Radio Free Europe counts the cost of success

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The Independent Online
THE UNLOVELY two-storey building, just across from Munich's Englischer Garten, was never expected to serve as a radio broadcasting centre for long. It was designed for easy conversion into a hospital, as soon as the battle against Communism was won. That, it was assumed in the early 1950s, would take just a couple of years.

Four decades later the US- funded Radio Free Europe is still there. Its Russian arm, Radio Liberty, broadcasts into the former Soviet Union 24 hours a day; the East European language services each broadcast several hours daily. But if the White House gets its way, not for long. Buried in President Bill Clinton's budget proposals last month were some cryptic references which, when decoded, turned out to mean: close down Radio Free Europe with its 1,600 employees. The battle against Communism is over, argued the White House, so why bother?

The radio's role has changed radically, over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was CIA- funded, and its broadcasts reflected that. At the beginning of the 1970s the CIA link was broken, and the radio encouraged a more detached style - though still more hard-hitting than the sober BBC. It was loathed by the Communist leaders. Now, since the collapse of the old regimes, the radio has changed again, seeking to chart a path through the post- Communist chaos.

For many, this was the first source of information. When I was living in Poland in 1980 a regional Communist Party secretary complained publicly that the authorities in Warsaw told him nothing about the wave of strikes that was sweeping the country, and he had to tune in to RFE to find out what was happening. More recently, one famous and grateful listener was Mikhail Gorbachev, during the coup of August 1991.

A protective Berlin-style wall around the RFE building serves as a reminder of the KGB bomb that exploded in 1981, when the radio was enemy number one. Now, however, RFE and Radio Liberty have been invited to broadcast locally, on medium wave and FM, in much of the former Communist bloc, including Moscow. Shortwave broadcasts, heavily jammed until well into the glasnost era, have become almost superfluous.

But, even with all the changes, the radio is still enormously popular. In the Czech and Slovak republics, for example, polls indicate that 25 per cent of the population tune in. In Moscow, 40 per cent of a sample 500 of the 'political elite' said that they listen to it regularly.

Occasionally there are serious editorial lapses. There was, for example, the potted history of Croatia in RFE's main research publication, written by a Croat, which omitted any mention of the fascist Croat regime during the Second World War. Such examples are rare. Reactions to RFE's and RL's broadcasts usually consist of praise.

This has come from opposition leaders, like the Polish President, Lech Walesa, and the Czech President, Vaclav Havel. But elsewhere, too, there is unexpected support. At the end of last month the Russian vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, seen by many as a dubious figure in Russia's emerging democracy, rang his opposite number in the White House, Al Gore, to plead for Radio Liberty's survival. Thus, RL's emphasis on fair reporting seems to have paid off.

Washington wants RFE broadcasts to be replaced by Voice of America. But Gene Pell, who is head of the whole operation, argues that this would be useless. The VOA is, though Mr Pell, a former director of VOA, did not put it like this, a government propaganda tool.

RFE, by contrast, emphasises its 'how-to' programmes, and a series on 'the democratic experience', used the lessons of Europe as much as those of the United States. These programmes have struck a chord, sometimes with startling results. Worried at voter apathy, the Hungarian interior minister wrote to RFE asking for a series of programmes on local elections: RFE obliged.

Sitting in the canteen, you can hear from neighbouring tables the babel of half a dozen languages at a time. This Bavarian outpost of Eastern Europe is, for the moment, as busy as ever. According to the bulky and amiable Yuri Handler, head of the Russian service and ex-inmate of a Soviet labour camp, Radio Liberty can be a stabilising force. He believes that he and his colleagues have a lesson of hope that they can share with their compatriots.

None of which may sound as sexy and exciting, on Capitol Hill, as broadcasting Truth to the oppressed citizens of the Evil Empire. But Mr Pell insists that the US taxpayers' money is well spent. 'We can influence tens of millions of people on a daily basis. And it costs a pittance.' The pittance is around pounds 150m a year. But Mr Pell retorts: 'What's that? A couple of fighter planes - or less?'