Milt Rosenberg died in Chicago late on Tuesday night at the age of 92. When truly great people depart this earth, I am inclined to be selfish and mourn not just the glories of the past but the glories that will never be: I will never hear a brand new Frank Sinatra album, never see a new Jerome Robbins dance... With Milt's passing, the selfishness is compounded: whenever my next tome is published, I will never again know the satisfaction of having Milton J Rosenberg conduct a substantive, informed two-hour discussion on the book and its themes unlike anything else anywhere on the airwaves.
For almost four decades Milt's show at WGN was a favorite stop on the tour for the grandest of authors - Norman Mailer, Mary Higgins Clark, Carl Sagan, Salman Rushdie, Betty Friedan - as it became for more intermittent wordsmiths - Mrs Thatcher, Kirk Douglas, Henry Kissinger... Many of those guests became his friends, so that, for example, on the day after the London Tube bombings, he called up the mystery novelist (and author of The Children of Men) P D James and sought out her views, which were characteristically insightful. As Milt told his guest, "I live in continued borrowed radiance from the pleasure of your company" (a very Miltonian formulation), but you can hear that Lady James feels the same about him, as did many of those he interviewed.
The program was called "Extension 720" - 720 is WGN's wavelength and "Extension" was used in the sense of continuing education (in the same way that my local 4-H is formally affiliated with UNH's agricultural extension program). It certainly was that, but, while there may be the rare Chicagoan who refers to it by that title, I never heard anyone in my trade call it anything other than "the Milt Rosenberg show", which it was. It depended on his very particular set of skills. When it started in the early Seventies, WGN hedged its bets and installed multiple rotating hosts, and Milt, whose hosting experience consisted entirely of a little light panel moderation of University of Chicago discussions, would have been nobody's choice for the guy to come out on top. But he was better prepared, more curious and with a wider range of interests, and it quickly became his show, and stayed it.
If you write a book, you're naturally interested in its subject, and it comes as something of a shock - especially in its launch week - to realize how few other people are. If you've even the most modest public prominence, you're quickly sought out by a zillion bookers of TV and radio shows (which is flattering), only to discover that hardly any interviewer has read the book (which is less flattering but, given the pressures of a busy life, understandable) and can't even be bothered to pretend that he has (which is less understandable) and mainly wants you on to talk about whether Trent Lott has been outmaneuvered by Tom Daschle or whatever passing frippery is sucking up all the oxygen that day (which is just profoundly depressing). Milt read his guests' books, and indeed would not have them on the show if he wasn't interested in what they'd written. And, as his show went out late in the evening, it ensured that the author at least returned to his hotel room with a warm glow, and the grimmer hits of mid-morning long forgotten.
I remember one launch day a decade or so back. I was in an hotel in midtown Manhattan and had been slogging through Regnery's launch model of radio interviews every half-hour starting at 6am, punctuated by occasional telly appearances and a speech somewhere or other. Milt's was the last show of the day, but he wouldn't do phoners: you had to be in a studio, and they'd procured CBS Radio's, which was somewhere over on Tenth Avenue or thereabouts. It had started to rain, and immediately the yellow cabs had dried up, as they always do. And, with the clock ticking on, my publicist Kathleen eventually hailed one of those bicycling rickshaws that take romantically inclined tourists for moonlit rides round the safe bits of Central Park. Our chauffeur assumed we were a courting couple and couldn't understand why two lovebirds insisted on being bicycled over to Tenth Avenue, which involves en route some pronounced inclines that aren't the easiest to ascend by pedal when you're dragging some svelte publicist and her flabby out-of-shape author behind you. So he protested most vigorously all the way, and kept trying to turn back and take us to the Plaza for cocktails, and it all took longer than expected and we arrived at CBS with moments to spare. And Milt began, as he often did, with a classical quotation, whose author he invited me to identify, and I was punchy and frazzled and a little out of breath and struggling to recall. And then I thought, "Hang on, this is the Milt Rosenberg show. It's gonna be great" - and I settled back and let Milt reveal aspects of my book I didn't know were there.
And two hours later, at midnight, we left CBS and I was the happiest guy in Manhattan, and the cares and woes of awkward, fumbled exchanges with the morning man at WZZZ-AM were totally forgotten, and, when Kathleen said the next day's round began at 5.30am, I was entirely unperturbed and would have agreed to 4am. There's certain shows you do for your publisher or the distributer or for obscure reasons of corporate synergy, but Milt's was for the author. I think many of us would have happily done the program even if it only had three listeners. In fact, in that P D James clip, when Phyllis invites Milt for dinner next time he's in London, she seems completely oblivious to the fact that she's on the Chicago market's top-rated evening show with sufficient wattage to blast out up into Canada and down the spine of America and out to some thirty states. The Internet brought him even more devoted listeners from every corner of the world. Here's a Latvian-Canadian working in China and sufficiently tickled by my self-description as "a Canadian subject of Her Majesty The Queen" to adopt it himself for his no doubt befuddled students in Wuxi. But notice Mr Kaulins' summation of Milt's show:
Listening to the Steyn interview has also made me an instant fan of the Extension 720 podcast. The host Milton Rosenberg covers a whole range of topics from science to politics to history to sports to music. Over the past week, I have listened to his programs about the French Revolution, the early history of baseball, Humphrey Bogart, the Eichmann trial, Quantum Physics, and Louis Armstrong.
