The Radio Dies First
Yes, even before the black dude.
A two-way radio is put out of commission to allow the plot to proceed.
Back before Cell Phones Are Useless
, the device that could really put a crimp in a plot's need to keep the characters isolated and cut off from information was the two-way radio. So in a lot of Twentieth Century media, the radio was put out of commission as quickly as possible. There were three main ways of doing this.
- Vehicle crash. Whenever a plane or boat had to make a forced landing, the radio always, always broke, no matter how gentle the landing seemed otherwise. This was close to Truth in Television before the widespread use of transistors and printed circuits; radios used a lot of easily breakable tubes, and wires jarred loose with relatively little provocation.
- Interference. This was usually accomplished with the use of heavy weather conditions, which also helped isolate the characters. Imaginative writers could use interference to give only partial information to the protagonists, which they can then totally misinterpret.
- Sabotage. This ranges from the subtle (breaking or stealing a single hidden tube) to the blatant (taking an axe to the radio set.) This is usually a big hint to the protagonists that what's going on is no accident or series of coincidences.
Many stories in the appropriate time period will have a radioman, usually called "Sparks"
, who will be stuck trying to repair the radio or get through the interference for most of the story. His isolation often causes him to score badly on the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality
Compare Cut Phone Lines
, which serve a similar narrative purpose, but are always
sabotage. See Lost in Transmission
, where a working connection line is suddenly cut off. Related to Poor Communication Kills
, because the best way to have a plot get complex for the protagonists is to take out the communication.
- The Maze Agency #20 uses the sabotage variant, smashing the radio and then blowing up the boat to strand the characters on an isolated island.
- In Crimson Tide, the loss of both the boat's radio and longwave buoy (partway through a transmission) left the crew unsure whether an order to launch nuclear missiles had been countermanded. The tense scenario comes complete with an engineer racing against time to repair the radio.
- Similarly, the failure of a strategic bomber's radio meant that the failsafe in Fail Safe did not, well, fail safe.
- The radio didn't fail, the system did. The bombers could send and receive messages but they were trained not to accept tactical orders once past their Fail Safe point.
- Dr. Strangelove:
- General Ripper orders all radios on the base confiscated on the pretext that they could be used to give instructions to saboteurs. The real reason is to prevent the base personnel from learning that the only emergency is the one he's creating.
- The "Leper Colony" bomber's radio is damaged, meaning it can't be recalled even when General Ripper's recall code is discovered.
- In The Wicker Man (1973), the natives sabotage the policeman's plane, cutting out his communication with the mainland.
- In Fantastic Voyage, it's the vital laser that is sabotaged, and the only source for parts to fix it is the radio.
- When the shark starts its climactic attack in Jaws and Chief Brody tries to call for help, Quint destroys the radio - because he has to be the one to kill the shark.
- Done in Tremors 2: Aftershocks. The creatures destroy the radio accidentally because they associate heat with prey.
- When Jack decides to kill Wendy and Danny in The Shining, one of his first acts is to disable the radio so she cannot call for help.
- Early on in The Thing (1982), it's established that the radio's been dead for weeks and Windows hasn't been able to get through. Later Blair uses an axe to make sure that it won't get used again. Fans still debate whether Blair had been assimilated by that point, and so was actually committing sabotage under the guise of insanity.
- In the prequel The Thing (2011), the leader of the expedition orders radio silence so no-one will blab about having found a Flying Saucer. By the time things start going wrong, the same storm which disrupts Willow's communications is approaching (though sabotage is also a possibility, as the alien has had time to take human form).
- Indiana Jones sabotages the zeppelin's radio in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to prevent it from being ordered back to Germany. The zeppelin turns around anyway when the crew discovers the sabotage.
- The German: Early in the dogfight, a bullet flies through Red Leader's cockpit and takes out the radio.
- In Fate Is The Hunter the airplane's radio failed as part of a series of cascading failures that led to its disasterous crash landing. Oddly, the same thing happened on a test flight although they had none of the other problems. They found that the problems on the first flight had caused the captain's coffee to spill and seep into the electronics. This knocked out the radio and caused a false alarm in a good engine
- In The Abominable Snowman, the radio is accidentally smashed early in the yeti-hunting expedition during a tussle between the team members.
- King of the Zombies: When Bill and Mac check the wreckage of the plane in the morning, they find that someone has disassembled the radio overnight.
Live Action TV
- In The Heights of Zervos by Colin Forbes, a British saboteur disguised as a Nazi takes advantage of a sniper attack on "his" unit to put a bullet through the radio.
