IT’S NOT OFTEN YOU CAN GET A MOMENT TO CHAT WITH DIANE REHM. On this day it was even more surprising as the conversation happened at 11 a.m., when her nationally syndicated program is normally on the air. But Rehm, host of “The Diane Rehm Show” heard weekdays on witf and public radio stations throughout the United States, had an unplanned day off because of Hurricane Sandy moving through the mid-Atlantic.
As she set aside the task of drying out towels used to sop up water from the window sills of her condominium, Rehm turned to the topic of the day: How she got into radio and became part of public radio’s growth.
Rehm grew up in Washington, D.C., and listened to several fantasy radio shows such as “Sky King,” “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet” as a child. “I adored radio and the images it created,” she said, allowing that she listened to radio soap operas as well when at home sick from school. As she grew older, she became a regular listener to “The Betty Groebli Show,” a local talk program. However, it would occur to Rehm later to consider a career in radio itself.
After high school, Rehm worked as a secretary at the D.C. Department of Highways, then at the Postal Inspection Service and finally at the U.S. Department of State. There she met John, an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel. They married in 1959 and their son, David, was born later the next year. Their daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1964.
She loved her nearly 14 years as an at-home mother. But after her children become teenagers, she considered new options for herself. George Washington University offered a course called “New Horizons for Women,” designed to help women explore possible future career paths outside of the home. Initially, she envisioned becoming a fashion designer. “I loved to sew, and made my clothes and my children’s clothes.” However, throughout the semester, her classmates told her: “You should be in broadcast.”
Soon, a friend mentioned that she was doing volunteer work at WAMU and a light bulb went on for Rehm in 1973. “I asked whether any more volunteers might be welcomed. She said she’d inquire which she did. I went in the following week, and began my long journey with WAMU.”
The 1970s were the early years of public radio. “All Things Considered” premiered in 1971 and “Morning Edition” began national broadcast in the last quarter of 1979. At WAMU in 1973, the station had two full-time employees. The rest were volunteers and a few part-time employees. Rehm came up with story ideas, booked guests, and wrote scripts for a program called “The Home Show.” She soon was hired as a part-time assistant producer. Later, the program’s title was changed to “Kaleidoscope,” a three-hour show with long segments on health, public affairs, news and other items. During that time she developed two health-based programs: “Health Call” and “Mind and Body.”
In 1977, Rehm left WAMU but continued to volunteer for the health-based shows while she worked part time for Physicians Radio Network and the Associated Press Radio Network. When she heard that the former host of “Kaleidoscope” was retiring in 1979, she decided to apply and was chosen from 100 candidates for the post. In 1984, the show was renamed “The Diane Rehm Show.”
The show continued to be broadcast on WAMU through the ’80s, but Rehm believed it would do well nationally. Rehm argued that public radio would benefit from a live call-in talk show in the middle of the day and initially got the conversation started on what became “Talk of the Nation.” NPR chose Ray Suarez to be the inaugural host and Rehm continued to pursue distribution of her own program.
Finally, in September 1994, her manager issued a challenge: “He told me I would have to raise a sufficient amount of money to provide the program to the network free of charge for two years at a cost of $125,000 a year. And I would have to raise that money myself.” Undaunted, she went to individual friends and acquaintances who admired the show, asking them to make donations for distribution costs. Within three months, she had the necessary funds. In 1995, the show went up on the satellite distribution system. By the end of that year, there were 20 affiliates taking the program, and “it just snow-balled from there,” she said.
As Rehm’s show succeeded with a national audience, NPR discovered a string of success with daytime news and information programming that included “Fresh Air” and “Tell Me More.” Many public radio stations have migrated to the news and information format, including witf last year, due in part to the popularity of “The Diane Rehm Show.”
What keeps her going after 33 years? “I love continually learning every single day.” She has guests ranging from the well-known to obscure, major news makers to accomplished authors. “Where else can you delve into topics such as health and health care, the constitution, climate change, economics or politics?” she asked.
And whether you’ve just started listening or have heard her while traveling elsewhere, you’ve likely noticed her voice is not necessarily that of a typical radio show host’s. In 1992, Rehm started having problems with her voice. First, there was a slight cough, and then, as she puts it, “My throat started clamping up on me.” There was a brief period in 1998 where she went off the air because she simply could not talk anymore. During that time she sought out several doctors before finally meeting one at John Hopkins Hospital. He, along with a neurologist, successfully diagnosed the disorder as spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological problem that causes the throat to close inappropriately. She receives periodic injections of botulinum toxin, commonly called Botox, into her vocal chords.
Rehm described the treatment process. “I sit in what looks like a dentist chair but allows my head to go farther back, exposing my throat. The doctor gives me an injection and then moves the needle around to get into both vocal folds.” She was quick to say “It hurts!” But after the treatment, Rehm said she is able to get back on the air in about 10 days. More details can be found in the book, “Finding My Voice,” published by Knopf in 1998.
Diane Rehm and “The Diane Rehm Show” are part of witf’s new programming. Rehm will visit Central PA in March and details about her visit will be made available soon.
ALSO: Rehm will soon be the recipient of the “Research! America’s Isadore Rosenfeld Award for Public Opinion.”
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