Rehm's talk show links stay-at-home moms and the world

SUSAN REIMER

November 18, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

I first met Diane Rehm in the grocery store parking lot.

I was station hopping, and she was in her studio at WAMU-FM in Washington talking to a famous author or actor. It has been 10 years, but I remember the electricity of the connection she made with me that morning.

In the early days of motherhood at home, coming as it did off a fast-paced career in the news business, I felt isolated and my brain felt numb. Diane Rehm remedied that.

I would listen to her as I ran errands, did laundry or waited in the preschool car pool line, and when she signed off at noon each weekday, I felt as if I had read the books she talked about or spoken to the poets, authors and actors she so deeply and patiently plumbed.

And after she debriefed journalists on the week's headlines each Friday morning, I felt as if I had actually read the morning newspapers that some days stayed bundled on my porch till after dark.

Diane Rehm has talked often about how talk radio joins people, but she could not have known how true that was for me and other mothers like me. She rescued us from loneliness, informed us, joined us to the world again.

But on this day, Diane Rehm is a little disjointed. Today's 10 a.m. topic is Haiti, and an expert she had hoped to speak to from his Washington office is actually in Haiti. It is 9:30, and she hasn't heard from him. Worse, her 10:40 a.m. poet is stuck in Vermont. "Bruce," She shouts for her producer, Bruce Youngblood, and her voice arches, the way it gets when a caller says something preposterous.

Then it is 10 a.m. and the music is playing and Diane Rehm is saying, "Goooood morning." She opens with all three Haiti experts. As she juggles them, her voice is sharp and angular. She cuts them off when they pontificate. She calls them up short when they exaggerate the facts. During 40 minutes, she looks at her notes, but never at any of the experts.

When Donald Hall arrives for the second segment -- his airplane finally left Vermont -- he meets a different hostess. Her voice flows like melting butter, covering the poet with attention. Her eyes never leave him and her chin rests on her fist as he tells her what it is like to write poetry in the face of a fatal illness.

Every day from 10 a.m. to noon, you get both sides of Diane Rehm, the daughter of Arab immigrants who hoped only that she would learn to type and take shorthand. After 14 1/2 years on WAMU (88.5 FM), she has become one of Washington's journalistic heavyweights.

"One side of me is news-based, telling myself that you better get it right or everybody will tell me I got it wrong," says Ms. Rehm. "With the artists, the actors, the others, it is my soul that is connecting with them. That's why what I do is so rich."

She has given us wonderful glimpses into her life, a refined, intelligent life that those of us with small children can only daydream of. She has fresh garlic in her salad dressing each night at dinner with her husband of 34 years, John. She is as gleeful as a teen-ager planning her Saturday night out when she talks movies with Arch Campbell. She has a farm in Pennsylvania and two grown kids. There is 33-year-old David, studying for a doctorate in philosophy, and daughter Jennie, a third-year medical student.

She has no college degree -- her parents didn't even have books in English in the house -- and she stayed home for 13 years to raise her children. Never, when she volunteered at WAMU in 1973, did she imagine this for herself.

"Let me tell you something that explains about me," she says. "John and I spent the weekend at the farm and David came down to join us. When we got back to Washington, he called and said he'd had a blast, an absolute blast with us.

"My daughter and her husband are absolutely breaking their necks to get home for Thanksgiving.

"That means as much to me as anything else in my life."

Her audience of 110,000 is 50 percent male, but men make up 90 percent of the callers -- unless she is talking to a dancer, an author of children's stories, a playwright, then the callers are 99 percent women. Most are first-time callers and they stutter and their voices shake. But they speak so clearly from the heart.

Sometimes you can hear their children gurgling or wailing in the background. But the minds of those mothers still click and whir, and they find their voice for a few minutes. And like Diane Rehm, their souls reach out across the airwaves.

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