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Word War Broadcast Over Voice of America

January 04, 1987|John Spicer Nichols | John Spicer Nichols of Pennsylvania State University is the co-author of "Clandestine Radio Broadcasting" (Praeger).

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — An increase in international static may have begun early in the Reagan presidency when the director of the U.S. Information Agency, Charles Z. Wick, went to the White House pitching for more funds to combat U.S. adversaries around the world. Wick proposed, among other things, a massive expansion of U.S. radio broadcasting to fight a "war of ideas."

President Reagan already knew his way around the air; he had effectively used radio since taking his first job as an announcer in the 1930s. Reagan was reportedly delighted with the proposal, claiming, "this could be the greatest weapon of all."

In the intervening years, Wick presided over a mammoth peacetime expansion of the U.S. international broadcasting arsenal. Since 1980, the USIA budget has grown faster on a percentage basis than the defense budget.

The primary targets of the U.S. propaganda offensive are the Soviet Union and its Cuban allies. Reagan's broadcast to the Soviet Union on New Year's Day--unreciprocated by Mikhail S. Gorbachev--was only the most recent example of this U.S. "war of words."

The Soviet Union and Cuba, however are now poised for a counterattack. Their apparent strategy is to exploit a double standard in U.S. broadcasting policy: While the United States claims the right to broadcast to the Soviet Union and Cuba, it is unable or unwilling to grant equal access to U.S. airwaves.

Last summer, Cuban and U.S. negotiators met in Mexico to discuss resurrecting an important immigration agreement that Fidel Castro suspended in retaliation for the 1985 start-up of Radio Marti, a USIA station directed at Cuba. Cuban negotiators agreed to drop their opposition to Radio Marti and resume talks on immigration and other bilateral issues if Cuba were allowed to broadcast back at the United States.

In principle, the proposal was perfectly reasonable. If the U.S. government can broadcast to the Cuban people, the Cuban government should be able to address the American people.

In reality, however, a Cuban station comparable to Radio Marti would be an engineering, legal and political nightmare for the Reagan Administration. The standard AM band in the United States is full. Any attempt to clear even one AM channel for Cuban use would: seriously disrupt the U.S. broadcasting system, surely be challenged in the courts by broadcasters forced off the air and clearly be extremely unpopular with Reagan's most important political constituencies. Recognizing that they could not grant the Cubans a broadcasting quid pro quo, U.S. negotiators backed out of the talks.

At the Iceland summit in October, General Secretary Gorbachev used the same strategy to unsettle Reagan on international broadcasting. When the President complained about the Soviets jamming Voice of America, the USIA service beamed at the Soviet Union, Gorbachev reportedly answered: "We shall stop jamming the Voice of America and you shall give us the opportunity on your territory or somewhere nearby of setting up radio broadcasts to the United States."

Although not specifically mentioned by Gorbachev or the U.S. press, the nearby country is Cuba. Before Radio Marti began broadcasting from Florida, Cuba erected two 500 kilowatt radio transmitters, 10 times more powerful than any U.S. commercial station. These monster transmitters could be heard in Alaska and would cause serious interference to U.S. broadcasting if used at full power. Cuba hinted that they would indeed be used to retaliate for Radio Marti; but with the exception of a brief test in December, the transmitters have been silent.

During congressional debate over the creation of Radio Marti, State Department officials told nervous commercial broadcasters that the U.S. government would consider Cuban retaliation on the airwaves to be a "hostile act"; America could "surgically remove" or otherwise neutralize disruptive Cuban transmitters. Suppose, however, the Cuban transmitters were operated by and for the Soviet Union in much the same way the United States sends messages from third-party nations, such as Germany and Israel. Would the United States be as eager to attack or jam?

Seeking an alternative for the Soviet proposal, Wick reportedly has asked U.S. commercial broadcasters to devote some time to broadcasting Radio Moscow in this country. While a few U.S. broadcasters might offer token amounts of time as a public service, they are unlikely to devote large chunks of limited broadcast time for Soviet propaganda rather than regular profit-making programming. Certainly they won't donate enough time to match existing VOA broadcasts to the Soviet Union.

The laws of physics dictate that neighboring countries--even unfriendly ones--must reach accommodation on use of the airwaves. Two equidistant radio transmitters broadcasting on the same frequency with equal power will drown each other out. If a station such as Radio Marti broadcasts without mutual coordination, the receiving country will be tempted to respond in kind; then the airwaves quickly become an inaudible jumble caused by competing signals. This is broadcasting's version of mutual assured destruction.

Having failed to negotiate access to U.S. airwaves, Cuba and the Soviet Union could decide to turn on the monster transmitters. The result would be the loudest confrontation of the Cold War.

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