Thanks for the Memories

“New Hampshire Chronicle” celebrates 20 years
Watermellon Shot

Master fruit carver Ruben Arroco’s work is the centerpiece of this summer promotional shoot at Lake Massabesic. It’s a “New Hampshire Chronicle” tradition to begin each season of storytelling with a creative rendering (in flowers, ice, sand, etc.) of the show’s logos.

For the past 20 years, “New Hampshire Chronicle” has been navigating the state’s cultural scene to provide both vicarious adventures and guided tours to where the action is, and it’s introduced us to some of the most interesting and inspirational citizens in our state.

Each weeknight, when this lifestyle and cultural newsmagazine airs on WMUR-TV/ABC (Ch. 9), it’s as though a coffee table book about New Hampshire is opened and the chapters and the characters come to life.

“It’s all about the people. Everybody’s got their story, and they’re all fascinating,” says Maryann Mroczka, the executive producer/managing editor of “New Hampshire Chronicle,” which has been recounting those stories with a compelling local flavor and flair since September 2001.

In this era, Chronicle’s relaxed style of long-form broadcast journalism seems incongruous with the hard-edged, hard-driving, sometimes-alarming, and always-urgent television news shows with their flashy kaleidoscope graphics and jarring bells and whistles.

“People still just want the simple stories told. I think they like to see themselves reflected in those stories. We’re New Hampshire people telling New Hampshire stories. We’re telling people about themselves, and I think there is something comforting about that,” says Mroczka.

She came on board shortly after the Hearst Corporation bought WMUR and its executives wanted to create a show with a newsmagazine format that mirrored the highly successful “Chronicle” on sister station WCVB-TV (Ch. 5) in the Boston market.

“If you told somebody in New York that we have a guy who’s 85 years old and he comes on every night for three minutes and just tells a story, they’d look at you like, ‘Wait. Whaaat?’” she says.

That guy is the inimitable Fritz Wetherbee, who celebrated his 85th birthday on July 3, and is Chronicle’s resident historian and storyteller. Wetherbee has been on the show since Day One and was featured for the first 11 years alongside WMUR news anchors Tiffany Eddy and Tom Griffith. For the last nine years, he’s co-hosted with Erin Fehlau and Sean McDonald.

“Storytelling is exactly the same as it was 1,000 years ago,” says Wetherbee, whose extraordinary research, reporting, writing and editing skills, coupled with his talent for turning a phrase, allow him to weave his tales like a tapestry.

Nonetheless, this TV format has become a rare commodity. In addition to WCVB’s “Chronicle,” the only other newsmagazines still airing in local broadcast markets are “Evening Magazine” in Seattle and “Eye on the Bay” in San Francisco.

Shows of this sort are mighty expensive to produce, and they require dedicated resources and talented staff. It’s vastly cheaper for a station to simply air syndicated programming, game shows and reruns of old sit coms. Then there’s the added competition from cable news shows, movies, the ever-growing list of streaming services, and the internet.

“We have the backing of the Hearst Corporation to keep going. Very much so. They’re very proud of it. They love this program,” says Mroczka, who is rightly proud of the 19 Emmy Awards, four regional Edward R. Murrow Awards, and five other prestigious awards the show has been honored with. “Our numbers are still great. They’re really, really good. We’re lucky people are with us.”

As “New Hampshire Chronicle” celebrates its platinum anniversary with special programming throughout the week of September 16, Mroczka estimates there have been more than 8,000 individual segments that have already aired. Wetherbee is a major contributor.

“I do at least 200 stories each year, even with time off for elections, sports games and summertime, when too many people are on vacation so they can’t get me a crew. If I were just being modest here, it’s 4,000 stories, and may be 5,000, that I’ve written. It’s a wonderful read list,” says Wetherbee, the author of nine books where 1,000 of those stories appear in print form.

Even after 20 years, there is always something fresh to discover.

“If on Tuesday you come into my kitchen and look down, you will see me there, curled up in the fetal position, moaning that I have used all my stories up and there are none left. But at the end of the day, I’ve got most of them written and ready to go,” he explains. “I have a huge library of New Hampshire stuff. I have nearly all the town histories there are. I save a future file as big as anybody could have. I will look at a town and think, I’ve done that. And I’ve done that. And I’ve done that. But every week I find something, at least one or two stories, that I didn’t know about and it surprises me. Where did that come from?”

