Tuning US's Radio Voice

MARK TWAIN once said that if the end of the world came he wanted to be in Cincinnati, because it wouldn't get there for 20 years. Today he might have changed the city to Washington.

The nation's capital has to get with it. Asians are rocking to MTV, Russians are naming their kids after heroes in a Mexican TV soap opera, East Europeans are ordering up "Wayne's World" from satellite pay TV. There are more VCRs than telephones in Hungary. "Larry King Live" is big in Bangladesh.

Ever since Thomas Jefferson proposed some 200 years ago how the United States could "counteract the slanders and falsehoods" of the British press, there has been disagreement over how to run America's foreign information program. Today there is total chaos. With the end of the cold war, there is need for a major overhaul.

President Clinton has a plan, but he is falling into the same trap as his predecessors.

Consider his proposal to cut the two dinosaurs of the cold war, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which brought news to the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe. They would be folded into the Voice of America (VOA), the government's general global radio service, to avoid duplication.

This makes sense. But the White House's claim that such consolidation would save $644 million over a five-year period is misleading.

It would actually cost more. Money saved would be plowed back into the government's antiquated foreign radio system, at a time when the rest of the world is watching television and receiving talk shows on computers. Neither the White House nor Congress sees a major role for government television.

President Carter in 1977 proposed modernizing the VOA with super-power transmitters to break through Soviet jamming of broadcasts. To date, more than $1 billion has been spent, but not a single, major new radio relay station is on line. The first one, a $225 million Moroccan facility, has been plagued by endless delays and won't be fully operational until 1994 at the earliest. Others are farther behind.

The administration plan would halt construction of a shortwave facility in Israel, where more than $70 million has already been spent. The site had been planned for programming to Asia and Africa, but this was thwarted by environmentalists because it is on a major migratory bird flight path. The $125 million "saved" there is to go instead for construction of a radio relay station next door in Kuwait, where terrorists, not birds, might be the problem.

Moreover, the administration's contention that funding would be withheld for a Radio Free China service does not square with the facts. More than $30 million is earmarked to begin construction of a new radio relay station on the Pacific island of Tinian, to beam programs into China. The Tinian site is unnecessary, since the VOA already reaches China from its transmitters in the Philippines. But Tinian is a drop in the bucket for VOA, since it has a whopping $164 million available to spend this year solel y for radio construction.

There is no long-range, master strategy for the government's international broadcasting. The bottom line is that well over half of its radio capacity is trained on only 10 percent of the world's population, in Eastern Europe and Russia, and nothing in the White House proposal to revamp the VOA remotely addresses this.

There is still a need for American international broadcasting, at the very least to communicate with the world's emerging democracies. But the US government has demonstrated that it is well behind the curve in this information age, and can't shed its old habits. It is more comfortable with traditional forms of diplomacy, as well it should be. Broadcasting is best left to the professionals.

A proposal by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting therefore deserves serious review. It would move to CPB the foreign broadcast activities of the US government. Similar to the successful British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) quasi-government structure, it would truly save the taxpayers millions. An important feature of the plan would eliminate the prohibition on domestic dissemination of America's international programs, which have been restricted by law to audiences overseas.

It would enrich the quality of the program service by taking it out of the hands of well-meaning bureaucrats who can't agree among themselves what to do with it. The rebirth of US international broadcasting is long overdue.

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