Music

As WXRT deejay Richard Milne resigns to care for his wife in hospice care, it’s listeners’ turn to provide a comforting voice

Richard Milne answered my late-night phone call with such casualness, you’d think he was at home sipping a beer while watching MTV videos.

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“Hi Rich, can I request a song?” I asked nervously.

“Sure, what do you want to hear?” Milne replied coolly from WXRT’s radio studio.

“Anything by The Smiths,” I told him.

“You got it,” Milne told me.

Click.

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, I routinely called my favorite radio station’s studio line to request a song, or ask who performed a song, or find any excuse to chat with a WXRT deejay for 15 seconds.

I would wait until one of them began playing a new playlist of songs so they had a few minutes to answer calls from listeners. Or go to the bathroom. Or do whatever those deejays did while playing alternative rock music for loyal listeners like me.

Milne has been with WXRT, “Chicago’s finest rock,” since 1986. I’ve known him since then. Never met him once. I didn’t need to. His voice has become as familiar as members of my own family. His verbal cadence is as comfortable as an old blanket.

I’ve heard him introduce or back-announce thousands of songs, regardless of his work shifts, most recently weekday mornings from 5:30 am to 10 am Milne has educated me, entertained me, and shared behind-the-scenes insights about the music industry.

It’s an extraordinary, yet ordinary, relationship that radio listeners have with their favorite on-air personalities. We know them but we don’t. We hear on-air snippets about their life, piecing them together like a composite puzzle to illustrate their familiar voices.

After social media entered our world, I connected with Milne on Facebook. It offered me more visual snippets of his different shows on XRT, and also of his personal life. I knew Milne is married and his wife’s name is Charlene. I knew they met in 1988 when she was a new hire at XRT’s sales department.

“Three years later, we married and a home in Wicker Park, a couple of dogs and a bouncing baby boy who’s grown into a fine young man, were soon to follow,” Milne wrote on his Facebook page on April 13.

How sweet, I thought. And then I kept reading his post.

“Six years ago, at the age of 57, Charlene was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia known as frontotemporal, or ‘FTD.’ We’re at end-stage now and this past Monday my love entered at-home hospice,” Milne wrote.

I was stunned. I could hear Milne’s voice as I read his words. I noticed his on-air absence but I figured he was on vacation or maybe I was too busy to tune in when he was in the studio.

“I’ve never mentioned any of this on the air and, even now, just writing it hurts my heart. But, I wanted you to know what’s behind my absence from the XRT morning show as of late. I’ll be back when I can,” Milne wrote.

He shared an old treasured photo of him with his newlywed wife at WXRT’s Fourth of July concert in 1991. “We’d been married two weeks,” he wrote.

Obviously, I’ve never met Charlene. Yet I feel sad for both of them, as if they are members of my family, or at least my friends. This is the quiet superpower of traditional radio — knowing the on-air personalities who befriend us without ever meeting us.

They know we’re out here. We know they’re in there. We meet somewhere in between, possibly while we’re at work, or washing dishes, or fixing our car, or escaping from our hectic lives. Radio deejays keep us company. They fill the gaps in between songs. They make all those damn commercials sufferable. And they slip in and out of our lives.

“Our situation at home has become, for the moment, manageable enough for me to slip in some radio shows this week and that will include today’s Flashback on 93XRT,” Milne wrote May 14 on his Facebook page.

That day’s flashback year was 1989, back when I was calling in to the WXRT studio line.

“The Soundgarden show at Cabaret Metro was the best gig I saw all year but it had some stellar competition,” Milne wrote. “1989 was also the year I shorn my locks to the surprise (and utter disappointment) of my then girlfriend, now dear wife, Charlene. Turns out, girlfriends don’t appreciate when you radically change your look without telling them first. Go figure.”

Late last month, Milne resigned from WXRT to be with his wife full-time.

“It’s long been my intention to be with Charlene through every moment of our remaining time together,” he wrote to his WXRT colleagues in an email. “Sadly, the end is coming more quickly than I ever would have guessed and now is the time for me to fully step away.”

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His last day is expected to be June 10.

“I do intend to return some day, host the occasional ‘Flashback,’ maybe do that Sunday afternoon thing again. We’ll see. Regardless, that won’t be until after a long period of mourning and reflection,” Milne wrote.

When I read this last line, I flashbacked to one of my favorite songs from The Smiths. I wondered if Milne will someday experience its haunting lyrics: “Two lovers entwined pass me by, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

I can’t imagine what Milne and his wife are going through with the final moments of their remaining time together. I’d like to think they can somehow hear the voices of all his listeners, comprising a chorus of love, empathy and compassion.

After all these years, it’s our turn to be as comforting as an old blanket.

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https://www.facebook.com/JerDavich/

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