The first one was a cassette with tracks from Yanni, Kenny G and 'Til Tuesday (anyone remember Aimee Mann's old group?).

Since then, Cities 97's annual "Sampler" has blossomed into an instant-sellout album that has raised $6.4 million for Minnesota charities. This year's "Cities 97 Sampler 20th Anniversary" features a record 31 artists -- including Matchbox Twenty, Jack Johnson and Ingrid Michaelson -- on two CDs. The radio station (97.1 FM) hopes to raise $1 million this year. The 35,000 copies will go on sale (for $29.97) at 8 a.m. Thursday at Target stores in the Twin Cities. Charity projects are limited to that number of copies by the record industry to avoid paying royalties to artists and songwriters.

Longtime "Sampler" producer Lauren Mac-Leash, Cities' program director since 1994, talked about the making of this year's album.

Q Why two discs?

A One, because we've never done it before. Two, because it's an anniversary date, and we thought 20 years was a pretty good time to do it. We started with the concept when we finished "19." Dealing with the publishing [rights] and the legal part of it was the most cumbersome part, but we had plenty of performances. It turned out to be a good year.

Q How many performances got left out that you seriously considered?

A Four or five didn't make it. Down to the wire was a Wilco track we really wanted. We got all the approvals except for the band's. We went after a couple archive performances and got turned down for those.

Q Why are there are only two Minnesota artists on the CD?

A Sadly, Jason Nagel, who is our Minnesota music guy, wasn't here for six months last year [due to budget cutbacks; he returned this summer]. So we didn't have quite as many.

Q Why didn't you include Brandi Carlile's version of "Hallelujah"?

A We couldn't get licensing for that one because it's a Leonard Cohen song, and they didn't want to do a gratis license.

Q How come the "Sampler" tracks aren't available as digital downloads?

A Because the labels and managers don't want it in download form. When it was in the paperwork, they would [cross] it out. We would love to have that opportunity.

Q Any good stories about this year's "Sampler"?

A Darius Rucker was here to promote his country album with [sister station] K102 [102.1 FM]. He did this version of "Let Her Cry." It wasn't a performance for our audience, [but] it was still a song that meant a lot to them. Are the lines in there about the case of Bud and the bottle of Jim Beam part of the original? I think he countried it up a little bit. So if you listen to it from that perspective, you may hear a little more K102 than Hootie and the Blowfish.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719