Diane Rehm on stepping aside for “something new and fresh”

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Diane Rehm Author photo

Rehm (Photo courtesy Knopf Doubleday)

Longtime public radio host Diane Rehm will give up her microphone later this year, ending nearly four decades on the air. That’s just one of the life changes Rehm contemplates in On My Own, her new memoir, in which she also opens up about the death of her husband and her days since. Rehm recently appeared on our podcast The Pub to discuss the book, her career and her ethical tangle with NPR last year. She began by telling host Adam Ragusea how she’s feeling about her retirement.

Diane Rehm: I am feeling really OK about it, and I’ll tell you why: Stepping away from the microphone constitutes only a portion of what I think of as my entire career going forward. As I’m sure you know, I’ll be doing a lot of speaking out on the right to die. I’ll be traveling the country as much as I can to talk about my belief that each of us should be allowed to make our own choices. I totally understand those who would prefer palliative care — and if that’s what people want, that’s what they should have. I’ll be speaking on my own.

I’ll also be appearing in Trish Vradenburg’s play about Alzheimer’s titled Surviving Grace, where I actually portray a woman who is falling into Alzheimer’s. I’ll also be speaking out on behalf of Parkinson’s disease, and I will continue my employment here at WAMU trying to help raise the profile of the station and raise the station’s endowment and its operating monetary backing. I think all those things are going to keep me involved for a good long time.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Retirement would be a misnomer, it sounds like.

Rehm: Absolutely! Just stepping away from the microphone.

Current: We’ll get into all of that, but the book that you have released is primarily about your fascinating relationship with your late husband, John, who — for anyone who doesn’t know — ended his own life a year and a half ago while suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Rehm: You know what? I’m going to correct you. He decided to relinquish his life. He didn’t do himself in as an act of suicide. What he did was to stop drinking water, stop eating food and stop taking medication because he felt that Parkinson’s had taken him to such a place of degradation. He could no longer use his hands. He could no longer stand. He could no longer walk or care for himself, feed himself. He couldn’t do anything. And so he said, “I’m ready to die.” And with a situation in Maryland where no doctor could actively help him to die, he decided that he would relinquish his own life by stopping all intake of food, water and medication.

Current: Can you explain how that event has factored into your subsequent career decisions? I would think that the structure of the daily live-radio lifestyle would be a gift to someone such as yourself undergoing such a profoundly sad, difficult life-altering experience. I would think that it would be even harder then to give up that structure as your personal life has just been turned upside-down.

Rehm: You’re right. My personal life, my life with my husband as I knew it was really turned upside down. When John had to leave our condo and move into assisted living, that more than anything changed the structure of my life. That was November of 2012; he died in June of 2014. So for that year and a half, when I would come in to the office each day, do the program, then leave the studio and go over to be with him, that really was the changing point.

But honestly, more than his death, more than anything that has happened externally, is the fact that I am 79 years old; I will be 80 come this September. I have held this microphone for 37 years, and it seems to me that it was time to turn it over to someone else, to a younger person with fresh ideas, with a fresh outlook as to what this program might become. As you and I both know, this 10-to-noon real estate in public radio is extraordinarily valuable, and whatever might come next will be fresh and new, and will draw new listeners, perhaps younger listeners. I think it’s time, and it’s time for me to move on and think of my life in new terms. Mind you, it’s going to be hard. I’ve been doing this daily and loving it each day, but I do think it’s time for me, it’s time for the radio station, it’s time for listeners to hear something new and fresh.

Current: I’ve spoken off the record with a few women who say that they have been talking to WAMU about potentially taking on the unenviable task of trying to fill your shoes. Are you involved in those decisions at all? Are you talking to potential candidates?

Rehm: Like you, perhaps I am hearing about potential candidates. I’m not sure how much say I will have in who or what comes next. It may be a totally different kind of program. For all I know, it could be two hosts, it could be three hosts, it could be a segmented program, it could be exactly what it is now with a new host. But I am certainly listening to those people who are sitting in for me, and I have my own reactions, which I share with others. But just how much difference I am going to make, or how much power I am going to have in that selection, I think is probably pretty small.

Current: Do you have an early favorite?

Rehm: No, haven’t heard. Any number of people who are out there are going to have a chance to sit in the chair, so I couldn’t possibly have an early favorite.