- In the second book in The Mysterious Benedict Society series, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Reynie Muldoon (the main protagonist) actually pitched the radio out of a train because he mistakenly did not consider the person on the other end to be trustworthy.
- In The Shining, one of the Overlook's first overt hallucinations is that of Jack's dead (and abusive) father, berating him over the radio that's the only link to the outside world. It keeps it up until Jack snaps and smashes the radio.
- In The Beacon To Elsewhere by James H. Schmitz, the protagonist has two communicators, and the same incident stops him using either of them. He's in an area where something is interfering with the planet's power grid; the power failure brings down his flying car. One of his communicators also runs off the grid, so it can't be used. The other has its own power source, but gets destroyed in the crash.
- Magic interferes with tech in The Dresden Files, and cell phones (and radios and other relatively fragile/complicated electrical systems) are the first to go, likened to canaries in mines.
- Early on in the Ciaphas Cain novel Death or Glory, a PDF squad's voxcaster (read: radio) is shot during a firefight, leading to a tense moment where Cain thinks his only backup has been wiped out. It turns out that they aren't, and they arrive Just in Time to save him from being cornered.
- The first New Jedi Order novel, Vector Prime, features a Yuuzhan Vong warrior named Yomin Carr sabotaging a scientific base that happens to be monitoring the eponymous invasion path at the edge of the galaxy. True to the trope, one of Carr's first efforts is to disable the colony's communications gear, forcing their technician to tromp all the way out and repair it — at which point Carr kills him.
- Happens briefly in one of the Biggles books, and just to ratchet up the dramatic tension even more Biggles himself hears but does not see a plane crash and explode while separated from his comrades. Turns out that the Sky Pirate fighter that was attacking their slow and unwieldy transport plane crashed and burned instead after Ginger emptied an entire drum-magazine into it from ten yards away in a fit of rage, but not before it shot a hole in their R/T set.
- Night Without End by Alistair Maclean. An airplane crashes near a scientific outpost in Greenland. When the survivors are taken there, they clumsily knock over the radio to the fury of the scientists, because there's not enough food for them all and the nearest settlement is 300 kilometers away. Then they discover that the aircraft pilot was shot In the Back, raising the question of whether the radio being destroyed was an accident.
- The Martian goes one better, and has the radio dying set off the whole plot: The storm that forced the astronauts to evacuate rips the communications antenna off its mountings, whereupon it slams into Mark Watney and drives a length of guyline through his suit in exactly the right spot to kill the vitals monitor and cause him to be mistakenly left for dead. Finding some way to call for help takes most of the first quarter of the book.
- An Australian air pioneer crashed in the outback and was unable to signal for help because the plane's transmitter was powered by a dynamo hooked directly to the engine.
- The Mann Gulch fire of 1949 that killed 13 smokejumpers. One of the things that went wrong was that the parachute dropping the team's radio failed to open, smashing the radio. It meant they were out of contact and could not get back-up or call in aid for their wounded members.
- The survivors of that one Andes plane crash attempted to get the intact radio of the plane to work in order to radio for help, but the batteries were in the separated tail section a few kilometres away. They got as far as disconnecting the radio from the plane and dragging it across to the tail, but the radio used AC power and the batteries produced DC.
- Because of this trope, many nations have emergency phones along deserted stretches of road in wasteland that allow the stranded traveler to ring for help. The Al-Can highway used to have way stations that radioed ahead when you passed - if you didn't arrive in time, the next way-station would go out and look for you to prove you weren't dead. In Namibia, a procedure some use if lost on the vast, lonely highways of that state is to throw rocks at the telephone lines (which are next to the roads) until you break them, then get picked up by whoever they send along to fix them.
- One of the various things that went wrong with Operation Market Garden in World War II was that the radios broke for the soldiers in Arnhem when they landed. This was particularly important as they were unable to secure the supply drop zones and were unable to inform anyone of this problem.
- One early warning sign of a nuclear attack or nuclear weapon accident that involves an airburst would be the loss of all power and electronic circuits due to EMP. It's strongly advised that if all power is lost, and at the same time telephone connections are dead and/or all battery-powered or charged electronic devices malfunction/stop working outright, especially with arcing from lines or outlets or devices, that you take this as a warning of nuclear detonation.
- When a Canadian airliner ran out of fuel over Manitoba and had to glide to a safe landing, one of the systems they lost was the radio. The electronics on board were power by generators run by the engines. No engines, no electricity.
- The Rail Accident Investigation Branch report on a derailment in Kent noted that the accident knocked out the train's radio system, so the driver wasn't able to report the accident.