Every three months it’s squeaky bum time at more than 300 radio stations throughout the UK. From Splat FM to BBC Radio Posh, station controllers are sweating it out over the release of the official radio listening figures, known as the RAJARs (Radio Joint Audience Research).

Well the latest RAJAR figures have now been made public and radio execs are pouring through the stats…cracking open bottles of bubbly or sharing the choccies if they’ve seen a rise, preparing to having difficult conversations with their teams if the trend is down, or reassuring staff that it’s just a ‘blip’ and the figures will be better next time.

In reality it’s the longer-term trends that count, whether you’re Nick Grimshaw or Shelagh Fogarty, from LBC which has just seen a big rise in listening. The headlines about the supposed failure of Grimshaw’s addition to the X Factor jury not boosting his radio show figures might be premature. Give him another 3-6 months and I think you might see a rise. Whether that’ll be enough to satisfy BBC bosses is another matter.

Every radio station goes through periods of boom and bust and if you’re hoping to bounce back from a poor set of results believe me there aren’t many worse feelings at a station than experiencing another set of baddies in a row.

So how do they measure listening figures ?

Well non-radio industry people might be surprised to learn that the ‘technology’ is either “rigorous in a reassuringly traditional way” or “quaintly out of date”. In short,teams of researchers are sent to households which reflect the demographics of a particular area and then family members complete the survey.

RAJAR say that listening diaries “are personally placed with one selected adult(15+) and up to two children aged 10-14 years(according to the number of children present) in each selected household.” (RAJAR )

The radio logging is done by adding stickers ( “labels”) which are then placed in the diary to denote which stations are listened to during programme slot times over the week.The completed diaries are then collected and sent to RAJAR HQ.

Go on,admit it – you thought it was all done by a magic computer in London which somehow tracked your radio listening as you sat tapping the steering wheel in the morning rush hour didn’t you?

There have been attempts to pilot new technology but the various organisations which fund RAJAR ( the BBC and the commercial radio trade body, the RadioCentre) seem to think that the current methodology is the best for now.

(Famously the former boss of TalkSport Kelvin McKenzie tried to introduce a radio-logging watch a few years ago but that never got off the ground).

Some radio insiders see the diaries as outdated 1950’s stuff. And there are certainly drawbacks. For example,most households have more than one radio and exactly who in practice logs the radio listening and are those choices accurately reflected when the stickers are put in the booklet? Do people remember to log every different radio station? And so on. And there’s an in-built margin of error with the stats but….and so on.

When the figures arrive back at RAJAR HQ they pass through the statisticians and are then released to the radio stations on the Wednesday and the press on the Thursday.

Make or break

If you’re the boss of a commercial radio station which depends for its survival on advertising your RAJAR results can determine whether you’ll still have a job next Monday. And if you’re a DJ at the sharp end of a set of bad RAJARs and the boss hasn’t spoken to you this morning you might get a nervous, itchy feeling on the back of your neck and start “looking around for other opportunities”.

Having been at the helm of a BBC local radio station for 17 years I can confirm that “RAJAR twitch” is not confined to the independents, although it’s certainly not as brutally career-defining as it can be at some commercial stations.

It can make or break your career in both sectors though and instigate a “process of upheaval” (management-speak for job losses, programme changes, or worse). Yes, just like in the real world.

So when you hear that Radio Wonderful’s breakfast show’s figures have just risen/plummeted for the 3rd successive quarter spare a thought for the dj or presenter who’s about to be called into a meeting with his boss (as he/she would be in any other audience/customer-focused sector).

And if you’re feeling generous, also maybe a spare a moment for the hundreds of off-air staff on the 300 plus mainly local stations who buy into the RAJAR system and who try to make it all happen on air on a daily basis – answering phones from listeners, compiling the news and sports bulletins that we take for granted, trying to sell radio advertising to hard-pressed businesses.

Or the unheralded engineers, without whom of course there’d be silence.