Too Much of the Goodness Thing

Earlier this month, National Public Radio (NPR) proudly debuted the latest addition to its burgeoning talk show lineup—The Diane Rehm Show, which originates from American University’s WAMU (88.5 FM).

Great—one more reason for Americans to hate Washington. Nothing like a little broadcast Beltway convention to further cement the masses’ antipathy for all things emanating from this city.

But you can bet Rehm’s gaggle of fans in the major media are hugging themselves over her growing franchise. In their dew-eyed view, Rehm plays Luke Skywalker to Rush Limbaugh’s Darth Vader: She is the last great hope in a necessary war against talk radio’s forces of darkness.

In the words of the National Journal: “Where other hosts bait their callers and inflame their audiences in the name of higher ratings, Rehm looks intently into her guests’ eyes and speaks slowly and deliberately, and listens intently.”

The Washington Post praises her “civility” and quotes Hillary Clinton asserting that Rehm’s “manner of dealing with issues and treating people from all different points of view with respect is exactly what we need to have.”

Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer added these climactic strokes: “Diane Rehm is what the good Lord had in mind when he invented talk radio.”

Please.

Yes, The Diane Rehm Show is a fine little show. Good stuff. Very informative...all within the narrow ideological, intellectual, and cultural parameters established by Rehm during her 16 years behind WAMU’s midmorning microphone. If traditional talk radio—from Limbaugh to small-town ranters—is the voice of common dissent and anger, The Diane Rehm Show is state radio, an emotionless purveyor of information and education delivered from Officially Sanctioned Sources. It’s an insidery, elitist, stuffy, publicly funded outlet for establishment views and conventional wisdom—the worst of official Washington wafting across the ether. Rehm, of course, doesn’t see it that way.

“At the end of the day,” Rehm explains in a WAMU brochure, “the best I can hope for is that our brand of talk radio will encourage listeners to become more thoughtful citizens.”

A noble objective for a radio talk show, but one poorly served by Rehm’s daily two-hour dronefest. Rehm sees herself as the favorite professor, the one who broadens her students’ intellectual horizons and teaches them to think. But if you listen closely, you will hear the sounds of fingernails on the chalkboard. In reality, Rehm is more of a preachy 19th-century schoolmarm, offering up an establishment catechism on Issues People Should Care About—whether they like it or not.

In Mizz Rehm’s one-studio schoolhouse, vitae-sniffing rules. If you’ve got a Ph.D. and can couch middlebrow ideas in highbrow inflections, step up to the mike. Rehm’s bias toward the academic over the experiential betrays public radio’s perceived mission to provide listeners with worthwhile alternatives to what’s available in the dreaded commercial media. The topics, guests, and views featured on the show are as conventional as they come, torn straight from page A-21 of the Post, the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal, and Nightline. Rehm’s program isn’t just inside-the-box; it’s sealed in there with packing tape, covered in bubble wrap, and surrounded by styrofoam peanuts. And the net result of her work is not more thoughtfulness but a reinforcement of the perceived boundaries of public discussion.

Rehm bolsters those limits by building her show around radio’s version of talking heads—mainstream “experts” on timely issues and perennial topics. Perhaps because she never attended college, Rehm is obsessed and impressed with credentials. She’s particularly hot for authors, Big Media reporters, policy makers, and academics. And thanks to the education and affluence of her audience and her well-known kid-gloves interviewing style, Rehm gets all the stars—at least those with something to peddle, such as a book, or a policy angle, or best of all, a book with a policy angle. She’s become an important cog in Washington’s validation machinery: You do CNN’s Larry King Live on Wednesday night, chat with Diane on Thursday morning, and then sit for one of those Style section “His eyes dance with excitement as the lunchtime conversation turns to welfare reform” profiles. Her corner on convention applies a patina of highbrow sensibility and academic sheen to whatever’s being sold.

In recent months Rehm has hosted the likes of Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Dan Rather, William Kristol, Robert McNamara, Maya Angelou, and Charlton Heston. Radio programming courtesy of Publisher’s Weekly. Of course, not every show features marquees peddling message. Most days are devoted to more mundane, even arcane, topics. Some of these tickle Diane’s fancy; others are just brussels sprouts she thinks people need to eat. A recent example: “The North Korean famine and how it’s affecting that country’s regime.” Yeow. Diane attacks all these topics in the exact same way: with a phalanx of self-involved experts. In her view, the key to most every issue lies with a federal official and a brace of think-tankers. Her intellectual tea party is full of segues like: “Professor, do you agree with the ambassador’s statement?”

