Radio’s JT8D


By Ronald Robinson

In the late ‘70s, my agency pal and I started making bi-weekly flights from Calgary to Edmonton’s ITV studios to record TV spots for Sportchek, a provincial sporting goods retailer with its greatest national growth still ahead of it. My associate, Billy-Bob, was the agency producer. I was the copy editor and on-camera presenter, with Bill (affectionately) tagging me as “the meat.” (“Cue the ‘roast’.”)

The always-full flight only took about 45 minutes, but it was still an experience of extreme terror, from boarding to shutdown at the arrivals gate. The jet engines on the 737-200’s, although modern at the time, were the model JT8Ds. They produced about 800 pounds of thrust and were of the coal-burning variety. This is why a takeoff roll felt like it took up the better part of two counties before it was “rotate” and “wheels up.” The flaps stayed extended at 20-degrees for a suspiciously longer period. Passengers were trained to help with takeoffs by, on cue, grabbing their armrests and pulling up – forcefully. We would also be chanting, “Get up! Get up! Today! Now!!”

We would land at “Edmonton Muni” – an inner city strip that was about three blocks long. The safety stop measures were included the understanding that unless those thrust reversers worked perfectly, we were all going to be butted up against a building and bailing out of the emergency exits into the shrubbery, with soiled undies and in front of a pack of surly Edmonton-ites.

Our own offices and studios were out by the Calgary airport, so, if we were outside, we could always tell when one of those beauties was leaving by the billowing trails of smoke, the smell of burning coal, and the shattering noise – much louder in winter… which was most of the time.

Eventually, reason prevailed and continuing the operation of “The Muni” was brought into question. Hearings were held, of course. The story goes that one of the more compelling pieces of evidence to support the closing was demonstrated by a substantial number of office workers who, for years, had a direct line-of-sight to the end of the runway. All of them trooped into the hearing room and all had a certain facial “look” that was frozen in place. This was the look more famously known as the one Macaulay Culkin was sporting in Home Alone after shaving, and slapping on the lotion.

In the ensuing years, the fleet of 737s improved drastically and became the most popular series of equipment in the history of commercial aviation. Today’s models are so powerful, clean, efficient, and quiet, they can land and take off from a table napkin without anyone noticing, and without leaving a stain from the engines, the passengers, or flight crew.

Now, about those JT8D engines: Did they all get scrapped as newer, better models came online? No, they did not. Radio bought them and wired/taped/stapled them to their stations. Even today, they get run up to full power with little or no maintenance. They are noisy, smoky, smelly, hard on coal-fuel, and inefficient. The pervasive ownership and management position on these engines, however, is still: “So long as they’re turnin’ and burnin’, we’re still earnin’.” Extraordinarily, like those in other endeavors, people can get used to anything. Things get weird, however, when the racket and pollution are being indignantly defended!

Radio’s equivalent of the JT8D engine is its “model-of-communication” – a model that has not changed one iota in 40 years or more. As a result, radio hasn’t even begun to realize its own communicative potentials. This is directly because of radio leadership refusing to engage in any R&D, whatsoever. Radio also refuses to project itself into a future that includes major, significant improvements and dizzying prosperity, because the leadership demonstrates no belief that such a scenario is even possible or how to go about making such improvements.

Corporately consolidated radio blew its chance for any improvements almost immediately after a number of those leviathan consolidations took place. To be fair, radio before consolidation was also making no attempts at improvement beyond tweaking and tinkering. But then, it wasn’t slashing and burning either.

This claim is, I realize, stupefying. It is also not a new assertion. So, I shall repeat it a little more precisely: The circumstances in which radio finds itself is a direct result of radio’s leadership refusing to engage in any R&D on how to communicate better and more effectively – whatsoever.

The line being expressed by radio people today and in decades past has been: “There are no secrets in radio.” The premise was that everything a radio station was doing was available in real time – right there, coming out of the box. Everything could be determined and copy-catted almost immediately. This is categorically inaccurate.

Not only have there been, and are, many “secrets” in radio, ownership, management, and those in the trenches are completely oblivious to the notion that these so-called “secrets” even exist! It is reasonable to assume that nobody is going to search out a treasure of which they have no knowledge. My challenge. My responsibility.

Nobody working in radio wants to be butted up against a building and diving into the bushes. But, so long as it remains so horribly underpowered, much of radio runs the risk of becoming a pile of scrap at the end of the runway. Sadly, for some outfits, this is likely. There is no chance the whole industry is going to start making the necessary adjustments required to proceed effectively, and to rescue itself. A smart and/or lucky few might be astute enough to take up the challenge. The prognosis, though, is grim.

Further, the 737s of old had a maximum cargo weight that could never be exceeded. Modern, corporate radio is trying to drag itself into the air with extra tons of slag-debt tied to its tail. That’s spectacularly over the limit of every JT8D.


  1. Thanks to Al G. For your link. Nice read. There is a reason broadcast and the radio offspring are still rigid and singularly ineffective, it’s like Bozo and his only begotten son Sideshow Bob: they’ve forgotten “it’s show biz”. One could rant but relentless soul sucking dogma holds holds the high ground now.


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