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The Radio Dies First

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Tarrant: The communicator's dead. It's stone dead.
Soolin: I wish you could have found a less vivid way of putting that.

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 had to be neutered for certain setups, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

A form of Plot-Driven Breakdown. 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 Impeded Communication, because the best way to have a plot get complex for the protagonists is to take out the communication. Basically, because of this trope, the radioman, cell phones and communication devices could technically count as a form of Story-Breaker Power, under the right circumstances. Often part of a Closed Circle plot, as being unable to communicate with the world outside the circle is important to those story's premise that the cast is stuck where they are.


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    Comic Books 
  • In The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #2, Indy knocks out the radio operator on the freighter and attempts to send a message. As he is doing so, someone shoots at him from behind and the shot shatters the radio.
  • 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.
  • When she hijacks the ocean liner Gigantic in Sensation Comics #6, Baroness Paula von Gunther's first act is to shoot the radio operator and blow up the radio.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Abominable Snowman, the radio is accidentally smashed early in the yeti-hunting expedition during a tussle between the team members.
  • A Bridge Too Far uses the real life example of this from Operation Market Garden. After arriving near Arnhem, General Urquhart learns that their radios were issued with the wrong VHF crystals. This leaves him unable to contact the troops moving into Arnhem, General Browning's headquarters, XXX Corps, or England. The problems for the British paratroopers only increase from there.
  • Con Air: When Larkin arrives at Lerner Field, he finds the air traffic controller dead and the control tower radio busted.
  • 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.
  • Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan: Both Eleven and Twelve Platoons have their radios knocked-out by enemy fire at various points; Private Akell has to run a spare up to Twelve Platoon. Back at base, the gunners find their switchboard temporarily disabled by a lightning strike! (Historical note: the movie doesn't reference another strike that blew up the base latrines.)
  • Derailed (2002): After killing the engineer, the terrorists smash the radio in the train's cab.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Fantastic Voyage, it's the vital laser that is sabotaged, and the only source for parts to fix it is 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.
  • The German: Early in the dogfight, a bullet flies through Red Leader's cockpit and takes out the radio.
  • When the seaplane starts sinking in Great White, Charlie tries desperately to send a mayday, but the plane sinks, taking the radio with it, before he can determine if he got through.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Killdozer!, one of the first things demolished by the bulldozer is the hut that houses the radio.
  • 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.
  • The Land That Time Forgot: After Bowen and the British sailors capture the sub, one of the German officers smashes the radio so they cannot signal any Allied shipping.
  • Last Sentinel (2023). The action takes place on a sea fort in the middle of a vast ocean. The soldiers stationed there are under Radio Silence, but when the ship with their relief crew shows up with no-one on board, one of them disobeys orders and transmits a message about it. He's surprised to get the message relayed back to him because no-one downloaded it from the satellite. This raises the question of how long their communications have been down, and whether there's anyone alive back home to receive their message.
  • Life (2017). After the creature breaks out of containment, the crew of the International Space Station find they can't warn the people down on Earth because the transmitter won't work. Someone has to suit up and repair it, only to find the transmitter has burnt out because the creature has drunk the contents of the transmitter's coolant tank. Given that It Can Think, it's left to the audience to wonder if this was deliberate or not. It turns out the distress call did make it back to Earth before the transmitter shut down, but that causes further problems.
  • The mercenaries' radio is totaled after the first attack in Outpost.
  • In Petticoat Planet, Steve's interstellar communicator is damaged when his ship crashes, meaning he can't call for help.
  • Pitch Black. As the spaceship is Coming in Hot the navigator tries to send out a Distress Call to no avail. He demands to know what happened to their comms. In response the pilot ejects a beacon, but they're going so fast it gets torn apart in the planet's atmosphere.
  • Primal: The first thing Loffler does after escaping is to kill the ship's radio operator, destroy the radio, and steal the backup handset to prevent the ship from calling for help.
  • Rogue (2020): After escaping from the compound, the mercenaries find that a bullet has shattered their satellite phone.
  • 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.
  • Once the yacht runs aground in Siren (2010), the protagonists are unable to transmit or receive anything on the radio. It is implied that this is a property of the island.
  • 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. Alternately, he might have decided it was better for everyone to die there rather than risk bringing the Thing back to civilization during a rescue attempt.
  • 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 Window's communications is approaching (though sabotage is also a possibility, as the alien has had time to take human form).
  • Timber Falls: After realising that Ida is holding him prisoner, Mike attempts to use her radio call for help, only to discover Ida has disabled it. Later Sheryl tries to use Clyde's walkie talkie, but she is attacked by Deacon and drops the walkie talkie, which smashes.
  • Transit: After fleeing through the swamp, the Sidwells meet a local in a skiff. He agrees to call the sheriff and picks up his radio handset. As he does so, he gets shot and falls off the side of the boat. The Sidwells take the boat to escape, but find that when he when he went overboard, he took the handset with him, rendering the radio useless.
  • Done in Tremors 2: Aftershocks. The creatures destroy the radio accidentally because they associate heat with prey.
  • In Where Eagles Dare, the radio itself survives (at least, for a while) but the radio operator is killed immediately after the parachute drop into Germany.
  • In The Wicker Man (1973), the islanders sabotage the policeman's plane, cutting out his communication with the mainland.

