The Woman Behind The Voice In some ways, Diane Rehm is exactly what you expect: smart, thoughtful and precise. But in other ways, you're in for a big surprise.

March 16, 1997|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

Let us begin our thinking about Diane Rehm with a discussion of her voice. The sound of her voice is, after all, the only link most of us have to the woman whose talk radio show is described as "an oasis of rational conversation in a medium where everyone seems to be shouting at one another."Slow-cadenced, schoolmarmish, authoritative, unemotional, slightly flat and nasal: All of these adjectives apply to the voice that daily, from a radio studio in Washington, enthralls devoted listeners across the country. It is unusual to hear such a voice on radio, a medium that more often than not goes for a sound that is smooth, mellow and glib. Of course, in the case of Diane Rehm (pronounced Reem), one can't consider the voice alone. There's also her manner. Whether she is interviewing Queen Noor of Jordan, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Man or answering a call-in question from Tom in Tulsa, Rehm's attitude never varies. A no-nonsense person, she comes across a lot like your ninth-grade Latin teacher: courteous and fair but with a very low tolerance for those who ramble or pontificate.

Listening, one can easily imagine the physical presence that goes with such a distinctive voice and personality:

"I picture her as a tall, large-boned and imposing woman with a Southern bearing," says one fan.

"Old, maybe widowed, white hair in a bun, frail," says another.

"I see her looking like a librarian," says a fan who, by the way, is a librarian. "In her 60s, short, sensible haircut, glasses and wearing practical, sturdy shoes."

Hearing these descriptions, Diane Rehm laughs. "I love it. I love it. It's fab-u-lous!" she says slowly and emphatically, stretching out the word fabulous to its breaking point.

It's vintage Diiii-ane.

Just like on the radio.

By now, of course, Rehm is used to the public's image of the person behind the voice. "Usually they tell me they think I'm a large woman with dark hair and even older than I really am," says Rehm, who is 60 but looks much younger. "So when they see me, they are surprised."

To say the least.

Petite and photogenic, Rehm has the looks of a model, which she once was, back in the days when she was a housewife and stay-at-home mom to her now grown son and daughter. Her hair, the color of brushed chrome, is coiffed and full; her hazel eyes delicately outlined with a dark pencil. Dressed in an elegant gray jacket and black pants, her size-4 body is trim and athletic.

Perfectly groomed, she looks camera ready, as though television, not radio, were her medium. Actually, Rehm had a brief foray into television in the late 1980s which, for various reasons, didn't work out. But growing up, it was radio, not television, that made an impact on her. Rehm was already approaching her teens when television began its relentless march into America's living rooms. Her own family did not have a television set until 1954, the year she graduated from high school.

Beyond that, however, one senses radio was important to her in ways that television could never be. A certain magic connection existed between the young Diane and the voices coming out of that box.

"I listened to all the shows on Saturday morning. But my favorite show in the whole wide world was 'Let's Pretend.' But I also listened to the afternoon series like 'The Shadow' and 'The Green Hornet.' " She laughs. "And lots of the radio soap operas."

As much as she loved radio, it never crossed her mind that one day her voice would crackle across the air waves. Her radio career, in fact, was an accident.

In some ways, the life she now lives also seems an accident, so far away is it from the life that seemed to lie in her future. Still, the narrative of her story suggests that while there have been sharp turns in the road leading from there to here, Diane Rehm's character did not change: She is and always has been a woman of great determination and strong convictions.

Here are some things you ought to know about Diane Rehm:

Her politics are "probably right smack dab in the middle, with a lot of liberal ideas and a lot of conservative ideas as well. I, for example, have always been, will always remain, pro-choice. At ,, the same time, the notion of a teen-age child walking into a clinic with no parental advice, much less consent, just brings me to tears."

She grew up in Washington, the daughter of Arab immigrants. Her Lebanese father and his brothers ran a grocery store in the northwest part of the city. She recalls there were no books in the house except for the Bible.

She has a couple of very civilized but sure-fire ways of cutting short a caller who is rambling or using the show to pass on rumors as fact. "And we'll leave it at that," she'll say evenly to a caller talking in circles. Or: "All right. And we'll stop it right there," she'll tell someone who, without many facts, wants to challenge a medical study.

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