Retune America's `Voice'

AS Germans swung at the first crack in the Berlin Wall, they set in motion changes that will ripple throughout the globe for years to come. One unintended result, however, was to call into question the future of important institutions that made the destruction of the wall possible in the first place: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., and the relevant services of the Voice of America. To some, the ultimate success of the radios is measured by their ability to put themselves out of business.

Recently, I called for the establishment of a commission to take a hard look at the international broadcasting activities of the United States government. In Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe, local landscapes are being transformed to the point where we must rethink the basic purposes of these broadcasting activities.

In response, the National Security Council has initiated an internal study. This is a welcome step that will lead the White House, I am confident, to recognize the need for a bipartisan commission.

Three reasons support such an undertaking:

First, the world's enormous changes in the last year. The three regions of the world that most preoccupied our policymakers have undergone transformations that literally scuttle longstanding US policies. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are rapidly receding as military threats, while their economic transition to market economies has become a major challenge. Peace may indeed be breaking out in Central America. At the same time, southern Africa has broken a political logjam.

Second, a subtle metamorphosis during the last decade of the rationale for US government broadcasting. The goal is no longer just to reach ruling and dissident elites in a target country. We are now part of the global mass media. The US government has a basic need to communicate with majorities anywhere. The man or woman in the street increasingly exercises greater influence on political situations.

Third, rapid changes in this global electronic-media scene. New technology is driving the marketplace of ideas beyond all past limits. Direct broadcast satellites (DBS) are a reality today. Hughes Communications is building one for domestic use in the US by 1993; the Germans are already using DBS technology. Audience behavior is also evolving. Local media outlets have responded to the revolutions in their countries. East Europeans have begun to migrate away from their favorite shortwave programs to more audible, increasingly more sophisticated programing on local AM and FM stations.

In this quickly changing world, the power of information is magnified. Crucial to democratic societies anywhere is an infrastructure that protects freedom of speech and facilitates the free flow of information. During the postwar era, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and Radio in the American Sector (Berlin) have performed that function wherever free speech was trampled. These services have been successful instruments of US foreign policy.

The radios and other Western broadcasters not only kept hopes alive, but transmitted the knowledge necessary to bring about the revolutions of 1989.

While it is essential that we maintain our current broadcasting efforts, it is imperative that we turn to the future. We need to assess the mission of US government broadcasting.

Before, the task was delivery of information that was being denied. Now, the effort must be shifted to the timely delivery of information needed to foster an environment where democracy can flourish.

At the same time, the need to reach closed societies such as China and Cuba will continue. The East European successes of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., and of the Voice of America justify my optimism for Radio Mart'i and the future of Television Mart'i.

Budget consideration are, of course, a serious factor in planning the future of US government broadcasting services. International broadcasting will not come cheap, since major adjustments will be necessary to keep the US government in the game. A presidential commission would ensure proper consideration of broad guidelines along which US broadcasting activities could evolve.

If it's to remain a vocal participant in a new international media environment, the current government broadcasting organization will have to adapt. This will require changes in mission, organization, and technology. The right mission set in the wrong structure will serve nobody's purposes, certainly not those of the current institutions.

At some point, the US broadcast infrastructure will have to be examined. Should some of the services be merged? Should separation be maintained but under new stewardship? What about television - where should it be placed? How should broadcasting relate to other aspects of public diplomacy?

These are difficult questions. I do not think it wise, or for that matter fair, to ask the agencies whose futures are at stake to evaluate themselves. The president's commission should address these issues in the larger foreign policy context.

Nineteen-ninety could be the year in which we finally begin to realize the potential impact of communications on the evolution of society, on political institutions, on business behavior, and many other aspects of human conduct.

As a politician, I know that cutting my communications budget is the last thing I will do, unless of course I do not want to get elected. The East Europeans have learned a similar lesson. After 45 years of tight state control over access to and dissemination of information, they've felt the mantle of oppression lift, and they know the power of free media.

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