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 have been sweating it out over the release of the official radio listening figures, known as the RAJARs (Radio Joint Audience Research).

The latest RAJAR figures have been made public and over the past 24 hours or so radio execs have been 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.

Some radio bosses will be keeping the stats to themselves and hoping their bosses have their mind on other things : one size doesn’t fit all.

In reality it’s the longer-term trends that count…but how long?

When I began life as a BBC radio boss in the 90’s I was told by my senior colleagues to wait at least 18 months before deciding on the future of a new presenter,brought in to boost the programme and the ratings. In other words, sit through the quarterlies, bite my lip and keep my eye on the long game.

Many bleeding lips later I realise it was meant as a guideline, not a rule, and sometimes events take over, dear boy, but generally it was useful advice.

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?

Non-radio industry people might be surprised to learn that the ‘technology’ is either “rigorous in a reassuringly traditional way” or “hopelessly out of date”(depending on whether you’ve had a good or bad set of figures).

For the paper listening diaries,teams of researchers are sent to households which reflect the demographics of a particular area and then one family member completes the survey.

This are also online versions which runs consecutively -I’m told they now outnumber the traditional hard copies.

RAJAR say that paper 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 )

This version is completed by adding stickers or cards 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.

Click here to see what one looks like – as it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a real one in your house!

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?

Size isn’t everything, Kelvin

There have been attempts to pilot new technology but the various organisations which fund RAJAR ( the BBC and the commercial radio trade body, the Radio Centre) seem to think that the current mixed methodology is the best for now although in recent years a mobile app has been developed which measures listening habits and in time presumably the online version will replace the paper diaries.

(Famously the former boss of TalkSport K*lvin McK*nzie 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 and a throwback to the 50’s 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 there’s an in-built margin of error with the stats but….and so on…

Wonderfully,according to RAJAR, “All individuals taking part in the survey are given a pen” for their troubles. Those who fully complete their diaries are entered into a monthly draw.

With such riches at stake how could anyone resist? But don’t hold your breath as only 1 in 1000 households is likely to be surveyed (damn, I need a new pen).

When the figures arrive back at HQ they pass through the IPSOS/MORI 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 or cluster which depends for survival on advertising your RAJAR results can determine whether you’ll still have a job next Monday. And if you’re a DJ (or presenter at the BBC…)at the smelly 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 bum” is not confined to the independents, although it’s certainly not as brutally career-defining as it can be at some.

It can make or break your career in both sectors and instigate a “process of upheaval” – job losses, programme changes, or worse.

Yes, just like in the real world.

Now, where’s my cushion? The seat of this chair is making a horrible squeaky noise.

[This is a much-updated version of a blog which first appeared on this website in May 2015]