Tift Merritt’s got a great life. The 28-year-old singer/songwriter lives in rural Orange County with her boyfriend, fellow band member Zeke Hutchins. Their home is hardly palatial, just a one-bedroom cinderblock house next to rolling green mustard fields. Dogwoods, pines and oak trees rustle in the breeze, and occasionally a red-tailed hawk flies overhead. She spends her days at home writing songs on piano and guitar for the next album.

Though Merritt’s debut album Bramble Rose has sold more than 50,000 copies since its release last June, they’re not exactly living the rock star lifestyle. The house and land belong to Hutchins’ aunt, who lives next door. In spite of critical acclaim and a successful international tour, Tift Merritt’s career has been stymied by one crucial element in any music career: radio airplay.

“I’m a very lucky woman,” she says. “I’m doing what I love and I’m very happy doing it. But honestly, if radio would play me, I would be doing a lot better. When my music is heard, it gives me a chance to have more of an audience, and that’s really important.”

Even with a major label and a strong hometown fan base backing her up, Tift Merritt’s music doesn’t get played on any of the commercial radio stations in her hometown. Why? The answer says more about radio than it does about Merritt’s music.

“People think, if you’re good enough, you’ll be on the radio. And it’s just way more complicated than that.”

Merritt did everything right. Her record label, Lost Highway, a division of Universal Music Group, is shared by Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. Her songs are a catchy mix of roots, folk and rock influences that’s often labeled “alternative country.” Lost Highway sent her band on a six-month tour from Seattle to Scotland and produced a video for one of the songs, which was picked up by Country Music Television. Vanity Fair took her picture. Time named her no. 6 in its list of the Top 10 artists of 2002. Entertainment Weekly called her the “next Lucinda.” She performed on Late Night with David Letterman. Still, her record isn’t played on any local commercial radio stations.

As she said in testimony at the Federal Communications Commission hearing held in March at Duke Law School, “I was making inroads on the national country scene; one might venture to think that my hometown station would be supportive, if not ecstatic to play my record.” But she heard from fans and supporters that their calls to WQDR, the Triangle’s top country music station, were unsuccessful. “The DJs wanted to play my record, but people who called in to request me were told that management had to change the programming, which never happened.”

Merritt’s speech came at the end of a daylong hearing organized by two FCC commissioners who want to promote local discussion of how coming changes to broadcast ownership regulations will affect TV and radio programming. Localism is the key word–it’s a regulatory term that’s refers to the local impact of broadcasting, and to the responsibilities that private owners have to the public interest of communities in which they broadcast. When it votes this June, the FCC is expected to further relax rules that limit how many radio and TV stations a single company can own, a move that critics say will hurt localism.

Also on the panel was Don Curtis, owner of Curtis Media, which owns 16 radio stations–including WQDR. All of Curtis’ stations are in North Carolina, but the company’s local base has not detracted from its influence in the market: It’s the area’s number one competitor of the multi-national broadcasting conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.

Merritt said she didn’t know that Curtis would be on the panel until she arrived. But that didn’t stop her from asking a provocative question that stole the show. After detailing her predicament, she asked Curtis point blank why her music isn’t played on WQDR. “I know you have my CD, Mr. Curtis,” she added, “because my dad gave it to you.”

The audience laughed, and Curtis did, too. He said he didn’t know exactly how music is chosen, but that he was sure DJs are involved. “I think the whole process if flawed,” he said sympathetically. He’d tried to go about changing it, he said, “but I always get talked out of it by the programming people.”

So what is this elusive process, and why does it mystify even the station’s owner? If the DJs like Tift Merritt’s album, why don’t we hear it on the radio? Picking music for airplay is more complicated than it would seem.

Well-researched music

Here’s how it works: A band records an album. The record label identifies one or two singles–catchy songs, each about three minutes and 30 seconds long–that are likely to get played on the radio. The label decides which radio format to pitch the singles; rock, country, adult contemporary, and urban are the most common formats. Then the label sends out the CD with a set of press materials to radio stations all over the country, promoting and marketing the singles according to the specific regions and formats they’re trying to reach. The label sends the band on tour to promote the album, setting up interviews with local media outlets and live in-store and station appearances along the way. Whatever it takes to get the band’s name out there, and to get people to buy the record.

