Washington — At a critical moment in the Reagan administration, the President has altered his handling of the press. Instead of the usual formal half-hour interchange, Mr. Reagan has had a series of suddenly called, less formal conferences, usually briefer and dealing with fewer subjects. The characteristic tone of affability with the press continues. Mr. Reagan has also been experimenting with a weekly, five-minute radio broadcast to the nation. The variation in techniques comes at a time of global and domestic crisis with recession worldwide and America's policies wrapped up in the still undisclosed Reagan budget. Some critics ask if the President is becoming isolated.
Franklin Roosevelt had two press conferences a week in the Oval Office, or 998 in three terms. These were not broadcast. Mr. Reagan has had 14 formally broadcast conferences, usually in the East Room, lasting 30 to 40 minutes, and scheduled with a day's or week's advance notice. Now come the ''miniconferences, '' which by contrast have an impromptu quality, lasting 10 to 15 minutes and meeting anywhere from the Rose Garden to White House press room.
The White House says there have been ''seven press availabilities'' since the system of supplemental informal conferences was started last March. This does not include several lesser Reagan drop-in appearances for announcements at the White House press room.
The question asked here is whether that's enough.
Press conferences are a two-way street. They let the President talk to the public and let the President know from questions asked what's on the public's mind. But Mr. Reagan is holding fewer press conferences than other presidents.
He is at a moment of decision. There is 10.8 percent unemployment, an unprecedented deficit, differences with Congress on armaments, and a world peace movement threatening plans to plant intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe next year.
Most parliamentary nations have a ''questions period'' where issues are publicly threshed out. In America, press conferences partially fill this role. There has been some recent dissatisfaction over the device. In a generally friendly analysis (Dec. 13) in Time magazine, ''How Reagan Decides,'' it is asserted that in some instances, ''Reagan can be persuaded to change his mind on major issues only if advisers convince him that he really is not doing so.'' It adds that ''the deepest worry in all this for the American public is that the Reagan administration is losing touch with reality.''
With questions like this the pressure is growing in Washington for more presidential press conferences.
The President will give a live radio interview to reporters from six broadcast organizations Saturday, the White House announced. The 12:15 p.m. EST interview will come immediately after Mr. Reagan's weekly five-minute radio broadcast.