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NPR legend shares insights with Scripps College students

Oct. 6, 2006
By Erin Roberts

More than 100 Scripps College of Communication students had the chance to interact with the academic year's first Kennedy Lecturer, Diane Rehm, in a more intimate setting Thursday during a question-and-answer session prior to the National Public Radio host's evening lecture.

Photos by Michael KleinfeldRehm, who began her radio career as a volunteer at WAMU in Washington, D.C. in 1973 at age 37, is best known for hosting "The Diane Rehm Show," which garners an estimated 1.65 million listeners each week and has been on the airwaves for 27 years. She has also written two books, one of which  --  "Finding My Voice"  --  details her struggle with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes strained and difficult speech. The NPR legend was diagnosed with the ailment in 1998.

Communication students from the college's four Residential Learning Community sections and those who earned renewable scholarships from the university met with Rehm. 

A role model

"Diane is a great person for our students to meet because she is an accomplished speaker who had had to confront challenges to get where she is," said Associate Professor Scott Titsworth, who directs COMS 103, one of the core courses for Residential Learning Community students. "All of us, students, faculty and citizens, have something to learn from her story."

For first-year journalism student Emily Mullin, Diane Rehm is proof that the Latrobe, Pa.-native can succeed as a journalist. Mullin also suffers from spasmodic dysphonia and first heard of Rehm upon her own diagnosis in 2004.

"When I was diagnosed, my doctors asked what I wanted to do in life," Mullin recalled. "After hearing I was interested in journalism, they recommended Diane Rehm's book to me. I stumbled upon news of her visit on the Ohio University Web site last summer and was just so excited to see she was coming to campus."

Before taking questions Thursday afternoon, Rehm spoke candidly of her experience with the disorder and the treatments that have helped her to control it. "Every four months, I receive injections of Botox® to my vocal cords, which paralyzes the cords so they are then open," she said. "I feel very fortunate I was finally able to get a diagnosis and a solution, as it were."

Mullin found relief in the very same treatments after a year of voice therapy didn't seem to help. Though she didn't speak during the afternoon session, Mullin had plans to meet privately with Rehm to discuss their common affliction.

"I plan to ask her how she dealt with spasmodic dysphonia -- not on a personal level, but in relationship to her career," she said.

Opening the phone lines

After addressing her illness and its implications, Rehm said she was honored to be invited to Ohio University for the Kennedy Lecture, but instead hoped to open a dialogue with her audience. Much to her pleasure, students responded enthusiastically to her announcement that the "phone lines" were open. Questions ranged from how she prepares for the show, what guests she remembers most fondly and what she believes the future holds for public radio.

Rehm listed Bill Clinton, Julie Andrews and Fred Rogers among her favorite guests. "I adored him," Rehm said of Rogers, who starred in the PBS show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" from 1967 to 2001. "I thought he was brilliant in his presentation, in his approach, in his ability to teach youngsters without seeming like he was teaching."

Rehm, who spent 14 years at home full-time raising her children and watching Mister Rogers on television, recalled interviewing Rogers just three months before his death from stomach cancer in February 2003. 

Rehm also cited her live interview with President Clinton in the Oval Office as a memorable experience. "After waiting with my engineers for three hours, we were taken into the Oval Office and told we had three minutes to set up. ... I was enthralled," she said of the moment the President burst through the doors. "It was a thrilling hour for me, just thrilling."

The role of radio

Rehm believes public radio will become more dependent on individuals and corporations for support in the future due to less government funding.

Calling radio the "more connected media," Rehm recalled the important effect it had on her life as a young child. "I grew up on radio, listening to soap operas, dramatizations and news programs. I believe that radio connects to the mind. There is nothing to impede the mind when you listen to the radio. It is simply sound, it is simply ideas."

Several of the students in attendance were there on behalf of their parents as well. First-year journalism student and Louisville, Ky.-native Kate Williamson remembers listening to Diane Rehm with her mother, who she says would explain to her as a child who Rehm's guests were and their significance. 

"When I told my mom I had the opportunity to not only listen to Diane's lecture, but also have a Q-and-A session with her, she was incredibly jealous," Williamson reported. "To have such an influential female journalist at my fingertips is just amazing!"

Photos by Michael KleinfeldAfter talking about the excitement she feels when interviewing national icons, Rehm fielded a question from a student asking if she realized that she, too, might be considered an icon. "It hasn't happened," Rehm answered, saying she grew up as a first-generation Arab woman who didn't attend college and never expected to sit where she sits today. "The notion of my being an icon has not crossed my mind. Thank you, though, for even suggesting that."

Rehm's appearance on campus marked the first major event of the Year of the Woman at Ohio University, which will recognize the achievements of women with special programs and events. The culminating event will happen in January, when the university's new women's center opens as part of the new Baker University Center.

Message of perseverance

Rehm's overall message to students was one of perseverance and hard work. "Whatever you believe in is definitely possible if you are willing to work toward it," she said, encouraging students to put in time as volunteers to learn the ropes. "I will go home tomorrow with the memory of being here with you students, knowing you will all do great things."

For more information on Diane Rehm or to listen to one of her broadcasts, please visit the WAMU Web site at www.wamu.org/programs/dr/.

Erin Roberts is the external relations coordinator for the Scripps College of Communication.


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Published: Oct 6, 2006 3:52:25 PM
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