Diane Rehm gives you a daily dose of high-fiber news and politics
The voice is as well-recognized as James Earl Jones' basso profundo, at least to fans of public radio: A quavering but persistent throaty alto that asks questions with slow precision; solicitous of her guests unless they irk her - as in the case of the Bush administration factotum who argued in favor of classifying more documents - then it turns steely and cold.
This Tuesday, Diane Rehm celebrated 25 years as the host of her eponymous NPR talk show, which broadcasts to more than a million listeners a day from the WAMU studios in Washington, D.C. Despite her 8-year battle with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare and debilitating affliction of the vocal chords, her program is stronger than ever.
Rehm's constricted voice often threatens to drop syllables all together, which she compensates for with a very measured delivery. The tension-building pace at which she forms her questions requires her listeners to pay close attention and sets the stage for dialogue rather than debate with figures as ideologically disparate as Janet Reno and Dick Cheney. She acknowledges that often, when you get figureheads and campaign spokespeople behind the mic, "they're using the show, " but Rehm knows how to use them to create consistently interesting radio.
Thirty years on the air has afforded her the kind of regular contact with the voting hoi polloi that pollsters must dream about, and she has noticed a change since 2000. "I've never seen, and I'm talking from my perspective as a talk-show host, such division," Rehm said in a telephone interview last week. "People used to call in with a little more movement in their questions." Now, she says, "they tend to call in more with statements."
Rehm believes this is in large part a legacy of the disputed 2000 election - a topic about which she hosted more than 14 shows in the months following the election, including discussions on the electoral college, voting reform, and judicial impartiality. "Some people have kept saying, 'Get over it, get over it,' But you know, you don't get over the feeling that this election was not done with the best interests of democracy in mind." Rehm laughingly says that she does so many shows, once she leaves the booth she can't remember what the day's topics were, much less last year's, "but I do recall people were so bitter that the Supreme Court had gotten involved in it," and that Gore and the Democrats didn't fight for the recount. She is anticipating a much different response this year if the election is too close to call, in part because Democrats are wiser and angrier. She wouldn't be surprised, in fact, to see calls for a recount in any battleground states with a tight margin. "You know, Florida isn't the only place. I think people are concerned about those voting machines all over the country."
Rehm is even warmer and more engaging on the telephone than she is on the air, but she is still "on," a tireless spokesperson for public radio, especially in the era of Rush Limbaugh and a thousand blogs tailored to set ideological positions. "Things are tougher these days and things are not very pleasant," she says, an atmosphere in which it's particularly important to seek out a variety of perspectives. When people complain that the media aren't covering an issue, she thinks they often mean that the media they follow aren't covering it, a point one of her guests made for her on a recent show about the crisis in Darfur. At the DR Show offices, Rehm and her staff start their day with The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. "It's constant reading, and listening," she says.
NPR's growth, along with that of Rehm's host station, WAMU, has been phenomenal since 1973 when Rehm, experiencing boredom and depression as the wife of an attorney (with whom she will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary this year) joined the station as a volunteer. She's delighted, of course, "but at the same time, there are aspects I'm not crazy about.
"I'm surprised at the growth of the number of game`shows`s on public radio," she says, clucking ruefully over the popular food show The Splendid Table, where truffles and $35-a-bottle olive oil typify the regular guests. "It just never seemed to me when I began to listen to public radio that that's what it was all about."
Rehm does have her own on-air indulgence: a penchant for sentimentality and self-help literature a lá The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but the palpable compassion that she extends to her guests accounts for a significant part of her appeal: Rehm is Barbara Walters without the schmaltz and prurience. Folks who read her 1999 biography, Finding My Voice, know that Rehm struggled through a difficult childhood. Her parents, Eastern Orthodox Turkish immigrants, faced numerous difficulties, including her father's heart attack when Rehm was just 12. Her mother, who Rehm remembers as being exhausted from working hard to support their family, was physically and emotionally abusive. Nonetheless, it was their struggles and the personal obstacles she overcame that helped her develop the work ethic and resolve to grow from frustrated housewife to one of the most influential voices in talk radio. "What I came from will forever give me a sense, 'Don't expect anything to come easily,'" Rehm says. "Don't expect anybody to give you anything." •
By Elaine Wolff
The Diane Rehm Show airs on KSTX 89.1 FM Monday-Friday at 9 a.m.