The nation’s #1 radio broadcast conglomerate stands another step closer to defaulting on nearly $21 billion of IOUs racked up during its consolidation and conglomeration spree of the last twenty years. For those just tuning in, iHeartMedia owes nearly $1.4 billion in debt payments between now and 2018, with nearly $200 million of that due this year.
The company announced a curious plan in late 2015 to ask some of its debt-holders to swap existing debt for stock, the idea being to try and retire the pressing debt first and keep the fiscal ship afloat. In practice, iHeart began shifting some of its assets into a subsidiary named Broader Media, which is effectively a subsidiary holding company within iHeart itself. Those who agreed to swap their debt in iHeart would get paid back in Broader Media equity.
This scheme’s gotten off to a rocky start. One industry-watcher called it “hiding the pickle” — simply shuffling debt and equity around so as to stave off default for a few more years. Some debt-holders agreed: last week four private-equity investment firms declared that iHeartMedia had broken its deals with them doing the Broader Media shuffle, and told the company to unwind it or risk default. Together, the four investors hold $6 billion of iHeartMedia’s debt.
iHeart immediately found a friendly judge in Texas to issue a temporary restraining order against the default notice, staving off an implosion but also halting any more asset-transfers to Broader Media until a hearing is held (within a month or so).
For the moment, this changes nothing with regard to iHeartMedia’s overall debt rating. Both the Moody’s and Fitch bond ratings firms reiterated that iHeart’s bonds are still pretty much junk — though a Moody’s VP did suggest that “an exchange of debt for another security is possible and would likely be considered a distressed exchange and categorized as a Limited Default by Moody’s.”
Bob Pittman and crew are certainly dancing closer to the precipice. And though the default of the radio industry’s largest player would undoubtedly cause shockwaves, sentiments seem to be running closer to schadenfreude than worry.