PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 7, 2006

Cinderella on the Radio

by Jim Newsom

Diane Rehm’s career in broadcasting reads like a Cinderella story. It began in 1973 when, a 37-year old housewife and mother, she volunteered at WAMU-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate that was originally the student-run campus radio station of American University.

Within a year she was a paid assistant producer, and in 1979 she became the host of a program called Kaleidoscope. Five years later, it was renamed The Diane Rehm Show, quickly becoming a regional hit in the Washington, DC area. In 1995, she went national via NPR and in recent years her talk show has been one of the constants in the WHRV-FM schedule here.

The local public broadcasting folks are bringing her to town next Tuesday night for a special benefit appearance at the TCC/Roper Performing Arts Center. Considering the life she’s led and the personalities she’s interviewed, it should be a fascinating evening of talk and discussion.

The Diane Rehm Show airs locally at 10:00 am each weekday morning. WHRV only carries the first hour of the two-hour show, but like other NPR programs, the show is structured with different topics each hour. Consequently, most listeners in the Seven Cities don’t realize they’re not getting the whole shebang. They also probably don’t know much about her life story.

As she revealed in her 1999 autobiography, Finding My Voice, she was the daughter of Turkish immigrants who ran a grocery store in Washington. Her mother suffered from depression and other chronic aches and pains, and both parents were abusive. She was molested by a congressman when she was nine years old. As an adult she suffered from serious self doubt, even after she began making a name for herself.

Nonetheless, she has become one of the most highly respected broadcast journalists working the DC scene. Her program is peopled with newsmakers, political leaders, religious leaders, celebrities, artists and policy wonks. But it’s her ability to connect the famous with the regular folks who call in that raises her show above other radio talkathons.

"It's crucial we hear not only the voices of policymakers and experts,” she says, “but that everyone has a chance to offer their opinions and ask questions."

If publicity shots are an accurate indication, you’d never know by looking that Rehm turned 70 this year. However, in 1998, she developed a mysterious speech problem that threatened to end her career. Taking a leave of absence, she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare and incurable neurological disorder that causes the sufferer’s voice to break or to have a strained or strangled quality. She says it makes her “sound like an old lady.” The treatment is botox injections directly into the larynx.

Fortunately for those interested in first class journalism and intelligent conversation, Diane Rehm did not let her malady stop her. Every morning, the opening notes of Maurice Andre’s trumpet playing Claude Bolling’s “Toot Suite” lead into a fascinating hour of in-depth discussion. Though she never went to college, Rehm is obviously well read, inquisitive and, more important, has a natural ability to direct the flow of dialogue between her in-studio guests and callers from around the country like a maestro, keeping it informative and entertaining.

Tuesday night promises to be the same. Whether or not she will be wearing glass slippers remains to be seen.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.