And what do they think, the people out there on the firing line at National Public Radio?

With the threat of bankruptcy growing for months, the crisis has finally come: There will be no paychecks tomorrow unless something happens.

The something is a $9.1 million loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But NPR has balked at the conditions, and an impasse resulted. Yesterday, however, revived negotiations suddenly looked better, and at NPR faces appeared relieved.

"Some are more traumatized than others, of course," said Jay Kernis, senior producer of the popular "Morning Edition" news show. "This staff won't last till October: they're overworked, we've lost three production positions in the initial cutback out of a staff of 17 , and the pressure is tremendous. Our people are sick more often and stay out longer, and a lot of them have been asking me for job references."

Kernis himself, a 10-year veteran at NPR, has written a re'sume' and finds the gesture somehow comforting. But then he says this:

"The reason they are sick more often is that they come in sick. They come in so sick we have to send them home. My people have told me they're coming in Friday even if they don't get paid. They're coming in to work if they aren't locked out. And next week when we do the fundraiser programs Monday through Wednesday, they'll be producing two separate programs each day, if the union lets them.

"There's a spirit of rebuilding here. Bob Siegel is a great news director, and by October maybe we'll get one or two more people and a little money . . . There's a lot of talk about quality programming. Well, few know what that means, physically, emotionally, journalistically. They say to hang in there, but when you're told that every day, you get to the point where it's annoying to hear."

Yesterday afternoon, when the word came down that the two sides were again talking, it flashed like an electric spark through the warren of offices at 2025 M St., where about 300 NPR employes work.

"I grew up in New York City," said Steve Reiner, executive producer of "All Things Considered," "and stuff like this was always happening, and always at 11:59 something would break and the subways would run after all. Once they didn't, however."

Reiner's program, probably the best-known feature on public radio, is holding up well, he says, though the problems keep mounting.

"There's a shortage of material because of no money. Free-lancers tend not to want to work for us because they still haven't got paid for work done. People are preoccupied. It's like this place has gone through four triple-bypass operations in four months: it's hard to keep your concentration. Actually, it happened in a good time of year, August is usually slow anyway, but I hope we'll be back up there by fall.

"A lot of people are just exhausted, soured on their work, talk about leaving. But there's been no exodus. Some applied to the MacNeil-Lehrer show, but no one was picked up."

He wishes the fundraiser hadn't come so late. "They waited so long, treated the whole idea so gingerly. Yet we get letters every day from all over the country--we've had eight, nine thousand dollars sent in unsolicited--and the listeners are angry. They're the ones who are being short-changed."

Ninety stations of the 281 in the NPR network are going along with the fundraiser. This includes Washington's WETA, but not WAMU, much to the outrage of "All Things Considered" host Susan Stamberg, who came from that station in 1971.

"Relations with the member stations are somewhat uneasy these days," she said. "It's too bad; it used to be so wonderfully unanimous."

NPR used to be "a place you passed through on your way to TV," but in the last seven years the situation has been turned around, she observed. Now, those who leave go to print media rather than TV, an interesting comment on the function of radio today.

"That's what's so bitter in all this. There's no place else to go. Even the engineers who get jobs outside doing different work call back and say they miss this. It's the breadth of interest, the variety, the excitement of doing a piece on Nicaragua, say, then Eudora Welty and then a funny on redesigning the human body . . ."

Stamberg isn't leaving; her cohost Noah Adams says he hasn't given "five seconds of time" to the notion of looking for another job.

One of those who presumably could find work in a different field is reference librarian Rob Robinson. "My friends are more worried than I am," he said. "I figure there's not much I can do about the situation. Though I have started to look around some."

As a "lifer" with 10 years at NPR, Robinson feels a closing of ranks by the employes. "It's such an exciting place to work, you keep up with the world, what's going on, and we've seen it grow . . . We love this place."

Sara Carlston, a 13-year veteran who handles public information, agrees. "I'll come in Friday even if there's no check. And I'll keep coming in."

Jay Harvey, supervisor of intramural programming information, says he's been so busy he hasn't had time to think about it at work. But at home, it's a different story. His relatives keep phoning him as they hear the news of trouble at NPR. He keeps cool but makes no long-range plans.

There is a sense of waiting. People are tired of what producer Richard Harris calls an emotional roller coaster; the stresses drain their creative energy; they get exasperated by the loss of concentration, the erosion of concern for quality. But still, Harris said, "I can't think of a single person who has simply bailed out."

Martha Sheppard, receptionist for the executive floor, refuses to worry.

"If the checks don't come through, I'll take the kids to the beach. Even if my husband loses his job, I'm not going to worry. Whatever I think isn't going to change anything anyway. There's Someone who looks after all people, and there's no use both of us sitting up nights over it."