What’s next for Diane Rehm?
With a voice as familiar as that of a friend, longtime radio talk show host Diane Rehm, 85, will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Virtual 50+Expo.
Her remarks, in the form of a video conversation with Beacon publisher Stuart Rosenthal, will be accessible with the rest of the Expo’s features through January 2022 at beacon50expo.com.
As Rehm’s colleague Kojo Nnamdi (himself a radio legend) once said, she is “a genteel woman, but one made of solid steel.”
Her steely nature buoyed her in the 1990s, when her voice was nearly destroyed by a condition called spasmodic dysphonia.
She had developed a cough that occasionally prevented her from going on the air. Soon she began suffering tremors in her voice box that almost upended her career.
“It got really frightening,” she said once. “I came as close to having a nervous breakdown as you can get…I was croaking. I was strangling. I couldn’t get my words out.”
Doctors at Johns Hopkins finally landed on a diagnosis in 1998. She went off the air for four months to start treatment for her voice and for the anxiety she had developed.
Of course, we all know the happy ending to this story: Rehm returned to National Public Radio with the daily “Diane Rehm Show” for several more decades, eventually reaching an audience of nearly three million worldwide.
Surprised to have a career
Born in 1936, Rehm grew up in Washington, D.C., at a time when many Americans were glued to the radio.
“As a child, radio was my escape,” Rehm told the Beacon. From “The Shadow” to “The Lone Ranger,” she said, “I loved it all. I had no idea I’d ever have a ‘career.’ I was a homemaker for 14 years, raising two wonderful children.”
When her youngest left home in 1973, “I began wondering what to do with the rest of my life,” Rehm said. A friend had recently volunteered at American University’s radio station WAMU, she recalled, helping with a program called “The Home Show.”
Rehm asked if she could volunteer for it, too. On her very first day at the station, the program’s host was out sick, and the station manager asked Rehm to accompany her on the air to conduct that day’s interview.
As it happened, the subject matter was right up her alley, and “I felt quite comfortable and had a great time,” Rehm told Rosenthal. “That was the beginning of it all.”
In a 2016 interview at NIH, Rehm said, “When I got home [that first day], I was so excited…[My husband] looked at me and said, ‘Someday you’re going to be host of that show.’ He had such faith in me.”
After 10 months as a volunteer, Rehm landed a part-time position at the radio station, then a full-time one. She began hosting her own show in 1979, and it was named for her beginning in 1984. The last episode of “The Diane Rehm Show” aired in December 2016.
Rehm attributes her success to two things: perseverance and good fortune. “I was in the right place at the right time, as [in 1973] WAMU was soon to become part of National Public Radio, which itself was just getting off the ground.”
A passionate cause
During the final years of Rehm’s daily two-hour show, her husband, John Rehm, developed Parkinson’s disease and began to decline.
When he reached the point of complete dependence on others, he felt ready to die and asked his doctor for medical assistance in dying. The doctor informed him it was illegal in Maryland and his only option was to stop eating and drinking, which he proceeded to do.
“I said, ‘Sweetheart, are you sure that this is what you want?’” Rehm recalled. “And he said ‘absolutely’.” After 54 years of marriage, her husband slipped into a coma and died after 10 days.
It wasn’t Rehm’s first painful experience watching a loved one suffer. When Rehm was just 19 years old, her mother died of liver cancer. Her father died 11 months later of heart disease — “literally of a broken heart,” she said once.
Rehm was deeply affected by watching her mother’s agony. “She begged to die,” Rehm recalled in a 2020 interview with Nnamdi. “That began my really strong feeling that people should not have to suffer.”
After her husband’s death, Rehm began interviewing people across the country for a PBS documentary about the right to die movement. Her conversations with patients, doctors, clergy and others on both sides of the issue were condensed into a one-hour documentary, “When My Time Comes: Should Americans Have the Right to Die?”
Rehm decided to publish a companion book to the documentary “because I wanted people to have a chance to read a little more about persons featured in the film,” Rehm said. That book, When My Time Comes: Conversations about Whether Those Who Are Dying Should Have the Right to Determine When Life Should End, was published in 2020, in tandem with the documentary.
Rehm says that “the subject will always be one of controversy, one of differing opinions, and I totally respect all of those opinions. My belief is that no matter what the choice, people should have a choice, they should be able to decide for themselves.”
When her own time comes, she told Nnamdi, “I would consider a good death one that is peaceful, painless, quiet. Perhaps having a party beforehand, having lots of champagne.”
Retired but still working
By the time Rehm was in her late 70s, she had published several books and articles and amassed nearly a dozen awards, including the prestigious Peabody Award and National Humanities Medal.
Over the years, she had interviewed hundreds of politicians, authors, celebrities and experts in just about every field. When asked about favorites, she pinpoints two special guests: Fred Rogers and Maya Angelou.
“Those two individuals, among thousands of others, will always stand out in my mind,” she said, for their compassion for others.
Rogers “teaches not only children, but adults what it is to express kindness, appreciation, to know what empathy is. I’ve never met anyone like him,” Rehm said.
Though she reveled in her job, Rehm always had a plan, she said, to “step away from the daily microphone once I turned 80. I’d held the show for 37 years, and it was time for a younger person with new and fresh ideas to take it on.”
Instead of retiring completely from radio, Rehm scaled back a bit. At first, she hosted one podcast a week, then another, and then added a monthly book club on Zoom. (She chooses each book herself.)
Rehm also hosted fundraising dinners in her home (pre-COVID) and chairs the 1961 Society, whose members have named WAMU in their wills.
“So, I’m plenty busy and enjoying every minute,” she said.
As for what’s next, Rehm indicated she does not have another book in mind to write, but would consider anything that comes her way.
“You know, I’ve never had a plan for my life. It’s all just happened. I’m open to whatever looks interesting and could add to our understanding of the world.”
At the same time, “If what I’ve done is the last thing I do, that’s fine with me,” she said.
Through Jan. 31, 2022, watch a video of Rehm’s conversation with Beacon publisher Stuart Rosenthal at beacon50expo.com.
Correction: The print version of this story referred to an “NPR documentary.” In fact, the documentary aired on PBS. We regret the error.