Current: It was interesting to see in that passage that you wrote, you talk about your gravelly, breaking voice. I would love to talk just very briefly about spasmodic dysphonia; I know that people ask you all the time, “Does it hurt to talk?” and the answer is no. But as someone who, like you, uses his voice for a living, I’m just curious about what it does feel like. What is the physical sensation that prevents you from speaking faster?

Rehm: The condition spasmodic dysphonia begins in the basal ganglia off the brain, which sends incorrect messages to the vocal chords, having them clamp down, for example, at inappropriate times. My voice over the years since 1998, when I was first diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, has slowed considerably. When we aired old programs of mine, I am amazed at how quickly I used to talk. Some people have actually written in and said, “You know, we like it better now,” so you never know. But the point is that I receive Botox injections directly into my vocal cords every four months in order to continue to do my daily broadcast.

Current: What does it feel like? Is it tension that you feel?

Rehm: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, because it’s a struggle to continue to get the words out. I had the injection just a month ago, so right now it feels fairly easy. But as the time goes on and it gets closer and closer to the time when I need an injection, [raspy] I am really pushing through those vocal cords to make the sound come forth.

Current: I have voiced on prior episodes of this show a theory that your audience doesn’t love you in spite of your vocal condition, but actually because of it. It forces you to be more deliberative about what you say and to take a lighter touch. And, in fact, I analyzed one of your “Week in Review” hours and compared it to the same hour on Tom Ashbrook’s show, and by my count, Ashbrook spoke more than 3,000 words over the course of his hour, and you spoke fewer than half as many words, about 1,300.

Is your minimalist approach a product of spasmodic dysphonia, or have you always hosted that way? The oldest show on your website is from 1999; I can’t listen back any further.

Rehm: 1999 would have been after I was diagnosed. I think that you’re absolutely right, that I do tend to speak less now than I did way back then before this problem occurred and before it got worse and worse. I think I do use fewer words. I do try to compress my questions so that they come out more sparsely. I’m not surprised to hear that Tom Ashbrook uses more words; I think he is himself a greater part of the conversation, more a part of the conversation than I am. I like to get my guest to do more of the work than I do.

I think your analysis is really interesting, and people have said to me exactly what you said, that I have drawn so many listeners because my voice is unlike any other on public radio. And therefore it’s become distinctive and the voice that people first tune into out of curiosity — “What is this woman doing on the air?” — to one of finding it somewhat soothing that I speak more slowly and speak more deliberately. And, by the way, I am told that every taxi driver in Washington tunes in because they can learn English from me.

Current: I think some of them stay for [WAMU talk show host] Kojo [Nnamdi], but that makes sense.

Rehm: Oh, they absolutely stay for Kojo because he speaks deliberately, he speaks more slowly, he’s not a rattler. So I think that we’re both fortunate in that way, and Kojo is always so incredibly well-informed. So I think we both serve our purpose.

Current: And I want to make it clear that I am not intending this — at least on my part anyway — as an implicit criticism of Tom Ashbrook, whom I love. And I’m a rattler, too. Do you listen to his show?

Rehm: Yes, I do, occasionally at night because here on WAMU it airs at 9 o’clock in the evening.

Current: You write in the book that you are looking forward to being freed from NPR’s ethical guidelines for journalists. You intend, as you mentioned before, to be this full-throated advocate for right-to-die causes in your husband’s name. I am struck by how matter-of-factly you write in the book about your dust-up with NPR last year.

Rehm: Why shouldn’t I?

Current: I’ll read the bit here. For people’s background who don’t know that at this point you had agreed to speak at fundraising dinners for the organization Compassion & Choices …

Rehm: And I did.

Current: And NPR read about it in the Post, like everyone else did, and then a meeting between you and NPR and WAMU top brass ensued, and you write about that in your book. You write:

“Together, we finally agreed that I would attend the remaining two already fully subscribed dinners, but no more. I told them I was saddened by their belief that I should cut short my active participation in these dinners but would reluctantly accede to their wishes.”

Now, Diane, what I’m left wondering from that, that you don’t address, is, Do you believe that journalists should be free to advocate for causes off the clock, as long as their journalism remains impartial?