Mroczka has no idea how many miles the Chronicle crew has traveled in total, but she is certain they’ve been from Coös to the sea, and more than a few times.

Dsc3073

Sean McDonald, Erin Fehlau and Fritz Wetherbee at Parker’s Maple Barn (2012)

“I can’t think of any place in the state we haven’t been. For so many years, when someone asked if we’d done this or that story, I’d be able to recall it immediately. Now, after 20 years, my data bank is getting full. We’ve kept good records so I can go back and look, but yeah, we’ve been everywhere,” she says.

That includes the hamlets, villages, notches, and tucked-out-of-the-way places even we natives don’t even know are there. “When you find them, it makes you appreciate this place even more,” she says. “Even after 20 years we still feel that sense of wonder and appreciation for how truly beautiful and special this state and its people are. Even more so now. We still find those hidden gems. People are seeing this state through fresh eyes and that gets reflected in the program.”

When viewers invite TV personalities into their homes every night, there must be an established level of trust. Throughout the pandemic, Chronicle became the comfort food, the soft slippers, and the warm blanket for many.

“During Covid, people expressed their appreciation to us all that time that we were there. We were still telling, for the most part, happy stories that could get their minds off the fear and everything. That was a challenge. We had to do a lot of Zoom interviews, but we still managed to keep going, says Mroczka. “It was remarkable that we could do that through Covid. We had to scramble. We knew we had to keep going, but we couldn’t go out and shoot anything. We thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’ But we did it. And it wasn’t half bad.”

If you’ve got a UFO story worth sharing, chances are you’ve already worn down friends and family telling it. Feel free to share it with me via email. Having heard mine, you know I won’t laugh.

A Granite State Institution

A restored 1969 Impala driven by former host Peter Mehegan to gather stories for WCVB’s “Chronicle” became a kind of trademark for the show. So what’s “New Hampshire Chronicle’s” unofficial trademark?

“We have Fritz,” says Maryann Mroczka, who has been the executive producer/managing editor of WMUR-TV’s newsmagazine since its inception.

Fritz Wetherbee is indeed a Granite State institution. He’s been Chronicle’s resident storyteller since the first show aired in September 2001, and a recent poll named him the most trusted person in our state, not to mention the most recognizable.

“I’ve got the bow tie. I tried not wearing it a few times and got notes and calls on it. I have a nice collection of regular neckties and I haven’t worn a single one in years,” he says in that commanding voice that teases his segments with, “I’ll tell you the story.”

“All my bow ties are tied. They are not pre-tied. No clip-ons,” he says. “My grandmother used to say that clip-on ties are rude. She’d say that only people who sell ice cream wear them.”.

Wetherbee, who by his count has told more than 4,000 stories on the show, even has his own lead-in music, and it’s as original and authentic as he is. When viewers hear the 1930s rendition of “There’s an old-fashioned home in New Hampshire and a light in the window for me” played on a 78 rpm record, they know they’re going to be treated to a thoroughly researched, beautifully written, crisply edited and fascinating tale.

On July 3, Wetherbee — a ninth-generation New England Yankee who can document his ancestor’s arrival in Boston in 1765 — celebrated his 85th birthday. He’s been a radio news director and reporter, a filmmaker, a TV cinematographer, producer and on-air talent, a voice-over artist, a college instructor and an ad agency creative director.

“This job is the most fun of them all. This is a heck of job,” says Wetherbee, who has a collection of five Emmy Awards and has been nominated for another 10 or so. “As long as they have a place for me, I’ll show up. It’s a lot of work, but it’s great fun, and if I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what the heck I’d do. It’s good to be working full time at 85. It gives you a little more oomph to your life.”

Forever Fritz:
Of the 4,000-or-so stories that Fritz Wetherbee has logged for NH Chronicle, around a thousand have been preserved in print in nine volumes by
Plaidswede Publishing: nhbooksellers.com

Categories: People