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Women Bisnow
February 12, 2008

The First Lady of Radio


This issue of Washington Women is presented by
Reznick Group:
"Building Business Value"


By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business

The voice. Some listeners love it, some say otherwise, but 1.7 million people around the globe tune in to hear it, and more importantly, to hear the woman behind it.

A native Washingtonian, Diane Rehm, host of The Diane Rehm Show, began her career at WAMU 88.5 FM as a volunteer. “Washington was a sleepy small town,” says Diane, who took a job at the Department of Highways after graduating from a then still-segregated Roosevelt High School. “I would get on the two-way radio talking to the guys working the potholes. They would kid me – I was 18.” After stepping out of the workforce to get married and have two children, she came to WAMU in 1973 at the age of 37.


Diane in her WAMU office overlooking Wilson High School.


On her first day, Irma Aandahl, host of the Home Show, called in sick and Diane found herself on the air. Ten months later, Aandahl hired Diane as an assistant producer. “I became a producer for two years and then went off to do television but that didn’t pan out. I stomped the streets for two years looking for a job.”

When her former boss told Diane she was retiring, she applied, and in 1979 became host of WAMU's Kaleidoscope, which evolved into The Diane Rehm Show in 1984.

Discussing the top headlines of the day, the show reaches out to more people than read many of America’s newspapers. Known today for her dynamic guest roster, her fireside-chat demeanor and her “open phones,” Diane began the latter when one of her guests failed to show up. “I thought: ‘I’ll find out about them and asked what the listeners did for a living.’ It made people realize that this was a host that was interested in them.”
Diane with the staff of the show a recent Monday morning broadcast.

Having become one of the leading regional radio shows, The Diane Rehm Show went national in 1995. Shortly after, Diane began to have increasing trouble with her voice. “It took me eight years to get accurately diagnosed,” says Diane, who was found to have a neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which affects the muscles of the larynx.

“My boss, Kim Hodgson, was supremely supportive. The first day when I realized I couldn’t go on anymore I was moderating a discussion at the Four Seasons and I was croaking, just croaking – he said ‘take as long as you need.’” Diane took a leave of absence in 1998. “I thought: ‘I’m not going to be able to do this.’ I was so depressed thinking this was the end of my career.” She found her way to Johns Hopkins and began to receive her first injections to treat the disorder. “The voice started to come back, weakly at first and then stronger and stronger,” says Diane, who returned to WAMU and an extremely loyal audience shortly thereafter.

The first radio host to interview a sitting President in the Oval Office, Diane says Bill Clinton was her most intimidating interview. “We went to the White House at 1, sat in a room until 2 and then another room until 3. We went into the Oval Office at 4 and at 4:15 he comes charging through the door.” When we ask Diane whom she would most love to interview, she says George W. Bush, without hesitation. “I’ve interviewed the VP numerous times. We’ve asked and asked but I don’t think the President is crazy about public radio.”

Diane did meet Laura Bush at a luncheon at the British Embassy. “She looked me in the eye and said ‘I feel I know you personally.’ Then she shook my hand and turned away from me. Perhaps she didn’t want to give me an opportunity to say something about the show. It was fascinating.”

The First Lady of Radio published her memoirs in 1999 and Towards Commitment, a book about marriage, co-written with her husband John, in 2002. “Doing a book was a revelation of all the things we had not discussed. I think the most important thing is what you talk about before you get married, but it’s never too late to get the conversation started.” Something Diane has been doing with America for almost 30 years.

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