Radio Free Europe has to scramble to beat East-bloc competition. BROADCAST NEWS MEETS GLASNOST
Munich, West Germany
For Vladimir Kusin, the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev has meant piles of extra work. ``Before Gorbachev, it didn't matter if you looked at only one Bulgarian newspaper - they all said the same thing,'' says the deputy director of research at Radio Free Europe. Now, his Munich-based staff has to pore over a half-dozen papers to keep tabs on that country's press.Skip to next paragraph
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It's just one example of how the Soviet leader's spreading policy of glasnost, or openness, is changing the way this controversial radio service does business.
Founded in the chilliest days of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and its related service, Radio Liberty, always had an edge over the East-bloc competition. Never mind that it is openly financed by the United States government - and run by the Central Intelligence Agency until 1971. East-bloc listeners tuned in to the services' native-language broadcasts to fill the gaps they knew existed in their own news media.
But under glasnost, the East bloc isn't the information vacuum it used to be.
``We don't have the monopoly on hard news anymore,'' admits Gene Pell, president of ``the radios,'' as the services are called. ``Whether it's a ship disaster on the Black Sea or a rail car explosion outside Gorky, it's being covered much more quickly by the Soviets.''
East-bloc news agencies have also made their product more interesting. Endless stories about ball-bearing factories that meet production quotas have given way to Western-style investigative reporting and up-to-the-minute dispatches.
As if that wasn't enough, the Soviets last year stopped jamming the signals of BBC and Voice of America, opening up other Western news sources to East-bloc audiences. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty still face heavy jamming - a process in which one radio wave is used to block reception of another - in 20 of their 23 broadcast languages.
Soviets view the BBC and VOA as less threatening because they are clearly identified as foreign news sources. Radio Free Europe by contrast, fancies itself a ``surrogate news agency,'' broadcasting a strong mix of domestic as well as international news.
So the scramble for listeners is on.
Mr. Pell, who took over as president three years ago, estimates there's been only a slight erosion in his audience.
The radios figure they reach about 55 million listeners each week in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including 64 percent of the adults in Romania.
But holding their ground in the era of glasnost is requiring major changes. Above all, it's forced the organization to refine its approach to news gathering.
S. Enders Wimbush, director of Radio Liberty, says: ``Glasnost is very selective in what it chooses to talk about and how far it will go - that's where we can play a key role.'' The radios, he says, now monitor East-bloc news more closely, ``filling in gaps'' whenever possible.
Last November, for instance, when Soviet television announced the dismissal of Boris Yeltsin as Moscow Party chief, Radio Liberty was on the air within an hour with a 20-minute live discussion of the dismissal and its implications.