Lies, damned lies and statistics

The Guardian seems rather pleased that its broadcast arm, the BBC, appears to have increased its radio audience.  It prompted a news story in that paper that has been picked up by our friends at EU Referendum and used to draw a comparison between radio listening and newspaper sales.

Dr Richard North’s piece opens with the part of the story we want to focus upon:

According to The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 has just recorded its biggest-ever audience of nearly 11 million listeners in the first three months of 2011. The station had an average weekly audience of 10.83 million listeners between January and March, up eight percent on the same period in 2010. Radio 4’s Today programme also had a record audience of 7.03 million listeners, 600,000 up on the previous year.

As is so often the case, things are not what they seem.  These figures are pretty much meaningless. Radio listening audiences are collected by asking people to keep diaries of their listening habits for one week.  Helpfully, the BBC describes the process on its website.

An organisation called the Radio Joint Audience Research Limited (RAJAR) is responsible for going out to households across the country, and asking people to keep a diary of listening for seven days. Approximately 130,000 diaries a year are completed. Respondents are asked to record which stations they listened to at what times, and also where they were listening.

So from 130,000 diaries RAJAR concludes that the Today programme now has a ‘record audience’ of over 7 million listeners. But then this begs the question, who are RAJAR?

Would it suprise you to learn that the company is part owned by the BBC?  What we have here is a BBC company compiling listening figures that suggest the BBC audience is rising to record levels.  But even then, setting aside the haphazard diary methodology, the ‘official’ figures that are being headlined do not add up, as North points out:

However, we must nevertheless look at the BBC Today Programme figures with a pinch of salt. For the last three months of 2008, it was applauding an average weekly audience of 6.6 million. This was supposedly up nearly half a million on the previous three months and its largest audience since the final three months of 2001.

In August 2010, it was then rejoicing in “a record 6.98 million weekly listeners”, which is now 7.03 million listeners, “600,000 up on the previous year”. But when you think that, at the start of 2004, it was claiming 6.2 million listeners, and in 3 August 2006 the audience was reported as falling from 6.12 million the previous quarter to 5.87 million (against an all-time low of 5.6 million), these figures are looking like Soviet tractor production statistics.

Either RAJAR statisticians are innumerate or someone is spinning us another pile of bullshit. Scratch beneath the surface of a mainstream media piece and figures issued to the public that cannot in any way be considered impartial, and we inevitably find cause to distrust what we are being told. Tractor production statistics seems almost too kind a description.

5 Responses to “Lies, damned lies and statistics”

  1. 1 SadButMadLad 15/05/2011 at 4:14 pm

    As the Guardian article says, the figures are partly due to the Archers and some momentous news stories. The figures are therefore skewed and not long term figures showing a constant rise in listeners.

  2. 2 Martin Brumby 15/05/2011 at 7:17 pm


    Another hockey stick?

    Worse than we thought!

  3. 3 A K Haart 15/05/2011 at 7:58 pm

    A key piece of information I couldn’t track down is how the respondents are selected – I certainly don’t know any. What do they do with refusals too? Could be the same old story, selective release of information.

  4. 4 TheRagingTory 16/05/2011 at 11:18 am

    “A key piece of information I couldn’t track down is how the respondents are selected – I certainly don’t know any.”

    “Approximately 130,000 diaries a year are completed.”

    How many people does the BBC employ?
    Directly and via bought in content?

  5. 5 jameshigham 16/05/2011 at 12:02 pm

    Yes, would love to know the demographics of those respondents.

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