It’s 3:30am. Pleasantly loud, a flute and oboe trade the opening theme of the Peer Gynt Act IV Prelude. On a shelf, three CD players, one of which is counting down to the end: four minutes still to go.
A man is sitting on the other side of the desk from me, big professional-looking studio headphones around his neck. He’s adding up numbers with a pencil and paper.
“Calculators aren’t very good with minutes and seconds. So I do the maths myself to make sure I’m going to get to the top of the hour on time,” he explains. Without looking, his hand finds an open packet of jelly beans, pops one into his mouth. He checks his numbers one more time.
I should be exhausted. That morning I’d been at the studios of London’s independent news station, LBC, watching the broadcast of the breakfast news program. After a few hours sleep on my Aunt’s sofa, I headed to the studios of the UK’s brand new national radio station, Classic FM.
The letter had tried to be reassuring: “Ring the doorbell. Don’t worry if nobody responds straight away, I may not be able to answer it until I’ve put the next record on. But I’ll get there eventually.”
I felt anything but tired. This was the stuff of my dreams. Sixteen years old, and in the on-air studio of a national radio station. A heady combination of fascination and intense curiosity.
Robert Booth looked back up, happy now with his numbers. “Do you know exactly how many people I’m broadcasting to right now? I do.”
Before I could say anything he raised a hand. The music was fading. The red light came on: MIC LIVE.
As he introduced the next piece, I tried to make sense of what he’d asked. How could he possibly know how many were listening? Obviously there was audience research, and there were official listening figures (published quarterly) for advertisers. But how could he know exactly how many?
He finished his link and the light was off again. “Well?” he inquired. Friendly, but insistent.
“I don’t know… 100,000? 150,000?” My grandmother listened to the radio all night, I assumed there were lots more like her.
“No. Good guess, but no.”
He shook his head. “Just one.” A trace of a smile. “She’s in her car. Or he could be in his armchair. Or perhaps she’s working the night shift. But always alone. I’m only ever broadcasting to one person.”
I’ve never forgotten this. It’s one of the most profound commentaries on audience measurement that I’ve heard.
We strive every day for better metrics and greater accuracy. Our data can provide incredible insights and help us to improve our content and products. But it can be beguiling and distracting too: a wall between us and our users. Sometimes all we need to know about our audience is much simpler.
Most nights, Robert Booth didn’t have an excitable teenager visiting. He sat in that big cavernous studio alone with his CDs and jelly beans, having a one-to-one conversation with 120,000 insomniacs and shift workers.
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