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In Memoriam: Extension 720

Milt Rosenberg
(Chicago Tribune)

Last month I had the pleasure of taking part for the sixth or seventh time in the conversation on Extension 720, a nightly radio talk show on Chicago’s WGN-AM 720. It was on December 2, to be exact. The characteristic announcement on Facebook read:

Is “OK” okay? What about “ain’t”? These questions come up too often when we do our annual “Use and Abuse of the English Language” program. Tonight at 10 p.m. we are joined by Ellen Hunt, who regularly does the “use and abuse” gig and—wait for it—Allan Metcalf, author of “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” and David Skinner, author of “The Story of Ain’t”: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.”

The announcement reflects the distinctive style of the show and of its host, Milton Rosenberg, of the University of Chicago. Milt is a political, social, and linguistic conservative, but to imagine Extension 720 as just another right-wing talk show would be utterly mistaken.

Milt’s two-hour shows were true examples of conversation, in the sense expressed by an 18th-century quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The Faculty of interchanging our Thoughts with one another, or what we express by the Word Conversation.”

The English language was just one of the universe of topics considered on Extension 720. Milt brought in experts on politics, history, science, philosophy, religion, literature, sports, music, architecture, food, new books, and Chicago crime. He interviewed Barack Obama when he was barely starting in politics, and Salman Rushdie when he was in hiding.

If Milt wasn’t well versed in every possible subject, he was exceedingly well prosed. Authors had the rare experience of being interviewed by someone who had actually read their books and was as engaged in their subject as they were. Taking their cue from Milt, listeners who called in generally offered thoughtful comments rather than rants.

When it comes to language, Milt is a prescriptivist, but—in the manner of William Safire—interested in the opinions of others. And when he had guests talking about language, he put them to work using the languages they purported to know. More than once he asked me or a fellow guest to say in Old English, “And now we must pause for some commercials.” I still haven’t figured out how to do that.

Milt was Brooklyn-born but long ago left his Brooklyn accent behind as he climbed the academic ladder (Brooklyn College, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, Yale, Ohio State, Dartmouth) to become a professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago, another institution devoted to serious but also often playful investigation of all manner of ideas. For his Extension 720 work, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2008.

Long before anyone thought of MOOCs, Extension 720 was providing free education to anyone who cared to listen. And even in the era of MOOCs, Extension 720 was more than holding its own. Podcasts of recent shows were typically downloaded 100,000 times, sometimes even more than half a million.

Milt retired from his day job a decade ago but at age 87 remains unflaggingly vigorous. Extension 720, alas, does not. After 38 successful years with Milt as host, it was abruptly canceled by station management. It was not the world that came to an end on December 21 but something more dire, Extension 720. What’s more, in a remake of its Web site, WGN radio deleted all podcasts, so now you can’t get even the old programs.

He has expressed interest in continuing his show on some other radio station in Chicago. So there’s still hope that his “wish you a most cordial goodnight” at midnight December 20 wasn’t the last.

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