divisions already work closely together.

Mays has a warm Texan laugh and a genuine enthusiasm for the businesses he operates. The laugh is at its longest and deepest when Campaign asks what weaknesses at Clear Channel he needs to address. "What you call weaknesses I prefer to think of as opportunities. We can focus on how to sell better, refine quality and improve our products ... the exciting thing for me is the ability to continue to focus on improvement," he says.

Clear Channel is hoping the Score acquisition and outdoor rebranding, together with increased investment in its UK outdoor product, will help it take on its major competitors, JCDecaux and Maiden. But does Mays see more consolidation in the market? "I'm a great believer that the open markets are better than those that are regulated. If somebody owned the entire UK outdoor market they would be better able to service clients with better products and research. But I don't think this will ever happen."