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Awards & Honors: 2008 National Humanities Medalist

Milton J. Rosenberg

Five nights a week, for the last thirty-six years, except when preempted by baseball or hockey, Milt Rosenberg has been hosting a radio show where people talk about the most amazing things: books. Broadcast on WGN, the station of the Tribune Company, “Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg,” is the leading program among adult listeners in its time slot. And its audience is growing. Through the Internet, new shows and a vast archive of old shows are being heard nationwide and around the world.

It is the kind of talk radio educated people often assume doesn’t exist anymore. The range of issues is high-minded and endless; the guests, whether little known or certifiably famous, are of very high quality; and Rosenberg himself is more or less unstoppable. “He is the Lou Gehrig of intellectual talk radio,” says Joseph Epstein, the well-known essayist and occasional guest on the show.

“During a single week,” Epstein says, “he can do shows about financial markets, American musical theater, the state of contemporary academic life, nuclear warfare, and the modern novel—it’s amazing really.”For nonfiction authors promoting their latest work, “Extension 720” is the major stop in Chicago, says Rosenberg, and then adds, “except for Oprah.” But even the queen of talk would surely have a respectful nod for the list of famous authors, journalists, politicians, show business performers, and less easily categorized personalities who have submitted to thorough yet gentle questioning from Milt: Bill Murray, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, John Updike, George Will, Betty Friedan, David McCullough, Colin Powell, Carl Sagan, Saul Bellow, Sir Martin Gilbert, and so on, one great name after another.

Rosenberg got his start in radio as a young faculty member at the University of Chicago, by moderating recorded conversations between faculty members and visitors to campus. When Friedrich Hayek visited, he moderated a conversation between the Austrian economist and Milton Friedman. Tapes of these conversations, about a half hour long, were mailed out to 150 radio stations across the country, to be used free of charge.Back then, Rosenberg was a frequent guest on “Extension 720,” the show he’d one day host. He was then hired by the program manager as one of several rotating hosts covering different subject areas. In 1973 he became the one and only host of the program. “I thought I’d do it for a year or two—to buy a new car.”

Meanwhile Rosenberg’s academic career was in full swing, and yet it too was leading him straight into public debate. A professor of social psychology, which he defines as the study of the causes and consequences of social interaction, Rosenberg specialized in the areas of attitude acquisition and attitude change. The study of attitudes involves also the examination of influencing factors such as rhetoric or propaganda.

An opponent of the Vietnam War, Rosenberg and two colleagues tried to develop in 1970 a respectable and more effective alternative to the usual forms of public protest. In Vietnam and the Silent Majority (foreword by George McGovern), Rosenberg offered “detailed and concrete advice” on how people who opposed the war “might best attempt to bring other Americans to comparable levels of active concern.” Rosenberg’s interest in foreign affairs led him to edit another volume, on the Cold War, written from a similar perspective.Another part of his academic work led Rosenberg to investigate hidden dynamics of public opinion, exploring whether people are honest to interviewers. His research into “evaluation apprehension”—people’s reluctance to give answers they think questioners may not like—has bearing on the validity of polling methods and results, as well as implications for the structure of interview questions and even interviewer behavior.

Asked how he avoids using leading questions and tipping off guests to his own biases on “Extension 720,” Milt Rosenberg the radio host says he doesn’t even try. In fact, through guest selection, question selection, and even his own nonverbal cues, he says, you can tell a lot about his own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.Indeed, his curiosity is boundless (science, cosmology, religion), his patience for nuance is well above average, and his manners gentlemanly and, like his show, somewhat old-fashioned. An unapologetic highbrow, Rosenberg uses his education and background to serve the middlebrow market for general knowledge. This means letting no potentially obscure reference pass without explanation. For listeners who might not know, he asked a recent guest, “what were the basic issues of the Boer War?”Modest about his interviewing technique, Rosenberg says he merely tries to keep the pace up while allowing room for an appropriate amount of storytelling. Others are not so modest on his behalf. The comedian Steven Allen once said, “All interviewers should be forced to attend a class in that particular art, conducted by Milt Rosenberg.”

Seven years ago, Rosenberg retired from the University of Chicago, where for many years he ran the doctoral program in social psychology. His work on the radio, however, shows no sign of letting up.

By David Skinner