Multiply that times hundreds of bands, and it amounts to thousands of CDs, press releases, calls, e-mails and publicity shots landing on the desks of radio station program directors across the country every week. It’s a lot to wade through.

Like most program directors, Lisa McKay has her own system of determining what to play on her station, WQDR. She reads the Country Airplay Monitor chart, which rates songs according to how many times they’ve been played–or “spun”–on country format stations across the country. And she uses more subjective tools, too. “Every time I go out, I try to grab a CD and listen to it in my car so that I’m listening to it the way a listener would listen to it, instead of in my office,” she says. “We monitor our request lines to find out what people are passionate about hearing.”

The station also hires a research firm to call randomly selected households in the area, play a few seconds of various songs over the phone, and ask the listener to rate the songs on a scale of 1 to 5. A song is put into call-out research after it’s been on the air for a while; the research is used to find out which songs are most familiar or best liked by listeners, which helps the station decide how long to keep them on the playlist. All of this is standard in commercial radio, whether the station plays country or classic rock. “Everybody does it pretty much the same,” McKay says.

She also looks at the weekly list of local country music sales figures. Last summer, she saw something that caught her eye: Tift Merritt’s Bramble Rose was selling as many copies in the Triangle as big-time acts like Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. “It was a top 20 seller and I had never heard of her and it was on the country charts. And I went, ‘Wow, who’s this Tift Merritt?’ I talked to my morning show and found out who she was and I went out and bought the CD.”

About that time, Merritt was scheduled to open for Willie Nelson at a show at Regency Park in Cary. The station promoted the show by featuring live performances beforehand. “We invited her into the studio where she performed a couple of songs,” McKay recalls. “She sounded great. And then that was the last we heard of her. That was it. Nobody said, ‘Oh by the way, that first song she did, that’s going to be the single.’ There was no follow up at all.”

As it happens, the day of our interview, McKay has received a copy of the disc from Russell Carter, Merritt’s agent, with a handwritten note. McKay says it’s the first one she’s received in the mail, and that Lost Highway never sent a single copy. Merritt says she brought a box of CDs with her when she played last summer. At this point, it’s impossible to determine exactly what happened, but in any case, McKay believes that the record company didn’t do a sufficient job of promoting a single that would work for her station.

All of the DJs at WQDR are fans of Tift Merritt, McKay says. “We all took it home and listened to it, and it was just a lovely CD.” So why don’t they play it on the air?

“What would be on the playlist? Which one? Am I just supposed to listen to the whole CD and pick one out? They need to focus on one cut, the cut they feel like has the best chance at whatever they’re going for.”

“I’m more than willing to look at local artists,” McKay says, “but they have to realize that they’re in competition with all these people–Toby and Shania and the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw. Everything has to stand on its own.” McKay points to a bookshelf full of CDs. “Well, look at all the competition that it has up there. That’s basically the last two weeks of records that I’ve had. I’m going to tell you, superstar status helps. The new Brooks & Dunn gets on before the new Tift Merritt.”

McKay clearly isn’t the only program director who’s made this decision. “I don’t think anybody is airing any of her songs on country radio,” she says. “Honestly, it probably just got lost in the shuffle. That’s what a good record company does, it puts it at the top of the stack. It keeps it in the top of your head. So you go, yeah I do like that song.”

What happened to the radio?

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, radio stations took pride in making stars out of talented musicians in their own backyards by being the first to play their music. Record companies tuned in to find out about unknown artists.

Those days are over.

Radio is a highly centralized industry now, with elaborate ratings data that tell the week-to-week standing of every song and every station in the country. Furthermore, the process is reactive. Stations decide what to play based on what’s already popular.

