ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A commercial radio format that started in the 1990s can still help launch a mainstream success. That format is called AAA - shorthand for adult album alternative. It has helped launch the careers of artists including Norah Jones, Adele and Arcade Fire. We're going to hear now how the format's unique ability to break stars is raising questions about where music discovery ends and promotion begins. Allyson McCabe begins her report with M. Ward, an artist who has benefited from AAA.
ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: M. Ward's music is a mix of several genres, including folk, country, blues and rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINESE TRANSLATION")
M WARD: (Singing) I sailed a wild, wild sea, climbed up the tall, tall mountain.
MCCABE: Ward says he discovered music through radio.
WARD: I grew up right outside of Los Angeles, and so we got every kind of station that you can imagine, all these different music genres.
MCCABE: Ward says he owes a lot of his success to AAA - a format that harkens back to the radio he grew up with. Trina Tombrink, who is now vice president of promotion and artist development at Sony's RED music division, describes the early days of AAA this way.
TRINA TOMBRINK: A word that comes to mind is crunchy. A lot of people used to say it's the Birkenstock format, the stoner format. It wasn't as hit-oriented back then. You could actually get a record played that wasn't necessarily your traditional radio hit.
MCCABE: Yet AAA helped break artists who went onto the mainstream, from Dave Matthews to The Black Keys to Lorde.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROYALS")
LORDE: (Singing) And we'll never be royals, royals. It don't run in our blood.
MCCABE: "Royals" was already a hit in Lorde's native New Zealand, but Tombrink used AAA to test market the song in the U.S.
TOMBRINK: There was always the plan that we would cross it to pop. And we also knew that there were at least two other songs on the album that were even more pop friendly.
MCCABE: "Royals" debuted on Billboard's AAA chart within a week of its U.S. release. Less than a month later, the song crossed over to the Hot 100, eventually reaching number one. Radio consultant Paul Marszalek says this kind of leap can make a huge difference in an artist's career.
PAUL MARSZALEK: The entire universe of the AAA audience is in the low millions. You start going to the top 40, and you're now into tens of millions.
MCCABE: And yet because it's positioned as a tastemaker, AAA gets a lot of attention from record labels, says Sony's Tombrink.
TOMBRINK: There's probably more music serviced to AAA than I would think any other format.
MCCABE: There are now more than 100 AAA stations nationwide, evenly split between commercial and noncommercial. Kevin Rutherford, a chart manager at Billboard, keeps an eye on what they're playing and how often. He says he counts all plays equally, no matter the size of the market or the time of day.
KEVIN RUTHERFORD: So even if a song gets played once in Akron, gets played once in Los Angeles, it has the same weight - doesn't matter whether it's 3 a.m. or 3 p.m.
MARSZALEK: It can be a consensus by a lot of stations or it can be a couple of stations playing it really, really heavy. That's where you sort of open the door to potential shenanigans.
MCCABE: Consultant Paul Marszalek says playing a song in the middle of the night to rack up spins that will push it up the chart is rare. But anyone with access to the monitoring data he sees can tell when a song is getting a boost.
MARSZALEK: What you can immediately see here is several stations that are not playing it any time that the sun is up. There is no audience or very little audience, a lot of overnight spins, not a great reputation, and now I know that I've got a record here that's the equivalent of something that fell off the back of a truck.
MCCABE: Noncommercial stations are less likely to do that, says Jim McGuinn, program director at Minnesota Public Radio's KCMP The Current.
JIM MCGUINN: The noncommercial stations are much more freewheeling, much more willing to take chances and play a wider variety of sounds and styles and dig a little deeper into albums and artists.
MCCABE: But they can't afford to ignore the competition. NPR has just launched Slingshot, an effort among 18 noncommercial AAA stations to collectively raise the profile of artists they deem worthy of support. And everyone's looking over their shoulders at which musicians are trending online. Mat Bates, program director at San Francisco's commercial KFOG, says he has to pay attention to what's popular.
MAT BATES: We aim to mirror the interests of our audience rather than dictate to them what they should be interested in.
MCCABE: Radio has always tread the line between new music discovery and label-driven promotion. But there are those who still cling to the idea that AAA should be more than an alternative top 40, like musician M. Ward.
WARD: My vision of music is wrapped up in those memories of you switched the dial and it becomes something else entirely.
MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO CAMPAIGN")
WARD: (Singing) And now I'm calling out your name on this radio campaign... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.