Diane Rehm is a syndicated public radio talk show host. She began her career in 1973 as a volunteer for WAMU’s The Home Show. Diane later became the host of Kaleidoscope, which was later renamed The Diane Rehm Show and has since become one of the region’s top news talk shows. Diane took time off her very busy schedule to talk to us about her amazing career.
Can you tell us how you got into radio? What made you decide that it was for you?
I grew up listening to radio. We had no television until I was about to graduate from high school, so radio was my delight, my escape into fantasy. I listened to soap operas, children’s programs like “Let’s Pretend,” and mysteries like “The Shadow,” “The Green Hornet,” and “I Love a Mystery.” I volunteered at WAMU in 1973 because working on a small radio program at nearby American University seemed absolutely ideal for a woman who’d spent 14 years raising two children, who longed to do something different and challenging.
You have interviewed some of the most important people in the world, from Supreme Court justices to famous actors, from presidents to poets and writers. Which guest left the most lasting impression on you? Why? Who was a disappointment?
Yes, I have interviewed many fascinating people. I loved interviewing then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for the fi rst time in my studio. She was and is so articulate, warm, and kind. I was also fortunate enough to become the fi rst radio journalist to interview a sitting President in the Oval Office, when President Clinton gave me a full half-hour of his time. One of my very favorite interviews was with Mr. Rogers, whose warmth and love of children very certainly extended to adults. One of my recent more disappointing interviews was with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. We’d been promised a full hour with him. He hung up half way through the hour, without warning.
How do you prepare for interviews? How much research goes into preparation?
Most of the background research and locating of guests is done by the producers of the program. Th ey may make 20 phone calls, looking for the fi rst ‘right’ person, and 20 more looking for others to round out the program. I receive the information for each fi rst-hour interview about an hour and a half before showtime. Th e second hour scripts are given to me the day before.
One of my personal favorite segments on your show is when you highlight new books and authors. Do you read every book you cover? Which three books would you recommend to our readers? Why?
I do not read every book from cover to cover. The producers read the books and give me salient information from which to create the interview. This includes introductory remarks, questions and answers, so I go into the author interview with a good sense of the book. I thought “The Day of the Jackal” was one of the best books I’d ever read. I also love “Middlemarch,” a book I consider a timeless creation. And a little-known book we recently read, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.”
There has been a concerted eff ort by some in Washington to see an end to Public Radio. Why do you think that is? And what would an America without NPR and public radio and television be like?
The effort to do away with Public Radio and Public Television has been pushed by many conservatives, not only because of taxpayer monies that go into the broadcasts, but also, I believe, because they regard the reporting they hear as coming from a ‘liberal’ media. The outpouring of support for public radio and television says to me that many people in this country count on that reporting as a counterweight to the many outspoken conservative voices who currently dominate the airwaves.
You were diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that attacks the vocal cords. While your condition hasn’t hurt the poignancy of your show, or your considerable standing with your listeners, how has it aff ected you emotionally?
The challenge of dealing with spasmodic dysphonia continues. Th ough we hear very few complaints these days about my voice, I have to confront it and deal with it every day. I am working with a new Voice Builder via Skype. Gary Catona is out in Los Angeles, and has been very generous with his time. He works with major fi gures, such as Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minelli, Jack Klugman, and others. Yet he has given me much time and attention, helping me strengthen my vocal cords and building my confidence. I’ve not had an injection of Botox since September 2010, which is a real miracle.
What recommendations and/or tips do you have for someone trying to break into radio?
Find a station near you and volunteer. Do anything. Answer phones. Read books. Greet guests. Work with an engineer as an apprentice. Th e key is to indicate your real dedication to working in radio. And don’t expect to make tons of money. It won’t happen.
In this day and age where technology is so readily available and easy to use, anyone with a microphone and an opinion can broadcast a show via the web. Is this a good thing? Or has it dumbed down the debates?
Th e people of this country and elsewhere will have to work to fi nd a variety of voices and sources on which to rely. Th e proliferation of talk shows, blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers large and small—all will contribute to the national and international dialogue, and we must become more discerning consumers.
Where do you find your inspiration? Did you have a mentor when you first broke into broadcasting?
My kind teacher was my boss, Irma Aandahl. She was host of The Home Show, on which I began to work as a volunteer. She taught me everything, and allowed me to experiment. She offered assistance, and helped me understand that hard work could make a real difference. My current inspiration comes from the producers with whom I work. Th ey are readers, thinkers, and hard workers. I am honored to be with them.
Name a dream guest who you haven’t interviewed yet? Do you ever get awestruck?
I would very much like to interview President Obama. I did interview him for his book, while he was still in the Senate, and before he began his run for the Presidency. I would also like to interview Mrs. Obama. I believe her to be a true role model for many women striving to improve their own lives and those of their families.