National Public Radio is asking its member stations to chip in for an extra $750,000 to help pay for coverage of the Persian Gulf War. NPR, which normally has only one correspondent in the Middle East, has sent seven additional reporters to cover the fighting. The increased coverage cost the noncommercial service an extra $200,000 for January and is expected to run an extra $325,000 monthly.

"That's peanuts compared to the {television} networks but it's big bucks in our books," said Bill Buzenberg, NPR's vice president for news and information. Although half of NPR's budget of more than $1 million a month ($13.7 million total in fiscal 1991) is also being used for war-related news, Buzenberg said, non-war topics are still being covered.

The service needs $1.4 million extra to operate through Sept. 30, when the new fiscal year begins, Buzenberg said, adding that he hopes corporate sponsors will cover the amount not collected from NPR's 410 member stations. Last week, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded NPR a $300,000 grant for war coverage.

The average cost of keeping an NPR reporter in the gulf is about $400 a day. Buzenberg said NPR had to buy special insurance policies for the correspondents because the service's standard policies did not cover war.

The response from the stations has been positive. "They said, 'It's going to be tough but we are going to do it.' We've had a few who have said they are having a terrible year."

To cover the war, NPR's hourly five-minute newscasts have increased from 18 daily to 24. The network also has begun carrying the daily news briefings from the Pentagon and from Saudi Arabia, and a two-hour weekday talk show hosted by either Daniel Schorr, Robert Siegel, Noah Adams, Linda Wertheimer or Lynn Neary. The weekday talk show is not heard on either of the Washington area's NPR affiliates, news-information-bluegrass WAMU-FM (88.5) and classical WETA-FM (90.9).

Those stations have each been asked for about $5,000, and more if they can handle it. "We intend to contribute at least that amount," said Tom Livingston, general manager of WETA and a member of NPR's board of directors. WETA finished its winter fund-raising drive last night with more than $370,000 in pledges, up from $325,000 last winter.

WAMU Program Director Steve Palmer said the station also will make a contribution but must first see how well it does in its next fund-raising drive, March 9-16. Livingston and Palmer agreed that NPR's stepped-up coverage has been excellent and said their audiences want the added coverage. WETA has added the hourly news reports but wants to retain its classical programming, Livingston said; WAMU has added the weekday briefings at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Both executives say they will add the NPR talk show in the event of a ground war.

Diane Rehm's Absence

Diane Rehm's 2 1/2-week absence from her midday post at WAMU-FM (88.5) at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War has inspired several inquiries. Here's what happened:

Hours before the war began on Wednesday, Jan. 16, Rehm read to listeners a letter she had written to President Bush pleading with him to show restraint and not go to war. It was an unusual move for Rehm, who has chided other talk hosts for discussing their personal agendas on the air. (Rehm did not ask the audience to support her idea and rejected offers for cosigners.) She was not on the air the next two days and listeners were told she was "under the weather." Rehm returned the following Monday and all appeared well. But she was off the air again Jan. 24, and did not return until Feb. 4. During her extended absence, listeners were again told that Rehm, 54, was "under the weather."

Some didn't buy the explanation and wondered if Rehm had been yanked by management because she had spoken out against the war. Both Rehm and Program Director Steve Palmer strongly deny that her letter had anything to do with the time off. Rehm said Sunday that she has been battling a virus since Dec. 19, and in the early morning on Jan. 17 was rushed to George Washington University Medical Center. She was administered antibiotics and released a day later. She had a relapse the following week and spent several more days in the hospital. The bug continues to linger, she said Sunday, and last week she was told by doctors that she has pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung sac.

Rehm, who returned to the dial last week, is exhausted but intends to ride it out at the mike.

One Last Thing

Unistar, which represents CNN Radio, has received a request from the White House communications office for a list of affiliate stations around the country. Lee Douglas, Unistar's vice president of affiliate relations, said the White House caller told him that "President Bush likes to monitor CNN when he travels" and that White House staff became aware of CNN Headline News on radio by listening to WCPT-AM (730).