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Media : Listening to the World Change on Shortwave : The radio remains one of the globe's leading sources of information. But democratization is forcing broadcasters to re-examine their role .

September 25, 1990|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Last New Year's Eve, Voice of America researcher Kim Andrew Elliott decided to reflect on the year of momentous change by listening to broadcasts from around the world over shortwave radio.

Elliott heard many signs of the new order--from anti-Soviet protests by Radio Vilnius in Lithuania to promises by the suddenly pro- perestroika announcers on Radio Moscow that if the Soviet government were to crack down again, "we would not throw our personal integrity to the wind" by reverting to the hard-line past.

But perhaps most dramatic were the emotional messages on the English-language service of Radio Bucharest in Romania, which until the week before had been the propaganda service of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

"From free Bucharest--from free Romania," said the voices--in some cases the very same ones that had droned with Ceausescu's own rhetoric the week before.

Forgive us, they said--forgive us our lies. Before last week, "we were not allowed to transmit . . . the voice of the real Romania, the Romania we all cherished in our hearts and souls."

Although virtually unknown to most Americans, crackly old shortwave radio remains a primary medium for news and information for much of the world. The British Broadcasting Corp. conservatively estimates that 125 million people around the globe listen to its World Service at least once a week.

Yet in the last two years, the global system of international radio broadcasting--which developed fully during the Cold War largely as a government propaganda medium--has been thrust into turmoil by the move toward democratization.

"The question is, do you switch off your transmitters or do you redefine your role?" said Lawrence Magne, editor-in-chief of Passport to World Band Radio, a guide to international shortwave.

The answer, it seems, is both.

Some of these services--including America's Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty--are fighting for their very survival. Two weeks ago, East Germany's Radio Berlin International lost its bid to consolidate with West Germany's Deutsche Welle radio service--partly because of fears that its staff was ideologically too unreliable. The East German service is expected simply to vanish from the air in October.

Radio Moscow, once dedicated to proselytizing for the cause of world revolution, is trying to make the difficult shift to delivering news and entertainment--and is even exploring the possibility of selling commercial time to American corporations.

And, in the face of tighter budgets worldwide, almost every international radio service is scrutinizing its operations, cutting back on foreign-language services that have small audiences or a diminishing need. Many are taking transmitters once aimed East and West and turning them toward the Middle East.

The pressure is even affecting the BBC, considered the most listened-to and the most objective of the services. "The Beeb," as it is known colloquially, recently announced that it was closing its Japanese and Malay services, cutting an hour and 45 minutes from its nearly 786 hours of broadcasting each week.

"Both sides, East and West, have to come down from the mountain top," said Jonathan Marks, producer of a weekly news magazine on the Dutch Radio Netherlands about international media. "Rather than shouting at each other through a megaphone and saying, 'If I don't like what the other guy says, I will jam the hell out of it,' they are now increasingly being forced to survive on the quality of their programming."

The U.S. government has three basic broadcast services: Radio Free Europe functions as a surrogate to what were formerly the tightly controlled media of the countries of Eastern Europe, broadcasting in their native languages to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union.

Radio Liberty performs the same surrogate function for the rest of the Soviet Union, broadcasting in Russian and 13 other major languages spoken in the country's constituent republics.

The Voice of America broadcasts the view from the United States, including news about America, editorials promoting U.S. policy and explanations of how America sees the world.

All three efforts were rooted in the Cold War. Indeed, until the mid-1970s, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe were operated by the CIA. The Voice of America is run by the U.S. Information Agency, which also runs the Fulbright scholarship exchange programs and other cultural services.

The debate over whether, and in what form, they should continue began in earnest last May, when an obscure panel that reviews the work of the USIA--called the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy--argued in its annual report that the government should begin planning to phase out Radio Free Europe.

Within hours, as commission Chairman Edwin Feulner put it later, "All hell came toppling down on top of us."

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