Generations of young people grew up with Looney Tunes. One of the highlights of the popular animated shorts was the Roadrunner cartoon. If you’re not familiar with Chuck Jones’ stories, you’re missing out. It’s great entertainment and radio personalities can learn a lot from Wile E. Coyote.
The Coyote pursued the Roadrunner, but always failed to capture his prey in a disastrous (and hilarious) way.
Here’s an example:
Jones’ cartoons followed very specific story rules that guided each episode. Here are Jones’ 11 rules, with commentary on how many apply to radio personalities:
The Roadrunner cannot harm Wile E Coyote except by going “Beep, Beep.”
The Roadrunner didn’t beat up on the Coyote. It just happened. But the constant taunting annoyed the Coyote. It was maddening and motivating. Isn’t it interesting that the Coyote had a deeper character profile, even though The Roadrunner was the “star”?
Radio Application: The pair were well-matched, and they stayed in their roles. That’s key on any multi-personality show. Knowing who you are creates appealing moments when each personality stays in their lane.
No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.
Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time. Sometimes the Coyote painted a tunnel on a rock, hoping for Roadrunner to smash into it. Of course, the bird goes through unscathed. The Coyote follows and a train comes from the other side.
The Coyote’s failures make him a relatable, sympathetic character. The fact that he comes back for more without losing enthusiasm is an admirable trait. He’s a “lovable loser” that we can identify with. And, it makes us feel a little better about our own shortcomings.
Radio Application: Like the Coyote, personalities must have confidence to be vulnerable. That makes you relatable and likable. It’s much more charming than the arrogance of a perfect character that never loses. Embracing and showing flaws and quirks is a key part of being a lovable air talent.
The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic.
I always wondered why the Coyote didn’t go after another target, like a rabbit. Anything that wasn’t as fast or smart! Of course, that wouldn’t make an interesting story, would it? He just came back again with another plan that was certain to work this time. The Coyote never stopped because he couldn’t. He was fanatical, obsessed with his goal.
This led to a certain amount of predictability. Viewers knew that the story would end with the Coyote getting injured in impossibly violent ways. The familiarity gave the cartoon structure.
Radio Application: The Coyote’s failure is a benchmark. You didn’t know what was going to happen, but you knew how it would turn out. The Coyote would fail, and the Roadrunner would race off with a smug look.
No dialogue ever, except “Beep, Beep” and yowling in pain.
There was no talking in Roadrunner cartoons. There were sound effects and the Roadrunner’s famous sound. Yet the cartoons were heavy on character. The brilliance of the cartoon writing is that it was done through pictures and sound effects. Imagery told the story. A character held up signs once in awhile, but Jones insisted on telling the story clearly and simply without dialogue.
The format required that each scene have a focus to move the story forward. Every detail was critical to make the story come alive.
Radio Application: Air personalities should learn to tell stories the same way. Clearly, with no detours. In an audio-only world, there are no pictures to help tell a story, so words must be colorful, descriptive and precise.
The Roadrunner must stay on the road — because he’s a roadrunner.
This simple rule is a good example of having a defined character role.
Radio Application: Identify roles that will allow each character to come alive in exciting ways. Know the boundaries. What fits each personality brand traits and what is off limits?Remember, a role is different from traits in a Character Profile. Each personality’s role is what they do on the air. Character is who they are.
All action must be confined to the natural environment — the southwest American desert.
This is a key tool to increase familiarity in the setting. A familiar setting is important. It’s like the bar in Cheers or Jerry’s apartment in Seinfeld. Familiar backgrounds allow attention to focus on the story.
Radio Application: The same is true in audio creation. A comfortable, familiar environment is important. That’s why sonic branding and distinct imaging is an important aspect of show presentation.
All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
Here is yet another example of benchmarking. As soon as Wile E. Coyote got a box from Acme, something was about to blow up in his face (literally).
Radio Application: What benchmarks do you use that cause the audience to know what to expect? Remember, benchmarks are not the same as features. Benchmarks should be woven into the fabric of the content so they become part of the overall story arc?
Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
This recurring theme reveals an effective tool in relating stories. Gravity is a universal truth that is easily understood with explanation necessary. This makes it instantly familiar and relatable. The audience gets it.
Radio Application: Keep it simple.
The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
His humiliation is endearing. The Coyote’s emotional reaction to failure causes us to care, especially when the Roadrunner watches him fall off a cliff, smiling. And waving. His self-analysis and constant failure makes him that character we cheer for. There’s a warmth in the struggle!
Radio Application: Listeners identify with struggle. I’ll never forget the time a bartender in Dallas told me she loved DeDe In The Morning because, “She’s on the same struggle bus I am.”.
The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
It’s interesting that the “hero” is an aggressor. The Coyote is the loser, while the Roadrunner is the villain. This juxtaposition of characters provides a unique perspective. Other classic cartoons do this as well. Remember Tom & Jerry, where the mouse always outsmarts the cat? Surprise! Chuck Jones created that one, too!
Radio Application: This is also true on personality radio shows. Many times, the most memorable and most loved character isn’t the one with their name on the show. Or the nicest character. This has nothing to do with how many words are spoken. Winning shows understand this and use it as a strategic advantage. It’s what I call a For The Show mentality.
The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Roadrunner.
This is my favorite rule. There’s never an end to the story arc. It’s about the process. If the Coyote catches the Roadrunner, the story is over. It’s like when two actors finally hook up in a sitcom. There’s nothing is left to hope for or anticipate. No possibilities. When the pursuit ends, the story arc dies.
Radio Application: Many shows think they have to have finish a story. It doesn’t always have to tie together in the end. You do need an ending, a pay off, but it doesn’t need to result in a conclusion to the storyline. Entertainment is found in the pursuit of a solution, not the solution itself.
A couple of other things stand out:
- Chuck Jones’ genius is evident in how he cross-promoted and recycled the Coyote. Beginning in 1953, he borrowed the character in a series of episodes of Sam Sheepdog vs. Ralph Wolf. Ralph The Wolf is a dead ringer for Wile E. Coyote. And, the Coyote was a recurring character in Bugs Bunny episodes. It’s a great lesson in expanding your brand by playing and recycling your hits.
- Also, notice the color schemes. It’s full of yellow, orange, and red. The style subtly adds to the brand. This consistency may not be obvious, but it matters.
According to Screen Rant:
When Jones was creating Wile E. Coyote in 1948, he found inspiration in the writings of Mark Twain, best known for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 1872’s Roughing It, Twain describes the coyote as long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton. He describes the coyote as a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. And he is always poor, out of luck, and friendless.
The image stuck with Jones, and he realized the brand values that should define and guide his character.
Developing guidelines for presenting a radio show is a valuable exercise. It’s an advanced step in building a 5-Star Personality Brand. What are the rules of conduct on your show? And how are you executing them? If you need help, I’m here for you. Let’s put it together on your show. Contact me.