How do local artists make it big these days? In the age of recommendation algorithms and music streaming, can a radio DJ spin an indie artist into fame? Miriam Tolbert is trying to do just that by slowly turning the attention of a commercial station back to the local scene.
Known as Mir.I.am on Carolina Waves, her North Carolina-only hip-hop show from noon to 1 p.m. on Sundays on K97.5, she is kindling talent that otherwise would lose steam by the 12th open mic. Tolbert first immersed herself in NC music as a DJ at WKNC, North Carolina State University’s student-run station. Her R&B show blended oldies with songs from upcoming local artists and garnered a huge fan base. But when Tolbert brought that energy to a commercial station, she found little love for the Triangle’s underground artists. Instead, management sought out agreeable songs by proven producers on labels with the money to nationally advertise their own music. It didn’t take long for Tolbert to rebel. She revived K97.5’s weekly local show, rebranded it as Carolina Waves, and began raising her empire.
Her weekly radio show is just one rung on the ladder she’s building for local hip hop artists. Tolbert scouts Facebook groups, hosts open mics, curates showcases across the state and puts on massive award shows. Tolbert challenges Host Frank Stasio to think about the role of public media in fostering a diverse local music scene. The two hosts discuss how radio broadcasting and live performances can continue shaping the sound of North Carolina. Find her upcoming events on the Carolina Waves Facebook page.
On practicing for radio fame as a child:
Me and my cousin, we came up with a radio show. So we would get together, and, you know, this was like the mid-90. We had a little tape player. We would record ourselves on the tape player and then play it back and make up little jingles — have little gossip segments — and things like that. It was a lot of fun.
On building her fanbase at NC State’s student radio station:
A lot of people that wrote me have gotten out of prison. They come to my events, and they've been like: You helped me so much when I was in prison, and thank you for everything that you did. Being on WKNC gave me a lot of freedom to be the producer, the on air talent, the promotions person [and] just have all the creativity that I wanted.
On how Carolina Waves builds stepping stones for local artists:
It's just been really great having the opportunity to be able to connect with so many artists at open mics. Then it's almost like [the] artist development stage or a little training. Because if you start coming to my open mics, and you're really good at what you do, and you keep coming, I might book you for a big showcase, or I might book you for one of these festivals that I partner with, and I might get you on the radio, or send your music out to all the DJs that I know. So that's the main thing that I love about Carolina Waves. It's not just one dimensional — whereas most open mics, you can go, and you sing, and you go home. It's like there's real opportunity for growth and a family environment and relationships [at Carolina Waves].
Carolina Waves and K97.5 hosted an all-female party at Hopscotch 2018
On commercial radio’s relationship with local music:
It's always a fight to do anything involving local artists, because there is no dollar sign attached to it. ... The good thing about having the program director that I have — to give a big shout out to Derrick Baker — he's open to be able to help. He's not going to put every artist in rotation, but if they have enough buzz for themselves, and they get themselves to a certain level, then he’ll take a chance on it.
So [with G Yamazawa’s North Cack] the song was already going viral. It had amassed like two million streams on Facebook. And I think one other station in Greensboro played it a couple of times. And so, I presented to him. I was like: Look, this is somebody from Durham. He's amazingly talented. The song is going viral. It's got this many streams, like can we at least consider putting it in light rotation. And he did. And you know, we ended up having it in light rotation for a couple of months. So you would turn on the radio and be able to hear that song.
On radio falling behind the curve:
Honestly, in 2019, radio follows trends. They don't set the trend. They don't break new artists. They don't introduce you to anybody. A lot of artists that we play now were already hot two years ago, and we're just starting to play them. A lot of the artists that made one of the most respected publication’s top list — the XXL Freshmen List — have never been spun on the radio before. And it's a game of catch up … The first people that are going to pick [an artist] up are going to be the mix show DJs because they have their ear to the street. And then they can get away with introducing new music without having to go to the program director and beg for permission or ask for it to be a constant source or rotation. So you'll hear that brand new music that's hidden, that has millions of streams, in the mix shows, and it might eventually get added to rotation, it might not.