WASHINGTON — In theatrical makeup and camera-ready attire, her hair an ivory meringue, Diane Rehm is an intensely visual person — “I love clothes more than I love food,” she likes to say — whose medium happens to be radio.
Her voice sounds ancient and fragile, as though dragged through shattered glass and gravel. She was diagnosed almost two decades ago with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes spasms of the vocal cords, and should have axed her career. Instead, it helped distinguish her from the dulcet chorus of NPR voices. The Diane Rehm Show, is heard weekly by 2.4 million listeners on nearly 200 stations.
She is dramatic in a job that demands restraint, given to maestro-level gestures lost on listeners. “I’ve been an actress all my life,” she declaims. A wren of a woman with an XXL personality, she’s known for a hailstorm of opinions.
“She’s very challenging. We had our first fight before I even got here,” says J.J. Yore, manager of WAMU-FM (88.5), a Washington NPR affiliate. Earlier this month, before she took a sabbatical for her thrice-yearly voice treatments, they had an hour-long dustup. Says her dear friend Mary Beth Busby, “You don’t ever ask Diane’s opinion if you don’t want it, because you’re going to get it.” Yet Rehm is celebrated for moderating civil discourse between often vehemently opposed guests.
Now 79, the most unretiring Rehm announced last month that she plans to leave the show, not retiring, exactly, but “stepping away from the microphone.” Mind you, this will happen almost a year from now, Dec. 31, giving her time for an extended victory lap.
But she’s ready for her next act. She doesn’t plan to fade away. Among other things, she will raise funds for the station. In 1995, she raised $250,000 to take her show national.
Most likely, she will become more outspoken. Her new memoir, On My Own, recounts her husband’s decision to end his life in June 2014 after his physician was legally barred from helping. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, and after two years in an assisted living facility, John Rehm refused food, liquids and medication.
It took 10 days to die, an eternity.
“I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death,” Rehm writes of watching her spouse of 54 years wither away.
The experience sparked her advocacy in the movement known as the right to die. “I feel the way that John had to die was just totally inexcusable,” she said last year. “It was not right.”
Her public stand, and a commitment to host three dinners for the organization Compassion & Choices, which advocates for legalizing physician-assisted suicide, resulted in an admonishment from a room full of station and NPR brass. Rehm is supposed to moderate news issues, not make them.
“I was annoyed,” Rehm recalls of the experience. “Political issue or not, it’s also an extraordinarily personal one to me because of John.”
In June, Rehm landed in trouble again. On air, she said to Sen. Bernie Sanders, “You have dual citizenship with Israel,” which he does not. The source was a Facebook posting, part of an Internet conspiracy reportedly leveled at Jewish legislators.
“Worst mistake of my career,” Rehm says, slapping her thigh. “I took full responsibility for that. I should have checked and checked and checked.” She felt, she says, “terrible, terrible. Worst of all to have insulted that man, because he is such a decent man.”
So, not an easy year. She had already discussed leaving the show. She turns 80 in September, a good time for change, an end to 5 a.m. wake-ups, but she opted to work through the election.
“It’s time for me to retire, especially on the issue of right-to-die, to be able to speak out and to speak freely,” she says, sitting in her crescent-shaped D.C. office, which is filled with family photos, honours and an image of Mr. Rogers. (“I. Just. Loved. That. Man.”) Her limping, long-haired chihuahua, Maxie, 12, naps at her high-heeled feet.
Karen Heller is national general features writer for Style. She was previously a metro columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she also reported on popular culture, politics and social issues.