They are the overseas spokesman of the United States, but they consent to meet a Washington reporter only in out-of-the-way restaurants, and nothing less than a pledge of anonymity will unseal their lips on the subject of their work. Their bosses speak on the record to explain rather than justify their agency's policies, and interrupt themselves to say, "Don't quote me on this" and "My throat will be cut for what I've just told you."

The Voice of America, beaming news, music and comment in 39 languages on the world's short-wave radio bands, is a contender for the title "the unhappiest federal agency." Battles rage over its mission. Should it be a government mouthpiece or an audio version of The Washington Post? Should it be run by State Department officials worried about the sensitivities of foreign governments or by journalists whose creed is the free flow of information? Should it spur Afghans to fight the Red Army or soft-sell the world with tales of Americana and the latest top 40?

During his Senate confirmation hearing last month, VOA director James Conkling was asked how he planned to cope with VOA's "morale problem." "My perhaps most successful ventures are those where I walk into a sick company and turn it around morale-wise," Conkling replied. He explained that "in the creative business," morale improves rapidly if people are allowed to express their ideas.

Conkling has a lot of doctoring to do. It takes as long as two years of FBI investigation before VOA can hire a writer or an engineer. When the United States has an urgent need to address a foreign audience, VOA seems to be paralyzed -- a year and a half after the Soviet invasion, there is still no broadcast in the main language of Afghanistan. A festering wound is discrimination against foreign-born employes; an ulcerous complaint is that Foreign Service officers in key VOA posts censor scripts.

Beyond debates of purpose and staff is a question a taxpayer might ask: does VOA speak to the people it is supposed to influence? Isn't it impractical -- if not befitting a politburo -- to insist on centralizing the writing of scripts which are meant to address societies speaking 39 languages?

VOA was born out of an emergency, in 1942, 79 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Five years earlier, Britain had launched its BBC external service. But the master of the airwaves was Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. "News is a weapon of war," he said. "Its purpose is to wage war, not to give information."

The BBC promised all the news -- the good and the bad. VOA spoke for a brash, younger America gung-ho on a just war. Goebbels still rhapsodized about victory as the Allies entered Berlin.

In 1948, Josef Stalin ordered the jamming of BBC and VOA. The next year the U.S. government set up Radio Free Europe as "a surrogate radio" for and about Eastern Europe. In 1953, Radio Liberation -- renamed Radio Liberty 10 years later -- began broadcasting to the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, VOA spear-headed President Harry Truman's "Campaign for Truth" against communnism and Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade for Freedom." But the winds of detente have brought uncertainties, as has the new candor in American society. Veterans of psychological warfare and East European emigres have feared that only the communists benefited from stories that reported opposition to the war in Vietnam, the Watergate revelations and now the murders of black children in Atlanta.

VOA's charter mandates that the radio "represent American, not a single segment of American society." But in practical terms, VOA functions in the State Department's shadow. On one hand, VOA broadcasts provide a lifeline of information to societies denied a free press -- out of its estimated 80 million listeners, 60 million are in communist countries. On the other hand, VOA commentaries and news analyses have the liveliness of government handouts, and the programming reflects a State Department preference for ambiguity.

"We have to be bland," explains Ed Findlay, the Foreign Service officer who heads VOA's Far East division. "And sometimes we have to obfuscate. Foreigners may quarrel with our dullness, but they don't turn us off as hogwash. We don't engage in the running-dogs-of-imperialism-type of stuff that comes out of Peking and Hanoi."

"VOA's presumption is that we tailor our broadcasts to peoples from the Caribbean to Burma, from Siberia to Morocco," says an Arabic-language broadcaster, "but we speak to them as if they all lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma."