Merritt’s manager Russell Carter is well aware of this change. “There’s a tendency to program on a national level, to find a song that works nationally and play it all over the country,” he says. “What that eliminates is the tendency of radio to find talent and nurture it and spread it across the country in a natural, organic manner. That rarely if ever happens anymore.”

“In another era, Tift would have been an ideal musician for local radio to embrace. Records used to develop that way.” Sounds were more regional too, and what you heard on the air reflected you might hear in that town’s honkytonks and juke joints. But commercial radio no longer has that sense of place. “To me, that’s the real loss as big companies take over,” Carter says.

“The general public perceives radio as being in the business of playing good music that they choose because they think people should hear it. They don’t do that at all. They’re in the business of selling advertising and increasing their audience base so that their ad base becomes higher.”

Lost Highway has a reputation for successfully promoting artists that don’t necessarily get a lot of mainstream airplay. They produced the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, which famously hit number one on the sales charts in spite of very limited radio exposure.

Michael Powers, who oversees promotion and artist development at Universal Music Group, which owns Lost Highway, says Merritt’s album was a success on other radio formats such as Americana and adult alternative.

“We knew from the sound of the record that it might not be a natural fit for commercial, mainstream country,” he said. “What we try to do is sign great artists like Tift Merritt, then we decide, where does this music naturall fit?”

Says Merritt: “My label decided to keep me on the road. They decided that my live show was more important than spending a lot of money on radio.”

Spending money on radio brings to mind the pay-for-play scandals of the 1950s. But it’s not payola–not exactly. Record labels often hire independent promoters, the sort of middle men of the music industry, who then arrange contracts with radio stations and help to shape their playlists. The labels pay the promoters; the promoters offer “support” to radio stations in the form of everything from T-shirts and dinners to fax machines and basic operating expenses. Until recent scrutiny on the practice began to intensify in Washington, it was so entrenched that any label serious about getting its artists on the air had little choice but to participate.

At the FCC hearing, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein brought up the subject of independent promoters, to which Merritt replied, “It’s on my royalty statement.” The promoters get paid whether or not she gets on the air, she added.

Clear Channel recently announced that it will no longer contract with independent promoters. (Critics say this will simply change the structure, not the nature, of the system.) All of the radio station representatives interviewed for this article emphatically said they do not use independent promoters. But even with the worst example of alleged industry corruption taken out of the picture, most musicians are still locked out of the system.

Who cares about the listeners?

When Lisa McKay enters the DJ booth for her shift on the air, she talks to the DJ whose shift is ending to find out which songs people have been calling to request. A few songs are cued up on the computerized system, ready to go. McKay flips the switch and speaks into the microphone in a gentle, upbeat voice for a few short seconds at a time, to tell listeners what song they’ve just heard, who’s coming to town, what the weather’s like.

Not all DJs do it this way. In fact, not all DJs are even in the same city where their voice is heard. It’s common practice now among national radio chains to use “voice tracking,” that is, to hire an announcer for several different stations. The DJ records what’s called “the drops” from a single location–Cleveland, say–in the space of an hour or so. Those station ID’s and snippets of banter are distributed electronically to stations in other parts of the country, maybe Phoenix or Tampa. The practice is incredibly cost effective. The announcements often include references to local concerts or sports events, but those references are scripted. They might also include information about contests that neglect to mention that listeners are competing with people from across the country.

McKay is proud to say that WQDR never uses voice tracking and won’t even use pre-recorded drops by its own announcers. The DJs are live people, sitting in the studio and answering the phones. “We’re number one,” she says proudly, pointing to the most recent list of Arbitron ratings for the entire Raleigh radio market. WQDR isn’t just the most highly rated country station, it’s the highest rated period. She believes this is partly due to the station’s commitment to community, driven by local owner Don Curtis. “We run recorded public service announcements in $200 avails because it’s the right thing for the community,” she says. “Our priorities are to make the Triangle a better place and to be a great radio station that cares about the listeners.”

McKay says she got hooked on radio on her very first day at the University of Virginia, when she answered an ad for the school’s student-run commercial station. She’s been working in radio ever since. But not long ago, McKay was considering quitting the business altogether and going to work for a nonprofit. “I was at a crossroads,” she says.