  • 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.
  • At the start of Beyond Thirty, disaster strikes when the Coldwater's anti-gravitation screens fail, dooming it to wallow upon the surface of the ocean, and the engines fail, leaving it adrift. As its wireless radio has failed as well, Turck cannot even summon help.
  • 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.
  • Early on in the Ciaphas Cainnote  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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. There technically are backup radios, but they're all on the MAV and get evacuated with the rest of the astronauts. Finding some way to call for help takes most of the first quarter of the book.
  • 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.
  • Alistair Maclean used this when necessary. Given the kind of stories he wrote, it was necessary a lot.
    • In Night Without End, 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.
    • In Force Ten from Navarone, radios are safe for as long as Mallory and company are engaged in their cover mission, but once that's over and the real mission starts, radios become a primary target. First Andrea slips into a German Army encampment and destroys their radio, and then Petar breaks a cover years in the making and uses the submachine gun inside his guitar to destroy the radio on the Neretva Dam.
  • 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.
  • Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison. The meteor that kills off all the spaceship's officers except the protagonist also destroys the radio. Not only can't they send out a Distress Call, the medic who is now The Captain can't consult anyone planetside about areas such as astrogation that the dead officers handled.
  • Star Wars Legends: 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100: Upon landing on Earth, the dropship's radio breaks because of the crash. As a result, the 100 cannot communicate with Mission Control on the Ark, with the wristbands each member possesses being the only sign that they are still alive.
  • Benson once had the title character in a helicopter crash along with Clayton (the pilot), the Governor, and a friend. This trope was used and lampshaded.
    Clayton: Bad news.
    Benson: The radio's dead.
    Clayton: The radio's dead.
    Governor: How did you know that?
    Benson: Don't you ever watch movies? The radio never works.
  • Blake's 7: As the Comm Links used by Blake's rebels are also their teleport bracelets they get lost, confiscated or smashed whenever a Teleportation Rescue would resolve the plot too quickly.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "The Power of the Daleks" uses the sabotage version when the Doctor discovers that the communications room of the colony has been destroyed. Though the Daleks may not be responsible, as there's a revolution brewing on the colony.
    • In "Horror of Fang Rock", Skinsale sabotages the wireless to thwart Palmerdale's schemes. Of course this means they can't call for help or warn anyone about the impending alien invasion.
    • In "Terror of the Vervoids", the Doctor himself is seen smashing up the communications room with an axe. Maybe.
    • Commander Millington orders all radio receivers destroyed and the phone lines cut in order to isolate the naval base in "The Curse of Fenric".
  • When the castaways are stranded on Gilligan's Island their radio transmitter is broken but they can still receive radio signals including a report of how the search for their boat is called off.
  • The Head is about the mysterious deaths of the winter team on an Antarctic research station. The radio operator is the first to die, found decapitated out on the ice. When the others go to call for help, they find the satellite radio has been sabotaged and of course the radio operator was the only one with the skill to repair it.
  • On Lost a large part of the pilot is spent trying to get the plane's radio working so they can call for help. A few months later they find out that all radio signals from the island are jammed on Ben's orders. Anyway the weird nature of the islands makes communication with the outside world very tricky.
  • Space: 1999: In "Death's Other Dominion", BRIAN BLESSED sabotages his own radio so Alpha cannot contact his planet.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959): In "The Fear", the radio of Robert Franklin's police car is rendered inoperable after the aliens turn the car over.


