In the often loud and frequently inane blah-blah-blah that is radio, Milt Rosenberg was for nearly half a century an oasis of intelligent conversation and learned curiosity.Sometimes, holding a temporary gig can be a good thing. So it was with the long-time director of the DeKalb Municipal Band, and so it was with Professor Rosenberg on Extension 720.
Ever mindful of the intelligence of his listeners, Rosenberg was a late-night radio fixture who interviewed an astonishing array of guests from all walks of life — among the eclectic hundreds were Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, Jimmy Carter, Norman Mailer, Bob Feller, Bill Murray, Jane Byrne and Barack Obama — and actively engaged with listeners, sometimes contentiously, on his late-night “Extension 720” program on WGN-AM 720.
The late John Callaway of WTTW-Ch. 11, no slouch himself at the interviewing game, once said, “When Milt Rosenberg formulates a question with a premise in which he refers in two different languages to four different books, I say to myself, ‘That's smart. That's big-time smart.’”
When he was offered the job of solo host on “Extension 720” in 1973, he was not particularly confident, saying, “I thought I'd do it for a year or two — to buy a new car.”Yes, and when the quality of discourse wasn't up to what the audience expected, the callers would say as much. I recall one caller referring to the show as her "nightly seminar" and the conversation wasn't so great that night.
But he had a longer run. “He is the Lou Gehrig of intellectual talk radio,” Joseph Epstein, the essayist and occasional guest on the show, said in 2008, when Rosenberg was awarded a National Humanities Medal, which cited him for “bringing the world of ideas to millions of listeners.” “During a single week he can do shows about financial markets, American musical theater, the state of contemporary academic life, nuclear warfare and the modern novel,” Epstein said. “It’s amazing, really."
The two-hour daily weeknight broadcasts (sometimes pre-empted by baseball or hockey games) featured an hourlong interview with his guests followed by an hour during which listeners could share by telephone their opinions, gripes and questions.
A frequent guest over the decades was Tribune writer Ron Grossman, who said, “He had an enormous fund of knowledge, beyond his social-psychologist base. That’s the reason callers would begin by saying, ‘Good evening, Dr. Rosenberg.’Perhaps, although the conversations that run on WGN on evenings when Blackhawks, Wildcats, or Cubs aren't playing tend to have fewer opportunities to call in, and more of the late-show snark substituting for analysis.
“More than once, I was the victim of his erudition. Once I quoted an early Christian theologian: “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it doesn’t make sense”). Milt named the guy who actually said it and what the guy I was referring to actually had said. I’ll miss him.”
For all of his admirers — Steve Allen once said, “All interviewers should be forced to attend a class in that particular art, conducted by Milt Rosenberg” — Rosenberg also had detractors, people who felt that his intelligence could often come off as arrogance and his manner as haughty or dismissive.