25 years of Chicago: Amplified
1983 1993 1994 2001 2003 2004 2005 2015
Columnist Looks Back

Mike Royko

Explore the moment.
Mike Royko had written a column for 30 years when he agreed to a rare interview at his home with WBEZ Host Chris Robling in 1994. By that time Royko's column was being published in more than 500 newspapers worldwide. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for his commentaries and published the book Boss, the definitive biography of Richard J. Daley. The two-hour broadcast that came from Robling's interview is cited by one Royko biographer as being among the most extensive interviews he ever gave. Robling worked closely with WBEZ Engineer Mary Gaffney to edit the audio and shape the specials. The producer for the specials, Torey Malatia, would later become CEO of Chicago Public Media. Production Assistant Adam Davidson would go on to co-found and co-host the Planet Money podcast. Robling conducted the interview at Royko's home in a third floor office, beneath a signed photo of Groucho Marx.
When the Tribune reminded me I've been doing it for 30 years - 'cause I don't keep track - I was kinda surprised. It doesn't seem like 30 years. What's really strange is I'll be talking to my assistant and I'll mention the '68 convention. Everybody knows what the '68 convention is and what happened and I'll get kind of a blank look. Because she was born in '68. Or maybe '62 or something. Or '66. That's when I realize how long I've been doing the thing.
1m 26s
I don't think my column has changed. I don't think my views have changed. The city's changed. Politics is entirely different.
4m 13s
There was something that I thought was lacking from Chicago political news coverage. The color of it. The humor. The comic scene. And that was really what I wanted to do. I never wanted to send a politician to jail. When I fish I put the fish back. Catch him again when he's bigger. And that's the way I feel about the pols. To me, they were just comedic material.
7m 58s
If I were editor of a paper and I ever saw a French phrase being used in my paper, I would fire everyone responsible for it.
11m 48s
Mike Royko on newsroom diversity when he started: We didn't reflect society. We reflected 40% of society very well. We reflected white males most of whom came out of working-class backgrounds and were very street-savvy guys. There were some great, great reporters and they weren't all a bunch of male chauvinist louts. There were some really fine, fine minds. There were also clods. We had no minorities. We had no women. My God. Now at least half the staff is female at the Tribune.
15m 56s
A column's a very powerful weapon.
29m 28s
Chris Robling:

How about the fear factor? I can imagine some mid-level public relations bureaucrat for some government agency. They hear that Mike Royko of the Tribune is on the phone. Do they swallow hard and tighten up?

Mike Royko:

Yeah. Yeah, they do. That's one of the things that makes this job in one way easy. In another way, difficult. I can have access to public people. They'll talk to me where they won't talk to a regular general assignment reporter. They'll take my calls. They'll answer my questions. And city officials, I can get through. I can get an answer to my questions. Because they know that if they don't answer my questions, that in itself is a column. It took them years to learn that. Some of the funniest columns I've done were dealing with people who thought they were being cleverly evasive so they look stupid. The bad part of winding up a "celebrity journalist" is if you go somewhere to cover something, you wind up getting sometimes more attention that the person or the event you're covering.

34m 56s
I've had strangers come up to me and say, "I didn't like your column on this or that." And so what I generally do is I just hand them thirty-five cents. They say, "What's that?" I say, "A refund on the product."
40m 37s
I couldn't get hired today as my own assistant. I don't have a degree....Gee, the kids I interview who just want to get into the paper, they've all got master's degrees. They've all got experience. My current assistant was a pretty good reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. She had internships at the New York Times, Miami Herald, U.S. News and World Report. Every summer she interned somewhere. Now if I had to compete with her for that job at the same age, I'd be in and out. They'd never hire me.
55m 12s
Chris Robling:

Are you as tough on Richard M. Daley as you were on Richard J. Daley? And, if not, why not?

Mike Royko:

No. I'm not as tough on the son. One: his father presided over this big machine that had a lot wrong with it. And I liked writing about what was wrong with it. The bad things they did. Plus, there was nobody else doing it. The papers all liked the old man. Everybody liked the old man. Republicans even liked the old man. Somebody had to do it.

1h 9m 10s
Chris Robling:

Why did Chicago's old neighborhoods break up?

Mike Royko:

It was a natural thing for the ethnic neighborhoods to break down. People lived in those neighborhoods until they could afford to go somewhere else. People didn't say, "Gee, this is where I am, around Milwaukee, Division and Ashland. This is where my children will live and this is where my grandchildren will live." No! As soon as they made a buck, they went out toward the cemetery ... Now we have something peculiar happening. People moving back. The gentrification thing. Now we have the children and great-grandchildren of people who had fled those neighborhoods moving back in. Urban pioneers. Whatever they call themselves. But most people got up and got out as soon as they could afford it. People move for a few reasons: Schools and safety.

1h 15m 01s
If somebody's short, they're short. They're not vertically challenged.
1h 21m 41s

I've always thought that being the best columnist was like being the tallest midget in the circus. We're not talking about Shakespeare. Big deal: I'm good at writing 900 words a day. It shows that I've got the mental equivalent of a strong back. There are people that can outwrite me. But they can't outwrite me 5 days a week, 4 days a week.

1h 52m 37s