Extinction 720: WGN lets Rosenberg ‘fade into the night’

Milt Rosenberg, the University of Chicago psychology professor who hosted Extension 720 on news/talk WGN-AM (720) for 39 years, is the latest casualty of mismanagement and financial distress at the Tribune Co.-owned radio flagship.

The final broadcast of the nightly call-in show Rosenberg described as “intelligent radio featuring the movers and observers of history being made” will air Thursday. His departure and the cancellation of Extension 720 were announced Monday as part of a revamped lineup that will go into effect on WGN January 2.

"I'm on the older side, obviously, but I'm still full of piss and vinegar," the 87-year-old Rosenberg told me Monday. "Publicly, I want to say it's mutual. Obviously, they initiated it."

Rosenberg was back on the air this week after being off since Wednesday. “I’m not going to do a big farewell shmear every night,” he said. “I’ve just got three regular programs scheduled. And then on Thursday night, I’ll make my farewell. I’m going to play some clips from some old treasured moments, say a few words, thank people and fade into the night.”

A man whose towering intellect and curiosity matched a prodigious ego, Rosenberg presided with ease over a wide array of topics and commanded a worldwide following on the Internet and through podcasts downloaded by the millions. In the latest Arbitron survey, his show (which aired from 10pm to midnight Sunday through Thursday) averaged a 6.9 percent audience share — outperforming WGN’s overall 4.5 share.

While teaching social psychology at the University of Chicago, Rosenberg began filling in as one of several hosts of Extension 720 in 1973 after founding host Dan Price left. Rosenberg was named permanent host the following year. “It became a central part of my life,” he said of the program, particularly after he retired from academia 10 years ago. He also has the distinction of appearing as a guest on the show's first week on the air in 1968.

“Milt has added another rich chapter to WGN Radio’s history and we thank him for his service,” Jeff Hill, interim general manager of WGN, said in a statement. When I questioned Hill about widespread rumors of Rosenberg’s imminent departure less than two weeks ago, he flatly denied them. On Monday, when I asked him why he had misled me about the rumors, Hill said: “I don't believe that I denied them, but would certainly not confirm them. I would never discuss any potential changes to any show with anyone other than senior management prior anything finalized or the host being informed.”

Rosenberg said Monday he had known of his fate for weeks and had long been working without a contract. “It’s certainly amicable as far as my relations with the people I deal with,” he said of his parting. “There’s been no particular bad feeling, no insults, no shouting.”

Acknowledging that he wasn’t thrilled when Extension 720 was pushed an hour later to 10pm in 2010, he said: “I would have liked to have continued under somewhat better circumstances. That has to do partly with money. That has to do partly with time. But I have done it 39 years. I don’t want to quit. I intend to seek other possibilities.” Among stations he said that “might make some sense” for him were news/talk WIND-AM (560) and WLS-AM (890) and public radio WBEZ-FM (91.5).

With Rosenberg’s departure, the previously announced resignation of 15-year veteran John Williams as noon-to-3pm personality, and the defection of 13-year veteran Rick Kogan as Sunday morning host, WGN has sustained three incalculable losses in recent months. While the station remains under intense financial pressure, all signs are pointing to a sale after Tribune Co. emerges from bankruptcy in the new year.

The only positive outcome from Monday’s upheaval is the addition of two women to WGN’s weekday program lineup. Since the departures of midday hosts Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey in 2009 and overnight co-host Johnnie Putman in 2011, WGN has been without a female presence in a leading role.

The new lineup marks the return to Chicago radio of Turi Ryder, who hosted late nights on WLS-AM in the early ’80s and evenings on WLS-FM (94.7) in the '90s. Starting January 7, Ryder will be heard from 10pm to 1am on WGN. Author Carol Roth will host a return of the Noon Show, a one-hour program designed to compete with the popular Noon Business Hour on WBBM-AM (780).

Other elements include a new later time slot for morning host Jonathon Brandmeier and a split shift for midday host Mike McConnell.

Here is WGN’s new weekday schedule:

  • 6 to 10am: Jonathon Brandmeier

  • 10am to noon: Mike McConnell

  • Noon to 1pm: The Noon Show — Carol Roth

  • 1 to 3pm: Mike McConnell

  • 3 to 7pm: Garry Meier

  • 7 to 10pm: WGN Sports Night

  • 10pm to 1am: Turi Ryder

  • 1 to 6am: Bill Leff




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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)