Twenty years to the day after he was hired to host Vermont Public Radio’s flagship morning program, Mitch Wertlieb plans to sign off for the final time on Friday.
He’s not going far. The veteran Morning Edition host is staying put at Vermont Public, as the station was renamed after it merged with Vermont PBS. Starting this fall, he’ll host its daily news podcast, The Frequency, and likely take part in other projects, too, he said.
But in a rapidly changing media ecosystem — and amid significant turnover at Vermont Public itself — Wertlieb’s departure from terrestrial radio is notable. The station seems to agree. To mark the event, Vermont Public is hosting a live, in-person farewell party at its Colchester headquarters Friday from 8 to 10 a.m.
According to Wertlieb, the decision to move on did not come easily — and he did not make it lightly.
“I kind of agonized over this a lot because this has been the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve absolutely loved it,” he said. “Why walk away from something you love?”
The answer is complicated.
There’s the physical toll that waking up every weekday at 3:45 a.m. has taken on Wertlieb, who is now 56. “Shockingly, getting up at that time doesn’t get easier as you get older,” he said.
Then there’s the psychological toll of living in the news cycle day in and day out — through natural disasters, political upheaval, economic disruption and public health crises.
“It’s kind of like a slow drip of something that you really won’t notice because it’s not a major hit-you-in-the-face impact, but it’s the cumulative effect of daily exposure to very bad things,” said Wertlieb, who is known for his jovial, unflappable on-air demeanor. “It was starting to wear me down.”
The weight of it all caught up with Wertlieb during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, as he showed up to an eerily empty studio every morning to deliver a newscast focused on that day’s death toll.
“Having to report on people dying in Vermont is very hard,” he said.
Wertlieb won’t escape the news in his new job. But he said he’s looking forward to having more time on the podcast to delve more deeply into stories with Vermont Public reporters. He hopes to get out in the field to report more features. And he’s excited to learn new technology and techniques as he produces the pod.
Plus, the hours will be way better.
Less clear is whether and how he’ll transpose to The Frequency his most beloved Wertlieb standards: the clever Grateful Dead music beds between segments, his somewhat manic sports report and, as Seven Days put it, his “groan-inducing dad jokes.”
Recreating the sports report could prove particularly problematic, he conceded, because The Frequency is completed the afternoon before it’s released — well before gametime. (Wertlieb currently spends 45 minutes to an hour every morning poring over the papers to write a sports summary with enough “soap opera,” as he puts it, that it’ll appeal even to athletic agnostics.)
“I’m hoping there’s a way to work that into The Frequency,” he said. “We’ll see. It’s kind of TBD.”
According to Wertlieb, it’s difficult to narrow down the list of highlights from his two decades on-air, but a few interviews come to mind: Salman Rushdie, Barack Obama before becoming president and a Rochester family whose home was literally swept away by floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
“I hadn’t seen anything like that before,” he said. “And I know it’s happening again to people right now.”
Wertlieb appears acutely aware that the celebrations of his career change are coinciding with one of the greatest disasters Vermont has faced: the flooding earlier this month that left hundreds without shelter and thousands with damaged homes and businesses.
“The timing is terrible,” he said. “There’s never a good news cycle. The best you can hope for is that it’s not terrible.”
Wertlieb said there’s a part of him that wishes he could just “slip out the door” quietly, to keep the focus on flood recovery. “There are so many people who can’t think of anything else right now,” he said.
But the show must go on.
And quite a show it will be. Wertlieb will be joined Friday in the 7 a.m. hour by Jenn Jarecki, who is moving from her perch as local co-host of All Things Considered to replace Wertlieb at Morning Edition. At 8 a.m., Zach Nugent and Dead Set will perform live Grateful Dead music beds for an in-person audience of well-wishers at the Colchester headquarters. And just before 9 a.m., when Wertlieb will sign off for good and address the studio audience, Nugent & Co. will perform a final Dead tune Wertlieb has requested for the occasion.
Which will it be? Wertlieb won’t spoil the surprise, but any number of possibilities come to mind: “He’s Gone,” “Brokedown Palace,” “The Music Never Stopped,” “So Many Roads,” “And We Bid You Goodnight.” The list goes on.
Whichever it is, Mitch, fare thee well.
Disclosure: VTDigger has partnered with Vermont Public to share a reporter.