Radio Free Europe has to scramble to beat East-bloc competition. BROADCAST NEWS MEETS GLASNOST
Munich, West Germany
For Vladimir Kusin, the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev has meant piles of extra work. ``Before Gorbachev, it didn't matter if you looked at only one Bulgarian newspaper - they all said the same thing,'' says the deputy director of research at Radio Free Europe. Now, his Munich-based staff has to pore over a half-dozen papers to keep tabs on that country's press.
It's just one example of how the Soviet leader's spreading policy of glasnost, or openness, is changing the way this controversial radio service does business.
Founded in the chilliest days of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and its related service, Radio Liberty, always had an edge over the East-bloc competition. Never mind that it is openly financed by the United States government - and run by the Central Intelligence Agency until 1971. East-bloc listeners tuned in to the services' native-language broadcasts to fill the gaps they knew existed in their own news media.
But under glasnost, the East bloc isn't the information vacuum it used to be.
``We don't have the monopoly on hard news anymore,'' admits Gene Pell, president of ``the radios,'' as the services are called. ``Whether it's a ship disaster on the Black Sea or a rail car explosion outside Gorky, it's being covered much more quickly by the Soviets.''
East-bloc news agencies have also made their product more interesting. Endless stories about ball-bearing factories that meet production quotas have given way to Western-style investigative reporting and up-to-the-minute dispatches.
As if that wasn't enough, the Soviets last year stopped jamming the signals of BBC and Voice of America, opening up other Western news sources to East-bloc audiences. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty still face heavy jamming - a process in which one radio wave is used to block reception of another - in 20 of their 23 broadcast languages.
Soviets view the BBC and VOA as less threatening because they are clearly identified as foreign news sources. Radio Free Europe by contrast, fancies itself a ``surrogate news agency,'' broadcasting a strong mix of domestic as well as international news.
So the scramble for listeners is on.
Mr. Pell, who took over as president three years ago, estimates there's been only a slight erosion in his audience.
The radios figure they reach about 55 million listeners each week in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including 64 percent of the adults in Romania.
But holding their ground in the era of glasnost is requiring major changes. Above all, it's forced the organization to refine its approach to news gathering.
S. Enders Wimbush, director of Radio Liberty, says: ``Glasnost is very selective in what it chooses to talk about and how far it will go - that's where we can play a key role.'' The radios, he says, now monitor East-bloc news more closely, ``filling in gaps'' whenever possible.
Last November, for instance, when Soviet television announced the dismissal of Boris Yeltsin as Moscow Party chief, Radio Liberty was on the air within an hour with a 20-minute live discussion of the dismissal and its implications.
``It used to be enough for us to comb handbooks and come up with an infant mortality rate for the Soviet Union,'' says Keith Bush, Radio Liberty's head researcher. But now that the Soviets discuss such topics openly, ``we have to ask why it's so high.''
Besides changing their approach, the radios have also doubled the amount of live programming they produce and hoisted professional standards.
Still, most of the work force - which includes about 1,000 in the Munich headquarters - has been here for years. And changing old habits hasn't been easy. The new regime means working weekends and phone calls in the middle of the night. ``It almost makes you long for the good old days - when nothing happened,'' one harried employee says.
The radios are also undergoing a technological overhaul.
A new transmitter is being built in Israel which will allow the organization to beam powerful signals deep into Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. And in Munich, a $6 million renovation has replaced studios which had remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.
``We never even had rugs before,'' says one staffer, surveying a wall of gadgets.
But while glasnost has made life tougher, it's also opened surprising opportunities. In January, two Soviet writers visiting Munich for a cultural program agreed to give interviews to Radio Liberty in their hotel rooms. Then, just weeks later, a Soviet director and two top actors agreed to be interviewed in the Munich studios. They were the first Soviets ever to grant such a request.
This is a startling change, considering that East bloc governments still accuse the radios of being operations of the CIA.
Indeed, the relationship remains bumpy. During the May 29-June 2 Moscow summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev, three Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty reporters had their visas revoked at the last minute. One was already in Moscow, while another was turned back when he landed with the US press corps in Helsinki.
But perhaps the most interesting quirk of glasnost is the prominence it's given to the telephone. More than ever before, broadcasters can keep in touch with East-bloc sources - simply by phoning them up. During this year's unrest in Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, staffers got crucial information from eye witnesses who phoned the Munich headquarters. Some telephone interviews with East bloc sources are even being used on the air.
Mirza Michaeli, program director for the Azerbaijani service, says such interviews have to be used carefully - to avoid endangering sources.
But today, he's planning an even more unusual experiment. One of the Azerbaijani papers has published a list of local officials and their telephone numbers, with an invitation for readers to call them up to discuss their concerns. He picks up the phone and dials. ``They may talk - or just hang up and say we're enemies,'' says Mr. Michaeli, tense expectation crackling in his voice.
But even in the age of glasnost, technology doesn't always cooperate. After a short exchange with the Russian operator, Michaeli puts down the receiver. ``They say there's no answer,'' he says. ``I guess we'll have to try again tomorrow.''