After finishing college, she worked for more than a decade at Richmond Top 40 station WRVQ. They supported her efforts to launch a low-cost spay and neuter clinic for pets. But then the management at Clear Channel, the station’s owner, decided to make some changes.

Lowry Mays, Clear Channel’s CEO, has a reputation for being outspoken. “If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company,” Mays told Fortune magazine in a recent interview. “We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”

McKay says that sounds about right. “It’s a broadcast company that’s out to make money. Their first priority is always their advertisers. And you would think, well, it goes hand in hand with your listeners being your first priority. But I’m not really sure that’s always the case with them. I watched them tear apart a station that I put my heart and soul into putting together.”

The parent company slowly began to interfere, she recalls, first by dictating that she use corporate suppliers for everything from T-shirts to music research, then by messing with the music. “They would come in and look through our library and want to make it more homogenous,” McKay says. “So they went through and recoded all of the songs in the library. And I disagreed with a lot of their coding. And records that worked in other markets they would make us play, even though they never worked for us. I of course didn’t agree with that.”

By the time she left WRVQ, McKay says the ratings had dropped by more than a point. “I think it cost them. It was a really bad scene.” McKay says she never worked with independent promoters even then, and she never would. But she says it’s well known in the industry that many stations do, especially those that are struggling.

Her job now is much more like her experience at the college station. “It was really fun,” she recalls. “But it was really well run. We were able to play album cuts [as opposed to singles] but they had to be pre-approved. It gave you some leeway. It taught me everything from the ground up. I didn’t walk into a radio station and not know how things worked. That’s really better than walking in going, ‘Oh, yeah, can I just play what I want?’ No,” She laughs. “Everything’s so well researched.”

Where you can hear Tift

Most college radio stations are noncommercial and as a result are much more free-form than the one where McKay got her start. On those stations, there are no advertisements, and DJs really can play whatever they want.

Tift Merritt’s Bramble Rose was in the top 40 albums of the year at Duke’s college radio station, WXDU. “XDU has been a supporter of me and of local music for years,” she says. “They have local bands in there every Sunday on Ross Grady’s show.” Just down the road, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student station WXYC features its own local music show, Backyard Barbecue. Merritt is also excited about a new commercial AM station, WBZB in Garner, that’s experimenting with an all-local music format.

“Her record was number one among non-commercial adult alternative stations for quite some time,” says her manager Russell Carter. “That’s a whole different ballgame. Non coms are nowhere near as scientific because they don’t have to be. And they embraced Tift wholeheartedly. She couldn’t have done any better at that format than she did.”

Even in this climate, artists with unusual style can break through. Back in the mid-1990s, another local band did exactly that. The Squirrel Nut Zippers got their break on pop station G105. “We had built a strong base of support for the band both locally and nationally before we ever went to promote it to commercial formats of radio,” says Steve Balcom, who was the general manager of the Zippers’ label, Mammoth Records, from 1987 to 2000. The swing craze was sweeping the nation, but it wasn’t yet being played on commercial radio. “So we had to take a more organic approach to building a base of support for the band. It was press driven and touring and retail driven, kind of a very organic approach. And when we went to radio, we had already sold quite a few records.”

The trick as he saw it was to show the station that they’d be betting on a sure thing. “There was buzz about the band. When G105 decided to play it, it was musically very different from what they were playing, but they weren’t taking such a big chance because they knew that locally there was a demand for it.”

As for Tift Merritt, “I think she’s incredibly talented. She had all the critical acclaim and all the things that would amount to airplay. You look at it from the outside and you just think, I don’t know what happened.” Balcom says. “My guess is, she’s not on the radio because the song doesn’t work on any of the formats here.” The most logical format for her music is Americana, a mix of music that falls between pop and mainstream country. Too bad there aren’t any Americana stations in the Triangle. There aren’t any modern rock or adult alternative stations either.

