Chilly Billy, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Tim Cavanaugh

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania listeners got a reshuffling on their terrestrial radio dials last week that included a career-ending turn for an American icon. The AM oldies station WJAS (1320) changed to a conservative talk format, and the FM news-talk station WPGB (104.7) changed over to country music. The changes may have serious negative implications for conservative talk listeners, though if you follow the comments in this Post-Gazette news story about the switch, you may find yourself, like me, just more confused about what it all means.

The once-dominant format of conservative talk has been in decline recently, like much of the standard radio medium. There is no single explanation for this drop, though the math skills on display in this quote from one former executive at radio giant Clear Channel may suggest an answer:

[Corporate brand manager Darryl] Parks observed that some of the few stations which experienced a bump in ratings did so because they acquired Rush Limbaugh’s show in their markets. However, he pointed out that, “When you have no audience to begin with, tripling the audience isn’t all that hard. 0.0 to 0.3 is a 300% increase or an index of 300.”

(For the record, 300 percent of 0.00 is 0.00.)

But the real import of the format change is that it has led to the firing of 85-year-old oldies DJ Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille.

Cardille’s name is not well known outside the Iron City, but he has at least two genuine claims to American-legend status. In a career in Pittsburgh media that lasted more than half a century, his duties included hosting a horror-movie TV series that served as the parodic object for Joe Flaherty’s running “Monster Chiller Horror Theater” sketch on SCTV.

Cardille also had a brief but essential role as a TV newscaster in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the movie that singlehandedly created the all-zombies-all-the-time ethos that still dominates American popular culture. While he is not one of the principal players, the bantering, access-journalist demeanor Cardille brings to his scenes is one of the crucial elements in creating the documentary style that made the movie feel jarringly of-the-moment in 1968 and still relevant today. (WARNING: The following clip contains one of the ultimate movie spoilers. Then again, if you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead by this late date, what the hell is wrong with you?)

Cardille’s daughter Lori Cardille also played a nicely low-key, naturalistic lead in Romero’s 1985 zombie sequel Day of the Dead, and the Cardilles are part of a long line of prominent Pittsburghers who have made there way into the Romeroverse. (Having directed an early episode of the Pittsburgh-based Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Romero went on to cast some of the Rogers players — though sadly, never the late Fred Rogers himself — as zombies in his subsequent pictures.) In this interview with TribLive, Cardille expresses satisfaction with his career but little hope that he’ll get another gig in radio. But he is an essential part of Night of the Living Dead and is thus a great American deserving of the reverence of his countrymen.

Thanks to Pittsburgh stalwart Mike McGough for the tip.

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