In age of hate radio, a talk-show host who tries to inform

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Diane Rehm is what the good Lord had in mind when he invented talk radio: What she thinks has never mattered.

She has opened her microphones to a range of voices that includes Ross Perot and Maya Angelou, Twyla Tharp and Desmond Tutu. And her respectful silences create a vacuum for what does matter in talk radio: the thoughts and opinions of her guests and her listeners.

"I have some views that happen to be different from the majority of talk-show hosts out there," says Rehm, host of "The Diane Rehm Show" on WAMU (88.5 FM) in Washington. This is the same tone she uses daily from 10 a.m. to noon: articulate restraint.

"I want to add to the national dialogue rather than convince you I am right."

For 15 years, she has been the private stock of Baltimore-Washington listeners. Her choice of guests -- equally a function of book tours and her own eclecticism -- has amused, provoked, saddened and enlightened under Rehm's careful preparation and deft questions.

Now, she moves beyond the Washington Beltway to the rest of the country. It is telling that she had to gather the donations herself to pay for satellite time, but "The Diane Rehm Show" is now available free to public radio stations nationwide.

As of May 1, she is heard in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Memphis and on two stations in Oregon. The perfect antidote to the venom-speak of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and their acolytes. You will never hear Rehm repeat the recipe for a homemade bomb, but you will hear what Julia Child fixes herself for dinner.

"I am not in talk radio as an advocate for any single point of view, political, economic or otherwise," says Rehm. "I have never seen myself in that role. I am a facilitator. I am there to help people think about the issues and come to the hard conclusions."

Rehm's entrance into the national discussion comes just as it reaches its most strident level. Shocked, grieving, hurt and angry, President Clinton and plenty of others have sought to blame virulent talk-show hosts for creating the atmosphere that made the bombing in Oklahoma City possible.

"We as Americans have gone through a certain fragmentation," says Rehm. "And it is in part brought about by an appeal to ideology instead of an appeal to reason."

This anger and frustration has been in the air so long it is stale. Like the mothers of toddlers, we are so tired of the whining, we are nearly deaf to it. This new spin, that bombings and the murder of innocent civilians is the next step in political discussion and that blame can be placed with the speakers, is insane. But it has awakened us all to just how high we have pitched our voices.

"The whole range of discourse has become increasingly harsh," says Rehm. "Oklahoma makes us all reflect how we as individuals may be contributing to that rhetoric.

"You can say that the voices in the public realm have just gotten increasingly strident, but this is not just about the voices on radio or on Capitol Hill. I'm talking about the way individuals talk to each other, what happens in the family, in the grocery store, between father and son, between mother and daughter.

"We need to tone it down."

As a public-radio program, "The Diane Rehm Show" trades in information, a currency different from the ratings and ad sales of commercial radio, where the bombast and bile of Limbaugh and Liddy have made the cash registers ring.

Traditional public-radio listeners are high on the learning curve, media junkies, people who like to talk issues. That's a profile of a Washington listener, but Rehm is counting on the fact that the rest of the country will enjoy eavesdropping on her conversations with Lauren Bacall or Robert McNamara.

"Lani Guinier was on the show right after her nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights failed," says Rehm. "The callers were saying the same thing: 'Gosh, you sound a lot more reasonable than I thought you were.'

"Rush and Gordon characterize what people like Lani Guinier are saying instead of giving people access to them."

But there is another exchange of information on "The Diane Rehm Show" that will benefit from its national distribution.

"People in Washington need to hear what people in Memphis, Oregon and California have to say.

?3 "Who knows how it might affect their thinking?"

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