Radio has changed dramatically in the 12 years since Sandy Springs resident Reed Haggard co-founded the pioneering liberal talk network Air America.

“The thing that threw everything up [in the air] was this,” Haggard said in a recent interview, holding up a cellphone. “People have so many choices now.”

The Progressive Voices liberal talk radio app as it appears on a cellphone.

Now Haggard and his old Air America partner Jon Sinton are trying to turn the digital tide to their advantage with a liberal talk app called Progressive Voices. He’s just one of many in the local radio business—which often operates in under-the-radar offices—who are coping with what “radio” means in the new multimedia landscape.

Some are huge companies like Cumulus Media, which operates several stations—like Rock 100.5 and OG 97.9—within offices near the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange. Some are local small businesses, like America’s Web Radio, an online conservative talk and educational station based in a Sandy Springs office park.

Knox, the one-named DJ and promotions manager at Buckhead-based alternative rock station Radio 105.7, says the radio world now works on the “paper plate theory—people consume [content] really fast and throw it away.”

Social media is now a big part of the job, Knox said as he sat at his desk clicking a new post to the station’s Facebook page. “You can find music pretty easily” anywhere these days, he said, so radio’s task is to tie it into a “lifestyle” feel via social media and DJ personalities.

Haggard has been in radio for over 35 years on the sales and fundraising side of the business, at both commercial stations—he started at Atlanta’s old 94Q rock station—and such public broadcasting outlets as WABE. Even 10 years into the internet era, Haggard said, it was a business that “printed money” with big profit margins.

“When I left [alternative rock station] 99X in 2003, we billed $23 million [to advertisers]. Half of that was profit,” he said. “And we weren’t the top biller in the marketplace.”

In the wake of satellite radio, the iPod, online music services like Pandora and phone radio apps, the pie is sliced way thinner, Haggard said. And while companies like Cumulus and iHeartMedia have built huge multi-station empires, he said, they also built up debt.

Radio 105.7 is owned by iHeart, which operates five other stations alongside it in the same building at 1819 Peachtree Road. Stations as diverse as 94.9 The Bull, El Patron 105.3 and 640 WGST AM share studios next to each other, like apartment building neighbors.

Knox got his start in radio at 99X the same year Haggard left the station and recalls the long-gone days when stations had 20 to 30 staffers.

“Radio 105.7 is essentially run by two people at this point,” Knox said. “Everyone wears nine hats.”

Radio 105.7 DJ and promotions manager Knox, pictured in a station hallway lined with concert photos, says radio now works on the “paper plate theory” – people consume content really fast and throw it away. (Photo John Ruch)

But that’s still enough to pack a punch, he said, noting the station sponsored a concert by the band Weezer the previous night that drew 18,000 fans. And the digital revolution has many upsides, he said, including iHeart’s online radio platform that aggregates its stations for about 60 million registered users. If you’re a fan of Knox’s show, you can catch him anywhere in the country online.

Haggard is also trying use the double-edged sword of multimedia to cut his way. Air America had a famously meteoric life as a liberal counterpoint to conservative talk radio, launching the career of MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow and boosting comedian Al Franken to a U.S. Senate seat. But it rapidly collapsed financially. Haggard said the expense of paying talk talent is one reason why.

Progressive Voices, founded in 2010, uses a lower-cost model of creating a virtual syndicated talk network. Liberal talkers around the country record shows in their homes or local radio stations. The San Francisco-created app integrates those shows through the Westwood One network in Denver with specialty content on servers in Connecticut. For the user, it’s a simple slate of shows they can listen to on a phone or computer. The company also has a nonprofit arm that develops local talent to add in the mix, such as Mike Malloy, the former WSB Radio personality.

“We triangulate all that stuff to make everything work,” Haggard said. “This technology just blows me away, that it’s just so advanced.”

He said business is good, with 600,000 listeners, which he expects to hit 1 million by the presidential election.

Whatever form it takes, radio still has some magic for its personality-driven practitioners. “I am much more conservative than the [Progressive Voices] hosts. But that’s not saying a lot. You make your money and your name by being somewhat extreme,” Haggard said. But overall, he added, “selling ideas” is more satisfying than “selling entertainment.”

At Radio 105.7, a visitor may enter a silvery, light-studded lobby, walk down a heart-red hallway of concert photos and, if they’re lucky, see a gig in a custom performance space. From an office with a miniature Captain America shield stuck in the wall, Knox plots such stunts as getting the band Tool to sign a kitchen sink for a lucky fan.

“I got into this business to wear Chucks and T-shirts” to work, said Knox, who indeed was sporting the black sneakers and a Beatles shirt. And amid all the changes, he still runs one of rock radio’s most basic services: a local-music show.

“It’s not a ratings driver, but it connects us to a local audience,” he said. “I root for the underdog.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.