Although VOA's annual pitch for its congressional appropriation is based on its competition with communist ideology, its features are edited not to offend communist sensitivities. For example, words of admiration for Afghans battling the Russians and for Solidarity members defying Poland's communist orthodoxy are meticulously weeded out lest VOA be accused of inciting its listeners, as Radio Free Europe was after the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

"Each bureaucrat who looks at a VOA script erases an adjective or tones down a verb," says a State Department official. "After all, it's not pleasant to have our ambassadors cabling protests on how they have to repair the damage VOA has done." Every VOA higher-up has his story of being summoned by an under secretary of state to justify a broadcast that angered a foreign government. One former VOA director calls the State Department " a nervous mother to every insecure regime in the world."

Jouranlists and bureaucrats are antagonists. What is food for one is poison for the other. A journalist thrives on controversy; a bureaucrat is ever a champion of stability.

VOA broadcasters would love to cut losse from the parent agency USICA (United States International Communication Agency, formerly the United States Information Agency or USIA) which in turn works under the secretary of state. Jimmy Carter's permissive administration encouraged VOA autonomy, but Ronald Reagan pledged in his campaign to use VOA as the battering ram of a "reinvigorated" American propaganda war.

"In the past four years, VOA dished out pablum," says Kenneth Giddens, VOA's director from 1969 to 1977, who is close to the Reagan administration. "In the war for the minds of men, we are being attacked like never before, but we don't fight back."

After one of the most hotly contested battles for an appointment in his administration -- with Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz one contender -- Reagan selected a personal friend, Charles Z. Wick, to head USICA. Wick in turn chose his close friend, record industry executive James Conkling, to head VOA. Nothing was cut: neither the $125 million Carter operating budget, nor an additional $80 million for new transmitters. The administration did not resist the argument of Rep. James Courter (R-N.J.) that "We buy hundreds of millions of listeners for the same price as five F-15 aircraft."

"We are not spokesmen for the United States," says M. William Haratunian, VOA's acting director between Carter's and Reagan's appointees. "We are the national broadcaster for the U.S.," says program director Cliff Groce. "We tell foreign audiences how the American process works."

"Whichever way you look at it, we are in the business of propagating the American Way of Life," says one veteran from the technical staff. "In the 1950s, when the issues were clear, we did a terrific job. Now that we are both supposed to follow and not to follow U.S. policy, we have lost track of what we are doing."

"VOA lives in a world of its own, trying to ignore the State Department, refusing to recognize that it is being perceived abroad as the voice of the U.S. government," says a State Department official. "At best, VOA misleads foreign governments. At worst, it endangers American lives and interests. I am not sure that VOA is worth all the trouble it's causing. Independence would be a disaster -- what with VOA's incompetent bureaucrats who keep building buffers around themselves and emigres who do not know America."

Of VOA's 130 hours of broadcast a day, a low-priority language such as Russian has a morning program and several in the evening -- a total of 16 hours.

Newscasts take up roughly half of VOA's air time. They are compiled by a central news desk which issues a different daily list for each region: Europe, the Soviet Union, Africa, the Far East, the Near East and South Asia, and Latin America. The language services then translate the scripts. The order of the first five items cannot be changed without approval from the region's division chief or the news desk in Washington.

The newscast is followed by a selection from the daily "menu" -- commentaries reflecting official U.S. policy that must be used; news analyses providing "a rounded view" that are recommended though not compulsory; and cultural and scientific features.

On April 15 this year, for instance, the newscasts for all the regions were dominated by the Columbia space shuttle. The "menu" offered a news analysis titled "Too Much Oil?," and inconclusive rundown on theories about oil supplies; a "topical feature" on the Child Welfare League of America; a news analysis on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to India; a survey of U.S. press opinion on the Columbia's mission; a retrospective feature on the space shuttle; a selection from U.S. magazines -- one article on Malaysia and another on being a country boy; and "a spotlight on the arts" report on an opera shown in Washington.

VOA broadcasters often disagree with the news priorities they must follow. East Europeans swallow hard but say nothing when their list of news items is headed by, say, the hunger strike of IRA's Bobby Sands, one of many headline-making American concerns that are of no interest to East Europeans. Or they complain and switch priorities when Jackie Kennedy's engagement to Aristotle Onassis is the top item as the Red Army is about to invade Czechoslovakia.

