Prof. Emeritus Milton J. Rosenberg, a longtime scholar at the University of Chicago and revered radio show host, died Jan. 9. He was 92.
Rosenberg studied social psychology, authored books on Vietnam and U.S. foreign relations, reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune, and taught four decades of students at UChicago.
His largest audience was the millions of listeners who tuned into his daily interview radio show Extension 720 on WGN, in which he hosted guests from Carl Sagan to Julia Child, Jimmy Carter to Gloria Steinem and discussed topics from baseball to world religions to Watergate. The show ran for nearly 40 years and garnered him admirers around the country for its intellectual and engaging tone; radio personality Ed Schwartz called him “the best wordsmith on the Chicago radio dial.”
“He had on the most interesting authors and public intellectuals, actually listened to what they said, engaged them seriously, and never, ever talked down to his audience,” said Charles Lipson, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus in Political Science and the College at the University. “His station was not a rarefied, specialized one; it was the biggest in Chicago. He assumed his listeners wanted to be pushed intellectually, whether they had PhDs or GEDs.”
As a researcher, Rosenberg focused on the causes and consequences of social interaction, particularly attitude acquisition and attitude change. His work investigated influencing factors such as rhetoric or propaganda and hidden dynamics of public opinion, including whether people are honest to interviewers, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded Rosenberg the National Humanities Medal in 2008.
Rosenberg authored multiple books, including Beyond Conflict and Containment and Attitude Organization and Change. He was best known for Vietnam and the Silent Majority: The Dove’s Guide in which he and his co-authors looked to develop an alternative form of public protest.
Born in New York City in 1925, Rosenberg attended Brooklyn College and received degrees at University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan. He taught at Yale, Ohio State and Dartmouth before joining the University of Chicago in 1965, where he remained until his retirement in 1996.
WGN selected Rosenberg to host a new talk show in 1973; the program ran for four decades and was broadcast in 38 states. His path to radio host started with Rosenberg moderating recorded conversations between UChicago faculty members and visitors to campus, including one between Nobel laureates Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Tapes of such conversations were shared with radio stations across the country. Rosenberg was a frequent guest on Extension 720 before becoming the host, saying he thought he’d just host the show for a year or two and buy a new car, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.
He was a skilled interviewer able to deftly draw guests into lively discussion, demonstrating an impressive command of subjects across the political and academic spectrum. His longtime friend Joseph A. Morris, AB’73, JD’76, described the show as a series of “extraordinary conversations … held for the benefit of millions of Americans listening to his program each night in their homes and cars across the nation.”
Musing on the show, Chicago Tribune journalist Michael Kilian called Rosenberg “excruciatingly erudite yet engaging”—able to “leap from ward politics to nuclear warhead throw-weights to Etruscan philosophy in a single bound, and then do a commercial for Vienna Red Hots.”
When Rosenberg was awarded the National Humanities Medal, the citation proclaimed: “Combining a scholar’s understanding and a teacher’s openness, he has made a home in radio for elevated conversation and profound thought.” Even after the show officially ended in 2012, he continued to broadcast on other shows and podcasts.
He received multiple broadcasting honors, including a star on WGN’s Walk of Fame outside of Tribune Tower.
He is survived by his wife, Marjorie Rosenberg; son Matthew; two grandchildren, Max and Ava; and his brother, Norman, a distinguished climatologist. Rosenberg is also survived, Morris notes, by “thousands of students and millions of listeners who will no longer hear his voice probing the far reaches of the cosmos, the fine details of history and literature, and the depths of the human mind.”