Just when National Public Radio is reaching more listeners than ever before, this invaluable resource for an enlightened democracy is facing its worst financial crisis.
Whether NPR should have a special federal funding boost is not an immediate decision. This depends on clearing up reasons for a largely unexpected massive deficit and evaluating controversial remedial steps by new management. But it would be the falsest sort of economy for Congress to make the situation even worse by failing to support at least as much money as pending legislation specified before NPR's crisis arrived.
The legislation seeks to restore to public broadcasting - television as well as radio - some of the ground lost to inflation, recession, and Reagan administration budget cuts.
The administration reportedly wanted to cut back still more - to $90 million for one year. But the proposed budget was held to $130 million in each of the next fiscal years, '84, '85, and '86. Funding legislation raises this figure to what congressional sponsors consider simply enough to keep up with projected inflation in those years: $143 million, $152 million, and $160 million.
Public broadcasting would still get less than it was accustomed to. But public radio would still get its statutory share, 22.5 percent or some $30 million. A Congress that largely favors public broadcasting against administration opposition can hardly do less.
Meanwhile, NPR is trying to cope by laying off personnel and eliminating such recent programming additions as the remarkable ''Sunday Show'' of cultural enrichment. The excellent news programs, ''All Things Considered'' and ''Morning Edition,'' are continuing but in straitened circumstances.
When the Reagan ax first fell, NPR was quick off the mark in seeking innovative free-enterprise ways of making money. But one of these, to use its facilities for a nationwide paging system, was held up for eight months by the Federal Communications Commission. The recession is blamed for hurting other ventures - as well as for reducing the corporate and individual donations on which all public broadcasting depends in addition to federal money. An irony is that more listeners were sending contributions, but they tended to be lower ones in the recessionary climate.
It must be hoped that NPR's finances will turn up as the long-awaited recovery materializes. As it is, employees have offered to take a pay cut and do fund-raising to help.
What if all the 7.7 million listeners to some 280 NPR member stations sent in an extra five bucks? What if even only the average weekly audience of ''All Things Considered'' - 2.8 million - did?
In the land where so many people sagely say there is no free lunch, they ought to be willing to pick up part of the tab to keep NPR's tasty menu cooking.