The lack of inspiration or innovation is particularly unforgivable given the resources at Rehm’s disposal. Unlike most talk hosts, whose shows are largely driven by the day’s headlines, Rehm has the luxury of plotting out her topics and guests days in advance, and she’s got four producers to help her plan and prep for her show. Surely such a brain trust could reach beyond the usual suspects—if Rehm really wanted to. But Rehm is so oblivious to her show’s insiderism that she can’t even understand questions about it. “I think to call us state radio misses the point,” she says. “It doesn’t take into account the full range of voices we’ve had on.” Such a range. From Republican to Democrat, from Heritage to Brookings, from Capitol Hill to Manhattan.

Rehm’s credentials-kowtowing hits a weekly low with Friday morning’s news roundtable, which regularly features the likes of McLaughlin groupee Eleanor Randolph, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, or U.S. News & World Report’s Steve Roberts—all of whom are card-carrying members of the media elite’s politburo. So much for listener enlightenment. Instead of providing a stimulating, informed, alternative view of world events, Rehm offers up a panel of cocktail correspondents all spoon-fed by the same knot of insider sources.

Rehm blithely dismisses the notion that such media inbreeding shortchanges her audience. “I’m not concerned about ‘You have to have a broader scope,’” she says. “My obligation is to bring the most informed people to the microphone. I want people who will always come through in terms of studying the topics [to be discussed on her show]. They have to be reliable, knowledgeable, and interesting.”

Besides, she adds, the roundtable participation pool has grown by “10 or 12 people” in the past decade. Gee, not bad, considering there are over 5,000 journalists working in D.C., many of whom are rumored to be reliable, knowledgeable, and interesting. But then maybe deep down Rehm doesn’t really care that her listeners crave other voices. Unlike most talk hosts, Rehm doesn’t worship Joe Six-Pack. In fact, she doesn’t seem to hold the public, or its tastes, in very high regard. During one recent show, for example, she expressed utter mortification at the great unwashed’s embrace of Independence Day and other special effects–driven blockbuster films. Americans, she seems to think, are children—good-hearted underachievers in need of protection and instruction.

Rehm’s feelings about the hoi polloi are writ large every day in her dealings with callers. She frequently hogs interview time with her own questions and routinely dismisses callers whose questioning of a guest she deems inappropriate or overly aggressive. In a Feb. 18 Post Outlook piece, Rehm shared this take on callers: “During the 16 years I have been on radio in the nation’s capital, listeners to talk radio have become more sophisticated, more prepared to use the medium for their own purposes. Instead of asking questions, many callers make statements. Rather than seek information, they challenge experts.”

That’s Rehm in full schoolmarm voice: The studio is a classroom where we come to learn from Great Men. We may seek their wisdom, but it is not our place to question that which they offer to our humble selves. She lives by that code as well, generally refusing to call bullshit on her guests. By her own description, she’s a Larry King who read the book. “As a host, I try to validate my guests’ viewpoints by carefully restating them so listeners and other guests can focus on them,” says Rehm. “And I’m careful not to appear to support one side or the other.”

Confronted with the King analogy, Rehm lets loose her best exasperated-mother sigh, screws up that strangled whisper voice, and says, “What’s wrong with Larry King?” Well, nothing. You get the hot guests, make the good money, become a national celebrity—all because you’re willing to throw softballs to those who appear on your show. OK, maybe that’s not altogether fair to Rehm. Think of her questions as fat, hanging curves. Every weekday morning at 10:06, Rehm’s tinkling trumpet-and-piano theme song summons her class to order. After a perfunctory greeting, Rehm reads an opening statement introducing that hour’s topic and guest. It sounds more like the opening of a congressional hearing than the start of a radio program. But at least congressional hearings hold the potential of fireworks.

Not so the Rehm show, with its accommodating host. After tossing 20 or 30 minutes of batting practice to the guest, Rehm opens the floor to caller questions. It all ends very nicely at the bottom or top of the hour with Rehm thanking her guests for honoring her with their appearance. Rehm sometimes tips her emotional hand at this point, her opinion of the guest revealed by the tone of her parting words, which can range from a curt thank-you to a gushy hope-you’ll-join-us-again. After Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Brown dared to assail the Food and Drug Administration, Rehm’s irritation came through loud and clear when she acknowledged his farewell thank-you with a perfunctory “Uh-huh.”

