RADIO LIBERTY, the U.S.-funded Russian-language broadcaster, is not so much a radio station as an institution. For decades, Russians twiddled the dials of shortwave radios in the middle of the night, when the signal was strongest, trying to hear news that could not be broadcast on Soviet radio. Since the Soviet Union broke up, Radio Liberty has retained devoted followers, most of whom would say it is needed now more than ever: The media are once again not free in Russia, the hand of the government is growing heavier, and anti-Americanism is rampant. The strong emotions Radio Liberty has stirred over its half-century existence, among those who work there and those who listen, help explain why a move to "revamp" the station has recently caused so much distress.
There is at least one bad precedent in the "reform" of U.S.-government-backed, foreign-language radio stations: Two years ago, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the stations, pushed Radio Free Europe's Iranian-language service to become less political, to play more pop music, and to embed the traditional human rights advocacy in a more familiar "news and entertainment" format. Many critics said the move diluted the station's pro-democracy message. Others fear that changes to Radio Liberty could do the same.
Radio Liberty's president, Thomas A. Dine, argues that the planned changes to the Russian service -- shorter programs and a greater reliance on journalists based in Moscow instead of in Prague -- will make the station more accessible to Russians accustomed to an FM-radio format and will provide more news about Russia itself. His opponents within the service argue that the move from Prague to Moscow risks putting Radio Liberty editors under greater pressure from the Russian government and will make the station indistinguishable from hundreds of others in Russia. While this battle is being resolved, Congress, which funds and oversees Radio Liberty, should monitor the station's progress closely. The imposition of a one-size-fits-all plan to make American broadcasters sound more like Russian broadcasters (or worse, more like American pop music stations) wouldn't serve the causes of human rights, public diplomacy or anything else.