The Arabic service frequently explodes, demanding evenhandedness: the same type of objective, explanatory sentences to put Menachem Begin's statements in context, as the ones routinely added after quotes from Yasser Arafat. The African services make changes with or without authorization and get away with it.

The Russian service buzzes with dissent. "The program is decided in terms of 'what's useful to the United States,' instead of what interests the listener," says one critic.

"We are forced to be boring," says a language-service chief from Eastern Europe. "The commentaries and news analyses on politics and culture are inferior."

"Arabs listen to VOA only when they want to know what the U.S. government has to say, not because we are interesting," says a VOA Arabic broadcaster. "For instance: Who in the Arab world wants to hear a news analysis of Japan's defense problems -- which is impossible to understand because the writing is so obscure -- when Philip Habib is in the Mideast to prevent a war between Syria and Israel?"

"Ours is an American-sounding radio," Groce explains, "not an emigre radio."

VOA also beams music -- which is a filler for a few minutes in the Turkish service, for instance, but takes up as much as 30 percent of the broadcasts aimed at black Africa.

One of VOA's responsibilities is to explain why the U.S. adopts controversial policies. After President Carter ordered a grain embargo following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, VOA offered a feature titled "U.S. Grain Movement." Here is part of the script: "The grain business in America is an extremely complicated business yet essentially its purpose is simple, and this purpose is to move grain from American farms to consumers in America and all over the world . . . Because of its unique situation, America necessarily has developed a grain marketing system to fit its own situation. an integral part of this marketing system is the trading in futures, which as the name implies, involves the trading of grain for delivery in future months . . . It should be obvious to anyone observing the grain business that the huge exports achieved by the U.S. could not all be accomplished in one day or in one week." The conslusion: U.S. grain has outlets other than the Soviet market.

One Hungarian broadcaster, furious over what he called "a meatless commentary" on Afghanistan, buttonholed its author. "Why don't you say that every time the Russians used force since the end of World War II it was against poorly armed workers led by communists or ex-communists?" he asked.

"We can't make speeches on the air," the author replied, "but I know how you feel."

"If you know how East Europeans feel, why don't you take that into account?"

Haratunian, VOA's top career professional, says he is aware of these problems, and that he is recommending area studies programs for native-born Americans and American studies programs for the foreign-born. His "guess" is that the problem is that some 70 percent of the foreign-born staff came to VOA without broadcasting experience.

Many of the grievances of VOA broadcasters flow from the perception that Foreign Service officers make the decisions. "Foreign Service officers don't care for VOA," says one language-service chief. "They are parked here while waiting for their next overseas assignment."

"There was a time when Foreign Service officers gave daily direction to VOA on policy grounds," says Kenneth Bache, chief of the Policy Application Staff -- a group of four Foreign Service officers. "Now our role is sharply curtailed. We serve in an advisory function -- we follow the output, make recommendations on the basis of an advance look at texts, to make sure that we do not mislead our listeners. If there is a serious disagreement, it's up to VOA's director to decide. But we clear only the commentaries, because they are identified as government policy."

A 1976 statement signed by some 600 VOA personnel and submitted to Congress charged: "The transient kind of management system by which Foreign Service officers are assigned to supervise major journalistic and programming elements of the organization for two or three years results in a lack of continuity of leadership."

Haratunian, a Foreign Service officer, says that there must be "meaningful employment" for Foreign Service officials on their home leaves and that it helps VOA to employ people with recent experiences overseas.

Groce, who has been at VOA for 30 years, hates the term both the State Department and USICA use to define VOA's function -- public diplomacy. "Why not simply say information? We are in the news business, and all evidence indicates that we are trusted because we are in the news business. Our credibility is based on trust. Watergate was our finest hour -- our publisher was in the docket, but we broadcast the story while the Soviets didn't."