    Video Games 
  • The light-eating function of the Sealed Weapon Izayoi is one means of enacting this trope in the BlazBlue series, most particularly when Tager and Kokonoe try to keep in touch with each other. Both of them, as of Chronophantasma, have victory quotes which reference this.
    Tager: Kokonoe! ...No reception.
    Kokonoe: Tager! Come in, Tager! ...Damn reception...
  • Dead Space: Kendra hangs a lampshade on it while approaching the USG Ishimura in the opening sequence, and it continues to happen to individuals communicating with Isaac throughout the game as needed.
  • After the resonance cascade happened in Half-Life, Gordon has to go up to the surface for help because it took out the phones.
  • Half-Life 2's extremely finicky video communicators.
  • The Resident Evil series is very fond of this:
    • In Resident Evil one member from each STARS team has a radio. Alpha Team's dies during the chaos outside before the survivors reach the mansion, and Bravo Team's is damaged and can only receive. It still proves invaluable as Brad is diligent enough to keep hailing over the radio and even to assume they might be unable to respond, insisting they find some way to signal him and offering the first genuine method of escape.
    • In Resident Evil 2, the radios in the police cars are out and the one at the station again can only receive. This time it's due to Police Chief Brian Irons, The Mole turned Serial Killer, who decided to sabotage all venues of escape so he could hunt his officers for sport.
    • Rebecca and Billy have walkie-talkies in Resident Evil 0, which while invaluable for their teamwork still aren't able to communicate with anyone else.
    • Leon manages to keep contact with Mission Control for the first third or so of Resident Evil 4, and while the radio never actually dies the Big Bad and his goons simply jack the line to prevent him from calling for help and to have a hotline to transmit Evil Gloating to Leon whenever they feel the itch.
    • Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 both subvert this, where the heroes have unrestricted contact with Mission Control for the whole game. Unsurprisingly a common heard complaint about both these games is with the constant ability to radio for help, support, or an extraction, the games lose a lot of what made the series scary.
  • A mission in Vietcong pretty much carries on due to the radio not reaching a VC underground tunnel.

    Western Animation 
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: Invoked in The Day The Eds Stood Still; while screwing around in the junkyard, the Eds start acting out the plot of a sci-fi movie called "Robot Rebel Ranch", about three "space outlaws" stranded on an alien planet. Double-D tries radioing for rescue, but gets no answer - mainly because the "radio" in question is an actual radio from an old car they're sitting in, and his headset is just a seat spring he repurposed.

    Real Life 
  • 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 or 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. While there was a backup system (batteries and a ram air turbine), it only provided enough power to operate the controls and a bare minimum of instruments.
  • 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.
  • Narrowly averted on the RMS Titanic. The day before the sinking, the wireless set broke down. Operators Phillips and Bride had orders from the Marconi Company to not carry out repairs at sea and to use the weaker backup set until they made it to New York. However, they took it upon themselves to fix it. Had they used the backup wireless, it's unlikely they would have been able to get the distress signal out. In the sinking itself, the radio kept working almost until the very moment the ship went under.
  • A very common trope in modern warfare for a century or so, because radio transmissions can be detected and zeroed in on, making them tempting targets on the battlefield, in addition to the practical advantages of hindering enemy communication. In the times before radio, this also applied to other forms of communication, such as semaphore signal towers, or for that matter, any soldier bold enough to stand up on the battlefield waving signal flags. So goes the old adage: Anything that looks interesting, draws fire.