Nick Digilio
Dmitry Samarov    "Nick Digilio"    gouache on paper     2008

In 2005, maybe 2006, I was searching the AM dial for something to keep me company in the cab while driving through the night-time streets. Pausing at 720AM I heard an excited voice in the middle of a rant. It had a distinctively Chicago cadence. I kept listening because he was debating with his listeners about what was—and was not—a zombie.

I’d never listened to WGN much. I hate the Cubs, and most of the station’s other programming seemed to be geared for the geriatric set. Even though my folks would never describe themselves as liberal, I grew up with NPR in the house. The idea of listening to a commercial talk radio station had never occurred to me before, but the hours behind the wheel begged for a soundtrack, and the music stations were just unbearable. WBEZ was phasing out its great overnight music programming, replacing it with repeats from the daytime, the BBC, and other international news-related fare. Most of it bored me silly. Much of the AM dial was dominated by screaming troglodytes. Be it sports, politics, love, or gardening, there’s rarely a voice that rises above the barely-literate din. WGN is less offensive than most, but it put me to sleep more often than not.

But the guy debating zombies was another story. (Yes, the controversy concerned whether fast zombies were better than the classic slow ones, and furthermore, whether the fast ones were zombies at all.)

His name was Nick Digilio, and I quickly became a regular listener. His show was on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights—so he was there to help me ferry the drunkest fares of the week. I found out later that he’d been on WGN for some twenty-five years. As progeny of Soviet intelligentsia—and an art-school graduate to boot—my default is to disdain most pop culture. But hearing someone describe the latest episode of The Gilmore Girls with unabashed glee and without a trace of irony makes even the biggest snob lighten up—if only for a moment. That’s the joy of Nick’s show.

I’d never wanted to meet any artist, musician, or other public figure particularly. Admiring what someone does and seeking personal contact with them is a leap—and, from personal experience, often an unpleasant one. But for whatever reason, after listening to his show for a couple years, I wanted to meet Nick. I made sure to be around Tribune Tower when his show was ending. Then, I’d casually roll by and pick him up as he exited the building, as if it was just by chance. I’d seen The King of Comedy many times and knew from listening that Nick was a big fan of the film as well. I didn’t let on that I was a fan until I drove him up to Simon’s (his favorite bar) at least five or six times. I didn’t want to spook him. How do you explain that you’re a fan and not a stalker?

After finally introducing myself, we quickly developed a rapport. The cab rides soon became intentional rather than random. It turned out we had things to talk about. We’re both baseball fanatics (he is a Cubs fan). But what probably bonded us most was a love of the movies, which Nick reviews on-air. It soon became a ritual to continue the discussion of the latest films as we drove to Simon’s on Lake Shore Drive in my cab. We disagree more often than not, but it’s always a kick to bat around takes on the latest Coen brothers flick or debate whether Lars Von Trier is a genius or just a pompous jagoff. I remember getting a text from Nick at 4 a.m. once, saying that after seeing Southland Tales for the third time, it finally clicked for him why I loved that film so much.

Three years ago, Nick invited me to be a guest on the show to talk about my blog. I’d never been on air before and had a horrible toothache (which turned out to require a root canal the next day), but Nick still made the hour fly by. He made a complete novice feel at home in front of a microphone. Having done my share of awkward interviews in the past few months, I appreciate Nick’s conversational talents that much more. He’s gifted at providing a setting in which talk can flow. And he’s the same off-mic as well—he thrives on banter. As one who’s often socially ill-at-ease, I envy what he can do so naturally.

Nick had been involved in storefront theater for years before I met him as a founding member of the Factory Theater. He hadn’t done a play for a while until Black and Blue earlier this year. Driving him from WGN to rehearsals for weeks before the show opened revealed another side to the man. This wasn’t the guy who’d go on and on about the Jackass films or that night’s Seinfeld rerun. He was directing the play as well as rewriting the script. It was taking up every spare second he had. This was a person committed to getting it right. The piece is a comedy set in a tavern and concerns two brothers, one a Cubs fan, the other a Sox devotee. It was hilarious and sincere and displayed a lot of Nick’s personality. It was a true pleasure to see my friend’s labor of love on stage, to see Nick doing his thing rather than just reviewing or reacting to the work of others.

I never thought I’d know one of the voices coming from the radio, but I have for the past six years now, and my life’s much richer for it. Nick’s is a voice more of Chicago should know.