Groce says VOA did a good job reporting on the Vietnam war, though it did skip some editorials critical of U.S. policy. He acknowledges "some aberrations." For instance, although the U.S. evacuation from Saigon was reported worldwide, the State Department insisted on a 48-hour delay in VOA broadcasts because it feared panic and attacks on Americans.

VOA's director at the time, Kenneth Giddens, defends VOA's treatment of that evacuation. "There is a larger function for which VOA exists: to serve the welfare of the nation. You can't always be pristinely pure in reporting the news. Why should taxpayers support a radio that broadcasts things contrary to national interest? Journalists should be free agents -- as long as they conform to the decided course of the nation."

A common charge against VOA management is that it has oversold detente. It toned down references to the Hungarian uprising and suggested no mention be made of its 20th anniversary in 1976. It low-keyed Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he still lived in the Soviet Union. When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor the Soviet people learned about from Western radios, VOA cut the sharpest anticommunist lines of his acceptance speech.

In 1978 VOA dropped parts of a report from its Warsaw correspondent about a poet speaking up on the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest, a taboo subject in the Soviet bloc.

Sensitive to foreign policy shifts, VOA has been slow to react to crises in which its help was needed as "a communicator to opinion-makers." After the invasion of Afghanistan, nine months elapsed before a half-hour program was put together in Dari, one of the country's minor languages. VOA still does not broadcast in Pashto, spoken by Afghan insurgents.

"It's the State Department and the National Security Council which decide on the languages," Groce says. "Then we have to look for native speakers, and that's hard. We can't find qualified people to broadcast in Central Asian languages."

Since refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and the Soviet Union are in the hundreds of thousands, why is it so difficult to set up services in Central Asian languages?

"Our single most difficult problem is personnel selection," Haratunian replies. "The system we have is designed for something else other than a broadcasting operation. The system needs reform."

Personnel selection is by the parent agency, USICA, which insists on a security clearance fashioned in the 1950s although VOA employes handle no classified information. It takes up to years to process a job application from a foreign-born American, and a little less from one native-born.

What further discourages writers is that VOA broadcasters in foreign languages are not encouraged to initiate items. "We are reduced to translating, and the more slavishly we translate, the better our standing with management," says one writer. "There are arguments every time you want to write a feature, and a potentially controversial piece has to go through a number of clearances. But in case we spot a mistake in the English copy, such as Odessa mentioned as a Baltic instead of a Black Sea port, or calling Macedonia a province when it's a republic in Yugoslavia, both of which happened recently, it is better not to say anything."

VOA is the only part of the U.S. government where discrimination is public policy. A native speaker in one of 38 foreign languages may rise to head his language service -- and about one-fifth of the language service chiefs are foreign-born. Higher positions -- on the regional desks, and in news and programming -- are reserved for those whose first language is English.

While writers and editors in foreign languages have a salary ceiling of GS-13 -- or $41,660 -- their colleagues working in English go as high as GS-15 -- or $57,912. The salaries of writers and editors in charge of English copy are between GS-13 and -14 -- averaging $40,000 -- but their foreign-born colleagues have salaries between GS-9 and -11 -- averaging a little above $20,000.

The foreign-language services currently employ about 750 writers and editors, and 230 professionals work in the production of news, analyses and commentaries in English. A handful of writers in VOA's 39-year history have succeeded in crossing over from the language services to English or program management; none in the other direction.

"It's a feudal system," says one foreign-language editor rated by his supervisors as outstanding. "We have the House of Lords -- Foreign Service officers entitled to the best assignments regardless of their broadcasting experience or language skills. Writers in English constitute the landed gentry, and those toiling away in foreign languages are the peasantry." He argues that in other government agencies bilingualism is an asset; at VOA, which is in the business of transmitting cultural values, bilingualism is a liability. "The accent dooms us to serfdom," he says.

"Salaries represent something of a sore point," says Groce, who was born in Hampstead, Tex. He explains the different pay scales as harking back to a time when "rightly or wrongly, a single-language broadcaster was thought of as having a more limited impact than someone broadcasting to or providing material for the entire world." A "single-language broadcaster" means someone working in a foreign language.

