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Radio Free Europe has to scramble to beat East-bloc competition. BROADCAST NEWS MEETS GLASNOST

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``It used to be enough for us to comb handbooks and come up with an infant mortality rate for the Soviet Union,'' says Keith Bush, Radio Liberty's head researcher. But now that the Soviets discuss such topics openly, ``we have to ask why it's so high.''

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Besides changing their approach, the radios have also doubled the amount of live programming they produce and hoisted professional standards.

Still, most of the work force - which includes about 1,000 in the Munich headquarters - has been here for years. And changing old habits hasn't been easy. The new regime means working weekends and phone calls in the middle of the night. ``It almost makes you long for the good old days - when nothing happened,'' one harried employee says.

The radios are also undergoing a technological overhaul.

A new transmitter is being built in Israel which will allow the organization to beam powerful signals deep into Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. And in Munich, a $6 million renovation has replaced studios which had remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.

``We never even had rugs before,'' says one staffer, surveying a wall of gadgets.

But while glasnost has made life tougher, it's also opened surprising opportunities. In January, two Soviet writers visiting Munich for a cultural program agreed to give interviews to Radio Liberty in their hotel rooms. Then, just weeks later, a Soviet director and two top actors agreed to be interviewed in the Munich studios. They were the first Soviets ever to grant such a request.

This is a startling change, considering that East bloc governments still accuse the radios of being operations of the CIA.

Indeed, the relationship remains bumpy. During the May 29-June 2 Moscow summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev, three Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty reporters had their visas revoked at the last minute. One was already in Moscow, while another was turned back when he landed with the US press corps in Helsinki.

But perhaps the most interesting quirk of glasnost is the prominence it's given to the telephone. More than ever before, broadcasters can keep in touch with East-bloc sources - simply by phoning them up. During this year's unrest in Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, staffers got crucial information from eye witnesses who phoned the Munich headquarters. Some telephone interviews with East bloc sources are even being used on the air.

Mirza Michaeli, program director for the Azerbaijani service, says such interviews have to be used carefully - to avoid endangering sources.

But today, he's planning an even more unusual experiment. One of the Azerbaijani papers has published a list of local officials and their telephone numbers, with an invitation for readers to call them up to discuss their concerns. He picks up the phone and dials. ``They may talk - or just hang up and say we're enemies,'' says Mr. Michaeli, tense expectation crackling in his voice.

But even in the age of glasnost, technology doesn't always cooperate. After a short exchange with the Russian operator, Michaeli puts down the receiver. ``They say there's no answer,'' he says. ``I guess we'll have to try again tomorrow.''