Local D.C. resident Rudy Kumar, 64, recalls listening to The Diana Rehm Show more than 20 years ago when he first moved from London in the early ‘80s.
It was only by chance that he came across her show, which reminded him of the English radio shows he was fond of. Twenty years later, Kumar listens to the show while at work.
“When the show comes on, I make myself available to listen to it,” Kumar said. “The way she does her questioning is sharp, crisp and that goes well with me.”
Kumar is one of 1.4 million listeners from across the country that tunes in every day to listen to talk show host Diane Rehm. Two weeks ago, the once small and local morning call-in show on Washington’s WAMU 88.5 FM celebrated its 25th anniversary on the air.
“The most important task of this program is to take the issues about which people care about the most - the creation of political policies, healthcare, health insurance, education ... [and] explain those complex issues of the day,” said Rehm. “This is what I have been doing for the last 25 years.”
Rehm, who has lived her whole life in Northwest D.C., was born to parents from Egypt and Lebanon. She speaks of D.C. as a small town, where she lived in an ethnic neighborhood. Her elementary, junior high school, high school and playground that she went to every day were no more than five blocks away. She grew up in a time when D.C. was segregated and she didn’t come into contact with African-Americans until her adult life.
“D.C. is making progress,” said Rehm, who believes that some day this city will have a vote. “People care about the city, they care about the neighborhood. It’s getting better, I’d like to think it’s getting better.”
However, she said it breaks her heart every time she hears about the crime or when a child is murdered.
“There continues to be this great frustration among the have-nots who feel that the lucrative profession they can turn to is drugs,” she said.
Rehm began her radio career in 1973, as a 37-year-old volunteer producer. She had already worked several secretarial jobs for the Department of D.C. Highways, postal inspection and State Department after graduating from high school. Also during that time, she had gotten married and had two children. On the first day as a volunteer at WAMU, she was asked to assist the station manager in the studio when the “Home Show” host Iram Aandahl called in sick. Ten months later, Rehm was hired as an assistant producer.
In 1973, Rehm hosted WAMU’s “Kaleidoscope,” which was later renamed after her. When satellite distribution was possible, Rehm raised enough money to pay for satellite time and by the mid-‘90s, the show became part of National Public Radio’s “Talk Track.”
However, with success came hardship. In 1998 Rehm was diagnosed and treated for spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that attacks the voice, making it difficult to speak. Rehm wrote several articles and dedicated several shows to the rare disorder. Ted Koppel also devoted a program to Rehm and her disorder and the National Council on Communicative Disorders Maryland Speech-Hearing-Language Association recognized Rehm.
The experience also inspired her to write her memoir, “Finding My Voice,” which became a bestseller.
“I thought I had to give all this up because of not knowing what it was I had,” she said. “Why it was happening was the hardest part. But once I got the diagnosis, then my doubts lifted.”
Rehm says that her listeners were still willing to accept her shows despite the imperfections of her voice.
“Some people have said to me they like my voice now more than before because there is mellowness ... a softness now, that they didn’t perceive before,” she said. “The first time some people hear me on the air, they tell me that if they listen to me for a few days, they forget the flawed voice and concentrate on the content. It’s the content that counts.”
Rehm says she has had many memorable moments in her career. In 2000 she became the first radio talk show host to ever interview a sitting president in the Oval Office - an experience she calls “extraordinary” for a young girl who entered the radio field with no broadcasting background or any formal higher education.
Some of her other guests have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actress Julie Andrews. Today, she will be interviewing actor James Earl Jones and Tuesday she talked with the architects of the World Trade Towers.
“I have everyday a new opportunity to talk to extraordinary people and I am very fortunate for that,” she said.
Rehm says that the show’s success is attributed to that fact that “people find it reliable, consistent, thoughtful, informing and enticing.”
“Three quarters of success is just showing up,” Rehm said. “Here for 25 years, people began trusting the voice to be fair ... who attempts to be impartial.”
In the past, critics and listeners have praised Rehm for her objectiveness.
“Some people say they have listened for 25 years and have no idea what my political leaning is,” Rehm said. “We’re all a mixture of conservative and liberal depending on the issue. Remember, the program is not about me; it’s about the issues that [we] are bringing to the listeners. The view of guests is what is important to the program.”
According to Rehm, the show’s function is to represent the interest, the intelligence and the inquisitiveness of her audience and bring the issues into focus for them.
“There’s no one issue,” she said. “It’s all of them. It’s the principle to help people learn.”
Rehm attributes much of the success of the show to the hard work of its producers. The show currently has four full-time producers and one part time, three of whom are volunteers.
Nancy Robinson, who has worked for seven years as one of the producers and started out as a volunteer, says that the show’s commitment and interest to the producers is important, especially since some people don’t get paid.
“Diane’s instantaneous curiosity and her way to bring conversations about with political leaders, artists, scientists and educators over radio to their listeners,” Robinson said.
Robinson says that a small number of people are responsible for the show’s 10 hours a week while at other shows, there is usually one producer for each hour.
“We’ve always worked with a skeleton crew,” Robinson said. She added that the hours of research, last minute phone calls, e-mails, bookings, writing and magic comes together when Diane is in the studio for each show.
However, while some say Rehm has had good luck in her career, she says that’s not all that made her successful.
“You make you own luck,” Rehm said. “You’re not only in the right place at the right time. You have to prove yourself, prove your willing to do anything.” Rehm remembered coming in for her volunteer job at 8 a.m. and not leaving until her kids had to be picked up from school or until she was no longer needed.
She also said that her primary luck though came from her loving husband who was supportive of what she did.
With this support, Rehm plans to continue at her position.
“Right now, I have no interest or thought of retirement,” Rehm said. “What I do is of importance to the country and I love what I do. It’s like participating in a college classroom everyday and I feel like I’ve earned so many college degrees already.”