Voice of America, 'starved for funds,' seeks bigger budget

The Voice of America (VOA) is proposing a 30 percent increase in its budget for next year, according to the government radio service's new director.

The director, John Hughes, says that the boost in funding was required to help overcome years of neglect during which the VOA had been ''starved for funds.'' He outlined his views July 13 in a breakfast meeting with reporters.

The proposed increase would not be adequate, however, to cope with some of the radio service's longer-range problems - old transmitting equipment which can only be replaced at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, for example. As Hughes describes it, the increase in funding would be more in the nature of a ''quick fix'' designed to cope with a number of immediate problems facing the VOA.

The increase would go, among other things, to the rental of transmitters on a temporary basis, to the modernization of studios now using antiquated equipment, to travel expenses for staff members, and to additional correspondents for the service.

If the White House decides to push the funding proposal, it must still face a battle, at the very moment when many programs are being cut, within the US Congress. But the Reagan administration came to office determined to increase the role of broadcasting as an instrument of American foreign policy, and to use the Voice of America, in particular, as a front-line weapon in the war of ideas with the Soviet Union.

Hughes seems confident that the VOA proposal for the increase - which would come to $35 million - will get a favorable hearing both in the White House and the Congress. He notes that President Reagan, who was a sports broadcaster early in his career, has a keen interest in communications in general and the VOA in particular. He describes Charles Z. Wick, the director of the International Communications Agency (ICA), of which the VOA is a part, as ''a mover and shaker who likes to get things done.''

But Hughes says that at this point the VOA does not have ''sufficient transmitter power to reach all the people we want to reach.'' The radio service now speaks to the world in 41 languages through 950 hours of programming each week. Its highest priority targets have been Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But the VOA director says that the Soviet Union is currently spending an estimated $100 million a year on the electronic jamming of Western broadcasts to the East - a sum nearly equal to the VOA's entire $109 million annual budget.

Using an example of past neglect affecting the American radio service, Hughes says that because of a lack of funds, some VOA staff members are helping to prepare programs for countries they have never visited. Some of the service's radio equipment was so old that it dated from the 1940s, he adds. He points to three mobile vans being used by the VOA in Munich for transmissions to Eastern Europe which had been used by the German army during World War II.

Hughes, a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, dismisses allegations that the Reagan administration is trying to turn the VOA into a blunt propaganda instrument. He says that ICA director Wick has given him a free hand in the running of the VOA.

But Hughes also says he feels that the articulation of government policy, which is required by the VOA charter, ought to be strengthened and that this would be done through daily, two-minute editorials which were labeled as such. The editorials will be kept clearly separate from regular news items.

Hughes further says that the administration is trying to introduce more ideological and geographical diversity into the VOA's presentation of the US to the rest of the world.

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