While Rehm’s boosters often portray this daily drill as a fresh approach to on-air chat, her show is actually a throwback to talk radio circa 1979. The program hasn’t changed much in 10 or 15 years, but then, why innovate when no one is pushing from behind? Her program has consistently outdrawn the less-than-impressive competition on local commercial talk stations WMAL (630 AM) and WWRC (980 AM). In the Arbitron ratings report covering the first two months of 1996, Rehm captured a respectable 4.4 share of listeners age 25-54 during the first hour of her show. WMAL’s since-departed Bob Levey, whose radio show was as uninspired as his Post column, managed just a 1.3 share of that lucrative audience. Whatever hapless WWRC was airing in that slot pulled an embarrassing .9 share. Of course, there are limits to Rehm’s appeal. WJFK (106.7 FM) talker Howard Stern pummeled Rehm in the winter ratings battle, landing a 7.7 share of the 25-54 crowd. WJFK’s G. Gordon Liddy, whose first hour overlaps Diane’s second, scored a 5.4 share to her 4.2.

On the strength of Rehm’s success in Washington—not to mention the gooey press she generates—some 45 noncommercial stations in markets from Phoenix to Macomb, Ill., have added Rehm to their lineup in the past year. NPR expects to add several affiliates in the coming months. That growth has not gone unnoticed by commercial talk programmers, who see it as a harbinger of more competition from public talk stations.

Mere mention of her name among commercial programmers prompts reactions ranging from eye-rolling to head-shaking to muttering. Which is understandable, given Rehm’s relentless bashing of their stations. Indeed, when it comes to the topic of talk radio, Rehm makes an exception to her professed devotion to the even hand and the open mind. She hates the Limbaughs and Liddys of the world with a passion—and she’s gonna bring ’em down. Why? Because she worries that the public—empty vessels that they are—can’t separate the informational wheat from the political chaff.

“An increasing number of people are getting their news from these talk shows,” she says. “I think that’s a pretty frightening development when you consider the political agenda of some of these hosts.”

Rehm also frets that talk radio will damage the national psyche. “I don’t think it’s good for a society to have nothing but negatives about society come out day after day. I think G. Gordon Liddy appeals to the discontent among us,” she says.

In her Feb. 18 Outlook piece, Rehm lectured that talk hosts have a “special responsibility: to stimulate a balanced discussion of substantive issues” and beseeched her readers to “speak out more forcefully against the ‘hot mouths’ of talk radio,” who should be replaced with “fair and factual presentations of the complex issues inherent in any democracy.”

For those who missed that lesson, Rehm promises to go over the material again. And again. “I’m going to do my best to try to bring the public’s attention to the fact that people need to listen very closely to what these hosts are saying and doing,” she says. “It’s a matter of importance that listeners know when a host is using the show for their own political or financial agenda.” We’re beginning to see what she means. CP

SIDEBAR:

While she likes to paint herself as the antithesis of Rush Limbaugh, Diane Rehm has more in common with talk radio’s Big Man than she might want to admit. Among the curious similarities:

Conservative family roots. Diane’s Arab immigrant family sought to limit her education and worldliness as she was growing up in D.C. Limbaugh’s clan of Midwestern Republicans made him debate national policy at the dinner table.

No sheepskin. Rehm never attended college; Limbaugh dropped out after one semester.

Multiple marriages. Rehm walked out on her first husband because she felt he was “smothering” her growth. She later married a hotshot State Department lawyer. Limbaugh is currently on marriage No. 3.

Large features. Limbaugh is noted for his girth, Rehm for the size of her hair, which requires her to wear an earpiece instead of standard studio headphones.

Big dough. Limbaugh brags about being a “rich Republican.” Rehm is married to a rich lawyer.

Fawning fans. Limbaugh’s fanatical listeners, the “Dittoheads,” introduce their calls with “Mega-dittos, Rush!” Rehm’s hardcores say, “Hi, Diane, I love the show!” Rehm once got a call from a post-adolescent who told the host he wished she was his mom. Over to you, Rush.

—R.B.

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