For millions of Americans, ''All Things Considered'' and ''Morning Edition'' are not only informative radio news programs but indispensable guides to what is happening in the world at large. Taken together, they underscore the commitment to excellence that has marked so much of National Public Radio's broadcasting. The issue now to be resolved by all Americans who believe that radio should be more than just a medium for entertainment is how to ensure that the federally funded network not only survives its financial difficulties, but is able to maintain the integrity and quality of its programming.
Late last week the network and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting reached agreement on a CPB loan of up to $8.5 million to help pay off NPR's $9.1 million deficit. Such an agreement buys time for NPR, which provides programs for 281 noncommercial radio stations. But it still represents only the first step in what will have to be a series of belt-tightening efforts taken by network officials. It also brings the issue of publicly financed radio back to where it properly belongs - the network's listeners.
Who listens to public radio? By some estimates, up to 10 million persons a month. But there are perhaps as many as 5 million to 8 million people who listen on a regular basis. It seems only fitting that they should want to help NPR out of its current financial woes.
National Public Radio will be conducting a fund-raising campaign the first three days of this week, August 1-3. The tax-deductible listener contributions, mailed to local NPR stations, will first be used to pay off each station's voluntary donation to NPR. The network's local stations have agreed to give $1.6 million of their own funds to NPR. Any listener contributions over and above the amount of the local-station contribution will be split on a 50-50 basis between the station and the network.
Such private donations, important as they are, will not solve NPR's larger financial challenges, which include a budget of $18 million for next year, compared to the current $26 million budget. That is why it is so vital that NPR officials follow through on their promised belt-tightening. Meantime, an in
vestigation now under way by the General Accounting Office is important in attempting to pinpoint exactly why financial matters got so out of hand. Congressional hearings, scheduled for later this year, should help identify areas where the network could be run on a sounder basis. The American people have every right to expect that public monies will be wisely spent.
At the same time, Congress and the CPB would be remiss in looking for scapegoats in the network's current difficulties, or in so ''decentralizing'' the network (by turning more funds over to local stations) as to in effect destroy NPR's ability to function. Many lawmakers have long been unsympathetic to public broadcasting, arguing that it unfairly competes with commercial broadcasting, or, that it somehow reflects ''liberal'' viewpoints.
Yet, from the outset of public radio back in 1969, the network's objective has been that of bringing diverse programming to all parts of the United States - including areas where such programming is nonexistent. In that sense the network has succeeded.
With sounder management controls, combined with greater support by its listeners, there is no reason why NPR should not continue to broadcast programming of the finest quality.