It looks to be the biggest event in rock-and-roll -- and television -- history. The mission: famine relief. A 16-hour superstar extravaganza entitled ``Live Aid'' will be beamed live this Saturday from London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Stadium simultaneously to potentially 75 percent of the world's television sets. Complete with 51 of the world's top music acts -- crossing the generations from Joan Baez to Madonna -- it is the latest event in an era of accelerating liaisons between rockers and relief efforts to Africa.
But in the midst of the hoopla -- 16 satellites reaching a possible 1.5 billion viewers in 169 countries -- one major question looms:
How much food -- generated by the telethon's estimated $25 million to $50 million intake -- will make it to the victims of sub-Saharan famine?
As both the British-organized ``Band Aid Trust'' and American-based ``USA for Africa'' (United Support of Artists for Africa) have learned from two recent record projects -- ``Do They Know It's Christmas?'' and ``We Are the World'' -- making the money is the easiest part. Getting food to the scattered reaches of Africa is the hardest.
Beyond that, some USA for Africa officials are just finding out what some famine experts have said for years: Sending emergency food and medical supplies to patch up short-term symptoms, while generous and noble, can be a shortsighted exercise that ignores the long-term social realities of chronic poverty.
``We [went] to find out what goods to send,'' says USA for Africa's Ken Kragen, recently back from a two-week tour of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sudan. ``We're finding the goods are already there. The problem is getting them out to needy people.'' Mr. Kragen and singer Harry Belafonte found warehouses in those countries overflowing with food, and local officials in no way ready to handle any more. Political, economic, and logistical constraints such as the problems of trucking the food to distant villages have prevented most of it from reaching the hungry.
``There are very huge, real problems in hauling the grain,'' says William Chandler, senior researcher at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, who has just returned from a six-week trip. ``They need 1,300 trucks, of which the UN is willing to ask for 300 and expects to get 30.''
There are other problems as well, some exacerbated by the war in the Ethiopia.
The team of USA for Africa authorities encountered food riots instigated by jealous urban residents who stole bags of grain intended for more-needy rural dwellers. An aid helicopter got lost trying to negotiate poorly charted mountainous countryside. Even Mr. Belafonte's hotel room in Tanzania was robbed.
Returning home from Africa two weeks ago, USA for Africa officials had thus not decided how to spend most of the $50 million that has already been raised by sales of more than 11 million copies of the ``We Are the World'' records.
Marty Rogol, USA for Africa's executive director, says, ``When you see how big the problem is, you realize the $50 million is peanuts. I never thought $50 million could be so little.''
Undaunted -- even bolstered -- concert promoter Bill Graham, the ABC television and radio networks, MTV, the Worldwide Sports and Entertainment network, musicians, and 160,000 ticket-holders continue preparations. The ``happening'' -- being compared to the 1982 World Cup soccer matches that reached 1.5 billion people -- seems destined to make the three-day 1969 gathering of 300,000 known as ``Woodstock'' look pale.
Top names include Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Cyndi Lauper. Many time-honored bands -- The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath -- are joining again for this one-time-only appearance. Singer Phil Collins will perform in London, then jet via Concorde to Philadelphia for a second appearance.
The Worldwide Sports and Entertainment network says 169 countries have purchased rights to coverage. Each country will generate additional funds when on-screen personalities ask viewers to send money. While bands rearrange equipment between acts -- each is given about 22 minutes on stage -- huge video screens in London and Philadelphia will carry the proceedings of their transatlantic counterparts.
MTV, the rock video cable TV channel, will broadcast 16 hours of coverage to 27 million US homes -- from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m. Early-morning hours are devoted to the London concert, which begins at 12 noon, Greenwich time. ABC radio will beam the concerts to 450 affiliates, and ABC television will carry a three-hour special from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., interspersing live action with material taped earlier in London.
One of the primary goals of the extravaganza, organizers hasten to point out, is to heighten awareness of the famine and educate viewers about what can be done. A list of 25 world figures -- including Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Linus Pauling, Geraldine Ferraro, and Coretta King -- will highlight 45-second educational segments every hour. Personal in style, inspirational in tone, the messages will concentrate on the power of the individual to have an impact.
Besides the personalities and performers who are donating their efforts free of charge, the organizations involved are engaging as many volunteers as possible. MTV is giving up the revenue generated by the eight minutes an hour it usually sells for commercials. ABC Television is donating all technical facilities and personnel in televising the event, according to spokesman Jeff Duclos. Says ABC's John Hamlin, who as producer of special segments recommended that ABC bid for coverage rights: ``It's very difficult to come up with an astronomical event with as much import as this.''
``This is a very generous effort, both monetarily and in heightening awareness of world famine,'' says Worldwatch's Mr. Chandler. ``But it's going to take a concerted effort of the world's governments in cooperation with private voluntary agencies to really turn the hunger situation around in Africa.'' He says a reasonable figure to do the job would be closer to $50 billion than $50 million. ``It's really not all that astronomical when you realize it's less than half of 1 percent of the world's total economic output.''
He remembers the Bangladesh Concert of 1971, which generated about $250,000 in food but did not address the problem of per capita food production, which has continued to decline 1 percent a year in Bangladesh ever since. He suggests the money from this concert might better be spent in the manner of a currently successful project that meshes attention given immediate, short-term needs with meeting the long-term problems.
Canadian grain delivered to an area 125 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was distributed to peasants, contingent upon their participation in a soil-conservation project. In three years, peasants terraced narrow strips of land totaling 360,000 miles, helping the soil retain water, grow more food, and, according to some soil experts, recharge the atmosphere to help it rain more.
``People are beginning to understand that if you give somebody something to eat today, they're still going to be hungry tomorrow,'' adds John Hammock, executive director of Oxfam America, the volunteer agency through which some of the funds are being channeled. ``That's why it's exciting that [USA for Africa] has begun setting aside some of their money for long-term development. I think that's crucial.''