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Diane Rehm Celebrates 30 Years on the Air

Photo of Diane Rehm

Diane Rehm (Photo courtesy of WAMU)

Diane Rehm sits across the table from author Neil Sheehan, their eyes locked, her black headphones barely visible beneath her perfectly coiffed hair. 

The two are alone in a studio at WAMU, where for 30 years she’s broadcast what has become one of the nation’s most beloved public radio programs. In Washington and throughout America listeners are engrossed by the conversation, but in the studio the vastness of the audience doesn’t seem to be on the forefront of either participant’s mind. Here, the discussion feels much more intimate, like two old friends chatting over coffee in the living room.

“Diane makes you relax and get into a conversation,” Sheehan says. “You’re keyed up; you don’t forget that there are millions of listeners out there, but at the same time she has a way of making it very comfortable. She allows you to say what you want to say without hitting you with a constant drumbeat of questions. She doesn’t take over the conversation, she stimulates it.”

Each week Rehm’s producers pour through up to 250 books submitted by publishers eager to reach her audience of more than 2.2 million. Obviously Rehm can’t read them all, but she’s paged through Sheehan’s latest, A Fiery Piece in a Cold War, in preparation for this late-September segment, broadcast four days after the gala to celebrate her 30 years on the air.

“I needed to feel this book, because it’s complicated,” Rehm says after the show. “His book is filled with historical reference, and you have to place it in historical context. It meant a lot to me, and Neil means a lot to me. He’s a very important writer.”

At 73 Rehm is as magnetic as ever, and after three decades on the air, The Diane Rehm Show is as well.

“Even though my voice is different, even though the pace is different, even though
I don’t allow the hotheads to take over, people tune in because it’s reliably informative,” Rehm says. “People know when they tune in, they’re not going to hear people yelling at each other. They’re going to hear thoughtful conversation. What we have tried to do from the beginning is present a number of perspectives so that people can hear these ideas and make up their own minds.”

That approach has made her voice among the most singular on the air, figuratively and literally. Diagnosed in 1998 with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition that constricts her vocal chords, Rehm feared her career was over. But injections of botulinum toxin every three to four months allow her to speak freely, and while she still shudders at the sound of her own voice, listeners continue to take comfort in it.

During a recent appearance on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Rehm told host Scott Simon that she worries her voice eventually will lead listeners to wonder why she is still on the air.

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, heard the interview and was moved to send Rehm a personal e-mail in response.

“I’ve always believed Bob Dylan to be one of the greatest singers even though his voice has become progressively more ragged for decades,” he wrote. “What makes a great singer is not the tone, it’s the expression. There is a reason people have stayed with you all these years. You sound like you know what you’re talking about. People respect that above all else. Which means you haven’t lost a damn thing that matters.”

Rehm’s ascension to media stardom was an unlikely one. She was a 37-year-old wife and mother when she started volunteering at WAMU in 1973. Six years later she became host of Kaleidoscope, a local show geared toward people in the home.

“I inherited the program from a woman I respected a great deal,” Rehm says. “For the first few years I was hesitant to do anything other than what she had done. Then I kind of got bored and I thought, ‘Either I’m going to make this program my own or I’m going to get out,’ because it was just not grabbing me.”

In 1984 WAMU hired a producer for the newly configured broadcast, and The Diane Rehm Show was born.

“I began to concentrate far more heavily on current affairs, be they political, scientific, historical, medical, everything that was in the news,” says Rehm, who now has five and a half producers. “It is an attempt to be conversational, it’s an attempt to be inquisitive without being impolite, it is an attempt to inform the audience and represent the audience.

“The key to being a good interviewer is not only to prepare, but then to be prepared to listen so that you’re not jumping ahead to the next question you have in mind, but rather to create a genuine conversation by listening to what that person has had to say,” Rehm says. “If I can do that, I think I’ve done my job.”

Rehm works by those same principles today, which delights her listeners, like Neil Sheehan, who take pleasure in her depth, curiosity, and intellect.

“What’s wonderful about that show is she has never changed the format because it works,” he said. “She’s extremely bright; she thoroughly familiarizes herself with a subject before you’re on so you’re not talking to someone who’s totally ignorant about what you’ve got to say. She then has this way of helping you to get your adrenaline up. She keeps the conversation rolling, she doesn’t let it flatten out. The callers and listeners enjoy her for the same reasons you enjoy being interviewed by her. She’s a highly intelligent, very articulate woman who has this wonderful power of conversation.”