Rehm: I do believe in my own case. I’m not generalizing here; I’m talking about myself. I attended these dinners without urging anyone to do anything. I attended those dinners to relate my own experience, and John’s experience, and the extent to which we both believed in the right to die. Had I gone to those dinners and said, “Now here’s what I want you to do: I want you to go to your state legislature and say A, B, C and D…” — I did none of that.

Current: But these are paid dinners; people are paying a lot of money to Compassion & Choices to attend, and you were the draw.

Rehm: Absolutely, I was the draw because my husband had died, because he had desired help in dying, he had not been given it, and I was his widow. Therefore I had the experience of watching someone I loved with my whole heart die before my eyes without being able to help him. And what I believe — and stated that I believed — was that I and he should have the right to choose. But I did not advocate for any organization or call for any action.

Current: So you have no comments about conventional journalism ethics writ large that you would derive from this experience?

Rehm: I have no compunction about what I did because I continued thereafter to have discussions on the air about the right to die, always having all sides represented. And the agreement with NPR was that I would state up front that I felt very strongly, out of my own experience, that he should have had the right to die. But I feel absolutely no compunction whatsoever about having attended those dinners.

Current: How did you feel that your colleagues handled that entire incident, your colleagues at NPR and WAMU? Did you feel that you were treated well?

Rehm: Absolutely. I feel I was treated with courtesy, I felt they heard me out, I felt they understood and sympathized with what I had been through. But they believe — which I happen to disagree with — they believe that, as a journalist speaking on these topics, I should not in any way be involved with any organization that had a very definite opinion on how to move forward.

Current: I am intrigued by the manner in which your stepping away from the show was made public. You didn’t make an announcement, rather it was unnamed sources telling the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi that you were planning to step away, and he ran with the story. And only after he ran with the story did you call him and give him a quote. And only after that did WAMU put out any kind of official statement.

I have tried to envision a scenario in which people at WAMU or NPR would leak that information, rather than simply coordinating a public announcement with you on your own timetable, and the only scenario that I can come up with is that someone wanted to nudge you to accelerate your timetable for announcing your decision. And if that’s true, that disturbs me.

Rehm: We are all of us as journalists somehow, some way involved in conspiracy theories, aren’t we?

Current: [laughs] Yes.

Rehm: I had already written in my book that had I was going to step away from the microphone.

Current: But the book had not been published?

Rehm: The book had not yet been published. There were about five people here at WAMU who knew; there were at least that many at NPR who knew. When you have that number, there are no secrets. So somebody — I know not who — somebody leaked it prior to when WAMU and I were ready to state it. But, you know, it was gonna be out. So it goes.

Current: I would argue all the more reason then to not rely on anonymous sources because it’s going to come out eventually, but c’est la vie

Rehm: One thing I do want to say: You mentioned Paul Farhi. He and I had the most wonderful conversation on that day, and he wrote such a fair and balanced piece. So even though there was that leak from somewhere between here and NPR, Paul Farhi played it fair. He sent me an email saying, “Diane, I have heard this rumor. I’m going to go with this story. It’s going to go up online in half an hour. I’d like to talk to you first, if you will talk with me.” He gave me a number to call, I saw it, I called him, we talked for at least an hour.

Current: Duly noted. No beef between Diane and Paul Farhi.

Rehm: Absolutely not. He played it just right and totally honorably.

Current: We only have a couple of minutes left. I would just like to ask you, how has the job description of “public radio talk show host” changed in your nearly 40 years in the job?

Rehm: I was such a naive individual when I first stepped in front of the microphone. I think that the involvement of talk-show hosts in politics has become so much more pronounced than it was in the days when I first stepped behind the microphone. So many have become huge movers and shakers, or believe they are, and in a sense it’s too bad. Because we have the power of the microphone, and, in that sense, I think we need to be playing it a little more straight.

But politics being what it is, has become what it has in part because of the hostility that’s coming at the public in language, in attitude, in overall presentation from the talk-show hosts. In my view, that’s why NPR is so necessary. NPR reporters are so needed. NPR talk-show hosts are so absolutely essential to keeping our democracy. And, in that sense, I do hope that whoever takes this microphone, or however these two hours go, it will continue in some way to help inform without trying to overshadow and become its own huge public guiding post. I’ve never thought of myself as a guiding post; I’ve thought of myself as someone to put ideas out there for people to consider on their own. That’s the NPR way, and that’s what I’ve tried to do, and I hope that’s how it continues.

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