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Next Step : Radio Free Listeners Send Loud, Clear Signal to Budget Cutters : Cold-War era stations are saved by fervent letters of support from audience. But the future remains fuzzy.


MUNICH — For some, it's all little more than a show of bureaucratic inertia.

After all, why should President Clinton want to preserve two government-funded radio stations, created at the height of the Cold War to challenge the Communist media monopoly behind the Iron Curtain, when the Cold War is over and the curtain, the monopoly and Communist dictatorships have all disappeared?

Certainly that was the new President's view when Administration budget cutters last February decided to wind up the two Munich-based stations--Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty--by October, 1995.

To them, it seemed only logical: A few handshakes, a pat on the back for a "mission accomplished" and an annual budget savings of over $200 million.

Then came the avalanche.

Letters of protest poured into the White House and the Congress, not from disgruntled staffers at the two radio stations, but from every conceivable corner of the former Soviet Empire and beyond.

Appeals came from the presidents of Tatarstan and the Czech Republic, the deputy speaker of the Romanian Parliament, the Latvian foreign minister, the chairman of Poland's Solidarity Trade Union and others. Lots of others.

They all carried a common message: Keep the stations going.

"I appeal to you to reconsider . . . " wrote Estonia's President Lennart Merl in a personal letter to Clinton last March.

Much of Western media comment took a similar tack.

"The President should think again," huffed the Times of London in an editorial.

That is exactly what Clinton did.

Declaring that "Freedom's work is not completed," the President last June bowed to the pressure and said he wanted to bring Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty under a common umbrella with the Voice of America in a plan that would save $240 million over the next four years.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week approved the idea, contained in a bill that would place the two radio stations in a separate division of a newly created U.S. Broadcasting Board, an entity that would supervise all government foreign broadcasting services.

The bill is expected to be debated in the Senate before the August recess and could be law by the fall.

While the new law will likely mean cuts in both radio stations, RFE/RL President Gene Pell declined to discuss where they might come, saying that the Broadcasting Board would make those decisions once it was constituted. However, Pell implied there would be substantial staff reductions.

"There is going to be real pain," he said.

The fact the two stations have survived at all has surprised many and clearly irked some.

"It's duplicative," said Tom C. Korologos, chairman of the U.S. Advisory commission on Public Diplomacy, which earlier this year called for a phaseout of both stations. "We don't need to send a free press from Munich to Budapest any more than the Canadians need to broadcast from Ottawa to Salt Lake City."

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold has complained that preserving what he calls a Cold War relic whose senior executives earn six-figure incomes is no way to save taxpayers' money.

Radio Free Europe was established in 1949 to broadcast to the Communist-ruled nations of Eastern Europe, and Radio Liberty not long afterward, beaming programs into the Soviet Union.

Although ostensibly financed by voluntary contributions, both were secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. When the CIA link became known in 1971, the two stations were taken over by the Board for International Broadcasting.

While retaining independent corporate status, both were openly financed by U.S. government money.

Unlike most other international broadcasters such as the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corp., or Germany's Deutsche Welle, the Munich-based radio stations served as ersatz national services, historically concentrating on news in the target countries that local governments tried to suppress.

As key players at the front of the Cold War, the stations were the epitome of evil to the Communist regimes.

Today, the two stations churn out 122 hours of programming daily.

At least in part, the extraordinary support they enjoy stems from the fact that leaders like Poland's Lech Walesa, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel and Russia's Boris N. Yeltsin were once outcasts in their own countries, and personally experienced the value of news from the two Munich-based radio stations that countered official propaganda.

The collapse of communism also left the two stations extremely well-connected.

For example, Toomas Ilves, former director of Radio Free Europe's Estonian Service, is now Estonia's ambassador to the United States. Karel Kuehnl, an editor in the Czechoslovak Service, now serves as Czech ambassador in London, while Riina Kionka, who worked as a research analyst at the RFE/RL Research Institute, heads the policy-planning unit in the Estonian Foreign Ministry.

But it is unlikely any amount of political pull would have worked without the occurrence of two pivotal events:

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