By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009
A question for Diane Rehm, who's been questioning the great and fascinating on her radio show for 30 years: Did she ever think she'd be on the air for so long?
"Never!" Rehm said on Thursday night, moments before joining a gala to honor three decades of the morning public-radio institution that is "The Diane Rehm Show." "I never thought I'd have a career of any kind, much less a career in radio. . . . Who in the world would have thought this evening would happen?"
It kind of worked out, didn't it?
Rehm came out from behind the mike and into a warm bath of celebration and accolades. A few hundred friends -- politicians, journalists such as National Public Radio stars Scott Simon and Susan Stamberg -- turned up at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium downtown to salute Rehm on the milestone anniversary, and to raise money for her longtime broadcasting home, WAMU (88.5 FM).
Rehm, 73, traversed the broad hall slowly, her gait slowed by the cracked pelvis she suffered from a spill a month ago. She otherwise seemed no worse for wear, decked out in a glammy purple taffeta outfit that set off her dramatic crown of silvery hair.
As recounted during the evening, Rehm's career trajectory is a tale of persistence, patience and instinctive intelligence. In the 1960s, she had professional aspirations that extended no further than becoming a secretary. A stay-at-home mom without a college degree (her Turkish-immigrant parents didn't believe in higher education for girls), she volunteered one day to book guests for "The Home Show" on WAMU.
Rehm's big break came on Day One: The show's host called in sick and Rehm got a battlefield promotion. She spent her first 90 minutes on the air interviewing a Dairy Council spokeswoman about the joys of milk and cheese. Then came another promotion: Rehm was named host of a local public-affairs show called "Kaleidoscope," which morphed into "The Diane Rehm Show" in 1979.
Long story short: Rehm's Washington-centric program (all those journalists, political figures and book authors as guests) went national in 1995 via NPR. Rehm herself had to raise the $250,000 it took to put her show on a satellite (key contributors: Michael Milken, Larry King and book publishers Knopf and Simon & Schuster). The show is now heard on some 120 public stations by 2.2 million people a week. And growing.
Over the years, the math on Rehm has added up -- and up: Two hours of talk per day, times five days per week, times two to three guests per hour, times 30 years equals . . . well, a whole lotta talk.
Rehm says she lasted "by going against the grain" of the clattering, combative world of talk radio. For decades, Rehm has laid down some basic rules for the conduct of her show. No shouting. No insults. Interrupt only when a guest strays. And don't make the show about the host.
"People really listen for understanding, to learn something," said Caryn Mathes, WAMU's general manager. "People say they feel like they're in the room with her, like she's asking the questions they'd want to ask." It's almost a contradiction in terms, Mathes said: "Intelligent radio."
Rehm took the stage and spoke without prepared remarks; no matter -- she sounded pretty thoughtful, anyway. "Civil dialogue has a role in our world," she said. " . . . No matter how loud and angry the voices become, if we persist with voices of kindness and caring, this country will continue to be the strong and decent country that everyone has believed it to be."
NPR's Simon, no slouch as an interviewer himself, recalled being a guest on Rehm's show to plug a roman ? clef that included passages about his family. Rehm's questioning about his memories of his relatives brought him to tears on the air. For months afterward, strangers would approach Simon and offer him tissues.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said any guest on Rehm's show knows he or she will get "tough but fair questions" that must be answered honestly "if you have any hope of being invited back."
What's distinctive, too, is Rehm's arrestingly creaky (and instantly identifiable) voice and pacing. A decade ago, she received a diagnosis of the all-but-incurable vocal disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, which she treats with injections of botulin every four months.
The condition hasn't slowed her pace. Rehm says she intends to retire "when I get tired of doing what I do. And I'm still not tired yet."
Ya think? The other day, Rehm had author E.L. Doctorow on her show. She lights up just talking about it. "Do you think that's not a thrill for me?" she said in a brief interview. "E.L. Doctorow!
"I have a wonderful job," she concluded. "It's the best job in the whole world."