the riddle of reach

A young Albert Brooks wanted to be the "all-night guy" at an FM radio station in Long Beach, California. Early sixties; he's in high school. He goes in to interview with one of the disc jockeys at the station.

"These disc jockeys," Brooks explained in a recent interview, "they're the same all over the world. They have this imagination that the world is listening. This guy had a map of the United States behind him, and there were these circles in different colors. So from California to Chicago was a blue circle. From California to Nevada was an orange circle. From California to Sacramento was a red circle."

"That's our reach," the DJ told Brooks. "On the weekend, we go to Chicago as easily as here. It travels. In the daytime, we go to Las Vegas. But 24/7, we go through California. If you were up in Sacramento, you'd listen as easily as you would here. So the potential audience at any time at this station is 150 to 170 million people."


"Anyway, let me finish this up then we'll sit down and talk. Make yourself at home." There's no one else at the station that late, so Brooks wanders around until he finds himself in the transmitter room. Out of curiosity, he peeks into one of the odd-looking cabinets.

"To this day, I never heard that exact electronic noise of an entire transmitter shutting down," Brooks recalled. "Every needle went to zero." Suddenly off the air, the DJ burst out of the booth to find out what had happened. As it turned out, getting back on the air wasn't "as easy as closing the cabinet."

"We sat there for an hour, and nobody called," Brooks said. "The phone didn't ring once. And he's in front of a coverage map of 180 million people." Young Albert Brooks didn't get the gig but learned a valuable lesson in reach.

I was forcefully reminded of this anecdote after reading this article about changes to the way Apple reports podcasting metrics. By turning off automatic downloads for people who haven’t listened to a given show in a while, Apple revealed an embarrassing truth: Many of the world's most popular podcasts were operating with a level of delusion approaching that of the Long Beach DJ.

Since there was no reliable to track listens in the early days of podcasting, downloads became the preferred measure of reach. Since podcast-listening software downloads every episode automatically by default, however, all the numbers really say is that a person hit subscribe at some point in the past. (Possibly the distant past.) Thanks to the change, it's clear that vast numbers of people were subscribed to podcasts that they hadn't listened to in months, if not years.

If a podcast downloads in the forest and no one is around to hear it, etc.

Reach is magical when you have it. Back in college, I did radio with a friend. The students all had Napster by then, but the station remained popular with townies, as well as inmates at the local prison. How do I know people actually listened? It's four in the morning. My friend and I, bleary-eyed, ramble for about sixty seconds between songs. Just as we put the needle down on the next record, the station phone rang.


They were listening! They weren't happy, but they were there. It felt incredible.

Reach is the central puzzle of creative work in these days of fragmented attention. It remains stubbornly hard to measure. Plenty of people buy books they never read or read advice without taking action on it. Yet plenty of authors compare-and-despair based on highly suspect sales figures that only suggest true reach. Smoke and mirrors! People read stuff and listen to plenty of stuff, but clearly, a lot of fuss is made over acres of trees falling in an empty forest.

Why bother with comparisons? Look at your own reach. Are actual people receiving your wavelength? How do you know, and what can you do to find out who they are, what they're enjoying, and what else they'd like to see from you? How do you connect?

Don't delude yourself with numbers that mask the truth to bolster your ego (or ad revenue). There's nothing more gratifying for me than learning that a single person got something useful out of one of these newsletters or enjoyed one of the books I had a hand in making. Forget the shadow metrics and focus on living, breathing people.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.