Diane Rehm: A Singular Voice Will Sign Off

Diane Rehm, the award-winning host of one of NPR’s most popular radio shows, is retiring this fall after nearly 40 years at the microphone. At age 80, she is still vivacious, sharp, and one of public radio’s biggest stars.

An Unexpected Career
Ms. Rehm is a first-generation American of Arab descent. She grew up in Washington, D.C. and after graduating high school worked as a secretary, married and then left her job to raise her children. She was thrust into radio in 1973 when, as a volunteer for WAMU 88.5 in Washington, the station asked her to fill in for the regular host of their show, Kaleidoscope. Ten months later, Diane was hired as an assistant producer, and in 1979, she took over as host. The program was renamed “The Diane Rehm Show” in 1984, and began broadcasting nationally in 1995. Today, it airs weekdays, and has an audience of 2.5 million. It is distributed to nearly 200 radio stations in the U.S., and internationally by NPR Worldwide, SIRIUS XM radio and the Armed Forces Network.

Rehm has interviewed former presidents, secretaries of state and artists of every stripe, from musician Mary Chapin Carpenter to author Toni Morrison. She was the first radio talk show host to interview a president in the Oval Office, and in 2010, she was presented with the prestigious Peabody Award. Washingtonian magazine has named her one of the “150 Most Influential People in Washington.” In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Rehm the National Humanities Medal because her “keen insights and boundless curiosity have deepened our understanding of our culture and ourselves.”

Almost Silenced
Rehm’s career nearly ended in 1988, when she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes vocal cords to spasm and the voice to break. It forced her to take time off, but she began receiving treatments and returned to the show. She has remained on the air, cracking voice and all, for over 28 years.

Listeners have accepted Rehm’s vocal jags and halts because they value her calm discussions with newsmakers. She has been praised for her insistence on civility in ‘talk’ radio, a medium that is too often filled with high voltage vitriol and little else. Rehm occasionally chastises guests and the audience when they are less than polite. After George W. Bush’s first election, a caller referred to him as “The Republicans’ President”. She asserted that Bush was “our President”, not just the GOP’s, a particularly sharp admonishment coming from someone who is often praised and reviled as a liberal icon.

A Life-Changing Decision
In 2014, Rehm lost her husband John, a former attorney at the State Department. Treatments were no longer helping his debilitating Parkinson’s disease, and his doctor could not legally end his suffering, so John decided to refuse food and water. Ms. Rehm said that it was difficult to watch, but she felt she must honor his choice.

The doctor’s refusal, John’s decision and Diane’s loss caused her to reevaluate her life’s direction. She began attending fundraisers for an organization that advocates for physician-assisted dying, but NPR management admonished her for voicing her opinion publicly on this contentious issue. This, and the desire to let someone younger take the helm, moved her to give notice. She anticipates becoming involved in the Right to Die movement after she leaves WBUR.

Looking Ahead
Diane will continue hosting through the November 2016 presidential election, as she feels this tempestuous campaign is just too interesting to sit out. A new radio personality will soon be handed the microphone at WBUR, but it is unlikely that anyone will ever replace Rehm’s distinct and decorous voice.

 

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