Has VOA achieved the kind of worldwide prestige that BBC has enjoyed since World War II?

"I don't say we are better than BBC," says Haratunian. "But our audience is larger -- more than 80 million a week, which means that we have more listeners than any other single broadcasting station. We have more than 20 million listeners in China, where we used to be jammed."

There are VOA professionals who think that Reagan's campaign pledge to "toughen up" U.S. propaganda abroad may give VOA the kind of priority it needs -- expanded language services, additional personnel and new equipment. Others are afraid that Reagan will ask VOA to say "Hi, world, we are America, and aren't we great?"

Every pitch for VOA cites the argument that the country which invented advertising ought to be able to do well in advertising itself abroad. But, according to the CIA, Moscow spends $2.5 billion a year on its overseas propaganda -- four to five times USICA's budget.

VOA broadcasters say they wouldn't want to lower themselves to Radio Moscow's level. "Letting the enemy determine what we say and how we say it would be our ultimate defeat," a Russian emigre says. "Americans don't have to always appear as nice guys," says an African-born broadcaster, "and that's appreciated by our African listeners."

Perhaps propaganda should be left to the professional maniuplators of opinion -- the salesmen of lies big and small, the prestidigitators of public relations. But what sells Procter & Gamble products and what plays well in Peoria doesn't necessarily work with Bulgarians and Chinese and Ethiopians, whose intellectual survival depends on their being able to read -- and write -- between the lines.

At VOA, the consensus is that BBC's external service is better than VOA in features though not in straight newscasts. Where the British excel is in split, polish and sparkle -- in a word, style. And style is what no bureaucracy, American or Soviet, has been able to manufacture. THE SOVIETS SPEND MORE ON VOA THAN THE U.S. DOES

VOA says it has 80 million listeners tuning in at least once a week -- up to 30 million in the Soviet Union, 10 million in Eastern Europe, 13 million in the Near East and South Asia, close to 7 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 3 million in Latin America, 2 million in Western Europe, at least 20 million in China and 3 million in the rest of East Asia. According to VOA, the figures are reasonably reliable, except for those from China, which represent pure guesswork, and those from European communist countries, which are based only on interviews with visitors to the West and refugees. The surveys indicate that VOA appeals to the educated, the young and the politically curious. VOA broadcasts about 900 hours a week in 39 languages. Even when you add in Radio Free Europe's and Radio Liberty's 1,030 additional hours and seven additional languages, the broadcasts lag behind Radio Moscow's 2,100 hours a week in 82 languages.

In the Stalinist 1940s and '50s, Soviet-bloc citizens caught listening to VOA -- or Britain's BBC -- were sentenced to two or more years in jail or a forced labor camp. Stalin's death, Khrushchev's fall, Brezhnev's failing health and the circumstances surrounding Richard Nixon's resignation are items that Soviet-bloc citizens learned from Western broadcasts.

From 1948 to 1973, VOA was jammed, along with BBC, RFE and RL. The noise -- nicknamed KGB jazz -- was a blend of roar, screech and growl. But one could get some reception by moving the radio to another room or by going over to an uncle's house up or down the road. Some days VOA came in loud and clear; other days, no matter how many frequencies one tried, the jamming was impenetrable.

The Soviets stopped jamming VOA in 1973 as a concession to the spirit of detente, and all the people's democracies followed suit.Last August, the Soviets alone resumed jamming, anxious to choke off news of Poland's independent trade union Solidarity.

The U.S. strategy against jamming has been to broadcast on more frequencies, thus increasing the listenerhs chances of finding a frequency with good reception. More powerful transmitters will also help, and there are plans for additional transmitters and modernizing old ones. VOA operates 33 transmitters in the United States and 68 overseas -- in England, Germany, Greece, Morocco, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines.

The consolation is that jamming costs the Russians up to $250 million a year -- a CIA estimate -- while VOA itself costs only about $100 million to the American taxpayer.