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Diane Rehm: 30 Years Of The Unexpected

In 1973, a young housewife showed up for her first day as a volunteer at her local public radio station in Washington, D.C., and got ushered into the studio because the host of The Home Show was sick.

Diane Rehm's first interview was with a representative of the Dairy Council, but it was the beginning of a career that has lasted for decades. The Diane Rehm Show turns 30 years old this fall. It's heard every weekday on more than 150 public radio stations nationwide, and on satellite around the world, by more than 2 million listeners.

Not bad for a "young Arab girl" who didn't see much in her future. Rehm says those were the days when women didn't have many options. She wasn't expected to go to college. "My life was planned as a mother and a housewife, and that's all I ever expected," she tells NPR's Scott Simon.

Rehm has interviewed Nobel laureates and novelists, Supreme Court justices and presidential candidates, presidents, movie stars and Cabinet officials. But one interview will always stay with her.

"I'll never forget talking with Mr. Rogers," she says. "He was in Pittsburgh at his piano and he was doing all those wonderful voices. And I said to him, 'Mr. Rogers, what do you do when you're sad?' I don't know why I asked him that, except that he always seemed to be so happy.

"He said, 'I play the piano.' Then he added, 'I think I'll be playing the piano a lot today.'" Rehm asked him why he was sad, and Rogers replied, "Because my stomach hurts."

"I did not have the courage to say to him, 'Why does your stomach hurt?'" Rehm says. "I was afraid. I was afraid, and he was dead three months later."

A happier interview was with Julia Child in 1985. Rehm asked Child how she managed to maintain a schedule that would tire a great many people. "Well," Child quipped, "that's because I eat properly — red meat and gin."

Listeners might notice that Rehm's voice has changed dramatically since that interview, to a huskier, halting drawl. Ten years ago, Rehm was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a condition where the vocal cords constrict and strain speech. She's treated every four months with an injection of botulinum toxin directly into her vocal cords. The pain of treatment and stress of therapy aren't what worry her, however.

"My voice has made me far more concerned about whether I can get through an interview," she admits. She wonders whether people will continue to listen, "or whether they will simply say, 'What is that woman doing on the air? I can't stand her voice.'"

Many listeners tell her how much they love her voice, but Rehm doesn't agree. "I don't love my voice. That's the hard part. I don't love my voice anymore."

But she intends to keep working, as long as she's able: "As long as our minds keep working, as long as people are willing to bear with us," she says. "You have to take care of yourself, and you have to take care of your family. And I feel the same responsibility. I also feel that responsibility to my listeners. They are the smartest people I have ever come across, and I feel honored and privileged to have the airwaves to share with them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.