In an election year when many talk radio hosts rant on the right or lobby on the left, veteran journalist Diane Rehm gives equal time to all sides of an issue and both sides of the aisle.
Two characteristics set radio talk show host Diane Rehm apart from her on-air colleagues. First, there’s her voice. Diagnosed a decade ago with an incurable disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, she has a distinct delivery that varies in strength depending on how recently she has endured the painful but necessary injections to her vocal chords. Second, there’s her determination to remain neutral on hot-button topics. Sure, she feels passionately about most issues, but “I don’t want to become the person who tells listeners what to think,” she insists. “That’s been my charge right from the start.”
In her case, “the start” came 35 years ago when she volunteered to help plan programs and book guests for The Home Show, aired daily from a small public radio station in suburban Washington, D.C. Her first Monday on the job proved life-changing. The show’s host called in sick, and a desperate station manager recruited Diane to conduct a live interview with a spokeswoman from the Dairy Council about the wonders of milk and cheese. It was a long 90 minutes.
Things have improved. Today, The Diane Rehm Show boasts a national audience of almost two million listeners and attracts guests who include U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners, best-selling authors, and A-list movie stars. What hasn’t changed is Rehm’s love for her job and her wonder at having landed it. Without benefit of a college degree or formal broadcast training, she has emerged as an award-winning journalist whom The National Journal describes as “the class act of the talk radio world.”
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of The Diane Rehm Show, this veteran interviewer agreed to a Post interview. No topic was off-limits—except milk and cheese.
You grew up in an Arab-American home where a young girl’s opinions weren’t exactly solicited. How did you evolve into a strong communicator who could hold her own with everyone from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton?
As a child, I lived in two separate worlds. I had one foot in the Arab world, where my parents spoke to me in Arabic, and I responded in English, and my opinions were not asked for. The other foot was in school, where my teachers thought I was bright and encouraged me to perform in plays and to read, sing, and recite on stage. I’ve never been bashful. Because there were so many unanswered questions in our home, I was that much more curious about what was happening in the world. If you read my first book [Finding My Voice], you know I was married once before [to an Arab-American]. I realized after my mother and father died that I was not going to get all my questions answered from within the confines of the Arab community. I had to break free, and breaking free allowed me to voice my questions publicly with everybody around me.
And then your future husband, John Rehm, came into your life….
[laughs] And then John Rehm came into my life. He was—and is—the smartest person I’ve ever known. I could ask him about art; I could ask him about music; I could ask him about this political question or that environmental issue. He knew the world because he had had this wonderful education, and he was happy to educate me. I still can say, “Sweetheart, I don’t understand this. Could you explain it to me?” He always begins with a very simple explanation.
At the outset of your radio career you planned the shows, booked the guests, and wrote the scripts. Even now, with the help of five producers, the burden is on you to keep current on everything from sports to politics. How do you do it?
You’re right—I did it all in those first couple of years, and it was a killer job. Now I read everything the producers give me. I listen to two hours of [NPR’s] Morning Edition as I’m getting ready for work. I come to the office and have The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post to skim through. When I get home at 6 o’clock, I turn on the first half hour of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer; at 6:30, I switch to ABC and watch Charlie Gibson; at 7, I turn to NBC and Brian Williams; and at 7:30, I’m back for the last half hour with Jim Lehrer. So there’s a lot of material coming into my head constantly.
Sounds like information overload. What do you read for fun?
My reading habits at home, before I go to sleep at night or on a Sunday afternoon, are pure fiction! I love to get away from the world of reality.
Since your radio program invites listeners to call in or send emails, you have your hand on the pulse of America. What discussions draw the most response—the lightweight stuff or the heavy topics?
Oh, my gosh, it’s everything. We’re told that there are about 300 callers trying to get through at any one time. We only have six lines. During this morning’s second hour alone, we got about 450 emails! It’s constant.
Share some of your interview secrets. Do you have a few stock questions that you use if an on-air conversation starts to lag?
Sure. I like to ask a lot of “how” and “why” questions. If I don’t understand something, I honestly say, “I don’t get it.” I think people appreciate that because if I don’t get it, there are probably an awful lot of other listeners out there who don’t get it, either.
What’s your strategy when guests ramble or rely on stock talking points? How do you jerk them back?
In a case like that, I find myself interrupting to a certain degree, or I’ll take a breath to indicate to the person across the table that I want to get a word in. Sometimes I’ll use my hand to gesture that the person has to stop talking. People who watch the show in the studio tell me I look like an orchestra conductor because I’m waving my hands all over the place. I think I get the message through. That’s one reason I hate doing interviews on the telephone. I want to look at their eyes. I want to see what they’re doing with their hands. I remember one guest who kept making his point by banging on the table! I had to give him the sign that he couldn’t do that.
Have you ever felt intimidated by a guest?
I don’t know if “intimidated” is the right word, but it felt overwhelming to interview a sitting president in the Oval Office. That, for me, was huge. Here he comes [President Clinton], charging through the cabinet doors, and his nose is running and his eyes are watering, and he’s saying, “God, my allergies are killing me!” It’s scary stuff to sit there in the Oval Office—a gorgeous place, by the way—and hope you won’t come across as stupid. This is, after all, the leader of the free world.
What about guests who agree to be interviewed but give you all sorts of ground rules. They want to talk about this, but they won’t talk about that….
The only persons who got away with that were Sandra Day O’Connor, who said she wouldn’t talk about the 2000 election, and Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense. The day before our interview, McNamara called at 5:30 in the afternoon after almost everybody had left the office. He said, “I’m not going to take calls from listeners.” I said, “We have to take calls from listeners.” He said, “Well, then, I won’t come on.” I told him I’d call him back, and I went upstairs and talked to my boss. We decided to go through with the interview, but when McNamara came in the next morning and the microphones were on, my very first question was: “Mr. McNamara, you refuse to take questions from our listeners. Why is that?” It put him on the spot, but it was the question to ask.
In 1998, your career almost ended because of a mysterious speech problem that continues to affect your voice. You took a leave of absence until you were diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia. How have your listeners responded?
They’ve been wonderful. One of the first things I did after I came back to the show was to invite all my doctors into the studio for an on-air discussion about spasmodic dysphonia. They talked about what it is, what treatments I would be getting—I have injections about every four months—and how there is no cure. Ever since then, people have been genuinely kind and sympathetic.
As you approach the 30-year anniversary of the The Diane Rehm Show, give us your assessment of talk radio’s evolution. Is it moving in the right direction?
If you go back to the late ’20s and early ’30s, you had a number of demagogues on the radio who told listeners what the facts were…according to them. That’s what I hear some [talk show hosts] doing today. They’re trying to divide the world into liberals and conservatives. What a shame! We’re all Americans, we all have our share of problems, but we all want this country to be successful. How do you create a successful country when you’re knocking down half the electorate? It just doesn’t work.