“We should have more choices in radio of what to listen to,” he says. “I’d just like to turn on the radio and hear some new artists in an environment where they would be played enough where I could become familiar with them. Thank God we have the college stations. They’re consistently some of the best college stations on the county.” He, too, is hoping the WBZB’s experiment with a local format will succeed.

Will file sharing help?

“The best way that I can portray it is that I am a small North Carolina business owner,” Merritt says. “I try to make payroll, my traveling expenses are crazy when we’re on tour. The main thing is the band. We want them to have health care. We want them to have lives that are stable.” She’s afraid that further consolidation of the radio industry could mean that up-and-coming artists will continue to be shut out.

“We are really lucky. We have the Cat’s Cradle, two college stations, a new North Carolina station. That’s really a springboard for people like me. I would not have gotten anywhere if it were not for my North Carolina fans and this scene. But there’s nowhere to grow at this point.”

Carter, who became Merritt’s manager several months after the album was released, thinks that ultimately his artist and her label did well. “It was her first record, they were starting from scratch introducing a new artist to the world, which is incredibly difficult to do. Most artists never get signed, and nine out of 10 artists that do get signed get dropped after their first record.” The critical acclaim and exposure on Country Music Television leaves Merritt in a good position, he says. “The world is aware of Tift on a sufficient enough level that it makes sense to do a second album. So they were successful in that very important way.”

But commercial radio didn’t catch on. “If they had, she would have sold hundreds of thousands of records,” he says. “That’s what radio does for you.”

Things still look good for Tift

We might hear songs from Bramble Rose on the radio after all. Jim Goodmon, owner of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL radio and TV stations, was also at the FCC hearing. “I saw her testify and like everybody else was really sort of captivated with her presentation,” Goodmon says. “My response to that is, c’mon, this is a local person and she’s doing well and we’ll be happy to introduce her and play her on WRAL. That’s what a local radio station does.”

Shortly after the FCC hearing, WRAL FM, a station with an adult contemporary rather than country format, invited her into the station to play live. “I gotta tell you,” says Program Director and General Manager Joe Wade Formicola, “we were very impressed by Tift. I thought she was fabulous. She’s as good as Cheryl Crow.” In spite of her country lean, he says the station is taking a “serious look” at her most rock-sounding single, “Neighborhood.” But first they have to determine whether it fits their format. “If you’re a pizza restaurant, you don’t really want to have eggrolls on the menu. It’s got to kind of fit what you’re doing,” Formicola explains. “We like Tift and we’re going to do as much as we can to get her career going,”

And there could be a radio hit on her next album. “That could easily happen with Tift and it will certainly be one of our goals to make that happen,” her manager says. In fact, the trend toward national programming means that if her next single were to be picked up by a station like WQDR, it could quickly become a national hit. “It’s almost all or nothing now with radio.”

So don’t cry for Tift Merritt. But what about the rest of us? What about the listeners?

Commercial radio is no longer the place you’ll hear local music or new music. You’re more likely to hear new music on a Volkswagen commercial than on the radio. Ever since the rise of digitally traded music on the Internet, there have been indications that listeners aren’t satisfied.

“The whole music industry right now has got to change,” Balcom says. “It’s an outdated model.” As radio keeps consolidating, album sales continue to go down. He has hope in new technology, like Apple’s new iTunes system, that allows listeners to purchase digital copies of songs for 99 cents–a legal, money-making version of what Napster’s now defunct file-sharing system introduced. Will digital music distribution be enough to shake up the system? “Like everybody, you hope that it’ll revolutionize things. You hope that that would change things and give the general public more options and other ways to find out about music.”

Meanwhile, musicians keep making music regardless.

Merritt hopes her next album will be finished and released by winter. “You don’t really sit down and make an organized list of your plans for the next record,” she says. “You have to listen to your heart.” While her dog, Lucy, rests in the corner, Merritt sits at the electric piano playing softly, a line from a new song that’s in the process of coming together. “We’re going to do what we feel. But, of course we all hope that there will be something that radio will identify with. One song: three minutes, 30 seconds.” EndBlock