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Saga Moves Up Plans For 18 Local News Websites As Pre-Bookings Grow.


Saga Communications has accelerated plans to launch local online news sites across its entire market footprint and has already pre-booked $1 million in revenue for the initiative. Modeled after the success of Clarksville Now, an online newspaper for its Clarkesville, TN cluster, the local news sites will launch in 18 markets by the end of the second quarter, ahead of its previous year-end 2024 target date.


CEO Chris Forgy provided the update Thursday during the company’s fourth quarter earnings call. Saga isn’t alone in seizing on the opportunity to fill so-called news deserts in the wake of the decline in local newspapers. A main-stage panel will be devoted to hyperlocal news sites at next week’s #BorrellMiami, with two of the three panelists coming from radio companies.


Forgy also said Saga’s use of audio spec spots to pitch ideas to clients is “at an all-time high.” After producing 21,000 spec spots in 2021, the number rose to 25,000 in 2022 and 25,500 in 2023.


These and other initiatives introduced since Forgy succeeded the late Ed Christian as CEO in December 2022 are now beginning to produce results, Forgy said. “Many of the processes we put in place are just now starting to bear fruit, and are far from reaching mastery maturation stage,” he said. A late bloomer in the interactive world, Saga currently derives 8% of revenue from digital. But thanks to a recently adopted blended selling process that bundles local radio and digital advertising, digital is on track to reach 11% of revenue in 2024. “We were a little slower before in adapting to the digital marketplace,” CFO Sam Bush said. “But we're running at a very fast pace right now and I think you'll see some very good improvement in 2024.”


Ecommerce sales are also showing robust growth. Advertisers with a limited budget, or who want to augment an existing ad campaign, can swap gift certificates to their business for advertising. Those certificates are then posted on local Saga station websites and sold at a discount. Saga retains the revenue. The program helped generate $1.4 million in 2023, for a 100% increase, with revenue continuing to climb.


Lafayette Acquisition To Close In May, More Dealmaking Ahead


Saga has a $5.3 million deal to buy five radio stations and one translator in the Lafayette, IN market from Neuhoff Media, which is divesting all of its radio assets. The transaction is expected to close in mid-May. “Lafayette folds beautifully in Saga’s roster of markets and is consistent with our target market acquisition strategy,” Forgy told analysts and investors. “And it is a market, frankly, that we've coveted for a number of years. We are acquiring an entity with great brands and a talented group of passionate broadcasters, who are frankly delighted to get started. And once Lafayette is Saga-fied, it has the potential for growth in several verticals including local, digital, and ecommerce.”


The home of Purdue University may not be the only new market Saga enters. Saga is “a buyer, not a seller,” Forgy said and it continues to evaluate potential acquisitions. “There are other opportunities; in fact, we received one yesterday and they will continue to come,” Forgy shared. “There are opportunities going forward, we will just review those on a case by case basis and move accordingly.”


The evaporation of political ad sales caused revenues to decline 3.3% to $29.1 million at Saga during fourth quarter 2023, compared to $30.1 million for the same period last year.


National ad sales were down 4.2%, local dipped 1.7%, and digital grew 35.4%.


First quarter business has been “soft,” Bush said, and the company is pacing down low- to mid-single digits. “January started out strong, February and March have been much softer,” Bush said. “Although April and May are currently pacing up low to mid-single digits, it still continues to be an unsettled advertising market.”

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