That was a very typical week. Milt was a professor of psychology by training, but a self-taught polymath who considered almost every subject worthy of exploration other than, in his words, "pop psychology and poodle-primping". I sort of got the impression that he'd have been willing to make an exception for the latter, but the former was definitely a no-no. The range of talk on talk radio can be very narrowly drawn, but Milt was like the best of the chaps on the old BBC wireless (before they wrecked it): you never knew you were interested in a particular topic until he started talking about it. I was a fortunate beneficiary of that: he liked my big-picture stuff on Islam and demography and whatnot, but he also loved me as an obituarist and was happy to devote a show to my anthology of eulogies and appreciations. They were for him part of the same story - the long lives of seemingly peripheral individuals are close-ups on the big canvas. Before the University of Chicago, he had taught at Dartmouth - and one time, when I drove down the Connecticut River to do Milt's show from the Vermont Public Radio studio at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, just across from the Dartmouth campus in Hanover, we talked off-air about how much the college had changed. A lot of old-timers do that. But what struck me was the way he connected the closure of this or that restaurant or clothes store to some larger social trend or geopolitical phenomenon. Most people live in the assumptions of the present: that what is is forever. Milt seemed always to sense under his feet the continuous shifts and surges of the currents of history.
A decade ago, during the Conrad Black trial, I spent a couple of months basically living in Chicago at the old Intercontinental Hotel, with Johnny Weissmuller's swimming pool, right next door to Milt's home in the Tribune building. So it was great to be able to sit across the table from him not only in the studio but also at dinner afterwards with his wife Marjorie. The old line is that if you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no head. With Milt, I got the sense it took a little longer: He migrated rightward in his sixties, and further so in his seventies. It caused some grief among certain old friends of his in the Chicago media, precisely because it was hard to damn the most courtly and civilized inquisitor in radio as a "shock jock" (although off-air he was rather interested in the comings and goings of Michael Savage et al). But in 2008 he and Stanley Kurtz made the mistake of getting a little too curious about Barack Obama's relationships with Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, and the Obama machine was happy to demonize dear old Milt as some foaming rabid wingnut attack-dog.
Sometimes across the studio table, during commercial breaks, he would sigh over the latest bumpy descent in his tanking Tribune stock. Even by the standards of flailing media companies, they were remarkably badly run. A week before Christmas in 2012 WGN announced Milt's "retirement". He had boffo numbers, but the program was, by the shoestring standards of today's radio, "expensive" - booking those remote studios and the ISDN line, etc. The geniuses who ran the joint figured that lower ratings would be worth it for a cheaper host and no producer. So, on the Monday, Milt and his fans discovered that Thursday's show would be his last. The program had been on the air for over 39 years, but the no-talent wanker presiding over the station (briefly, as it turned out) lacked the class or style, or care for WGN's listeners, to let Milt stay on for a couple of months and sign off after a grand 40th anniversary party. So Milton J Rosenberg was retired "by mutual agreement".
It wasn't that mutual. When an 87-year-old man is doing a daily radio show, it's because he's not the kind of fellow who "retires": his "work" is what he does, who he is. So Milt decided to carry on, as a podcast. He relaunched his program as what it had always been: "The Milt Rosenberg Show". And I was very touched to be invited to be his very first guest. You can hear that show by clicking the button at the top of the page. A station in, I think, Evanston then picked it up, and on one memorable occasion two years ago Milt hosted both me and the aforementioned Conrad Black. You can hear that show in its entirety here. I believe that was my penultimate appearance with him: he began with a reference to Lord Tweedsmuir, former Governor General of Canada and (as John Buchan) bestselling thriller writer, and then moved on to ask us about the surging Trump campaign. Tweedsmuir and Trump on one broadcast: only Milt would do that.
We send our condolences to Marjorie and their son and grandchildren. I shall miss his curiosity - about distant lands, and remote history, and complex technology, and all the other difficult topics he made so easy for listeners. And I shall miss enormously how, in the most unobtrusive way, he'd shape an interview to give it a real arc: He was the best at that. His archive can be found here, and will afford you years of unalloyed pleasure in, to borrow his phrase, the radiance of his company.