A quiz: Which American radio station airs lengthy speeches portraying the United States as a decadent power and an unreliable ally? Which American station employs commentators openly contemptuous of Western democratic ideals?

The answer is not some clandestine outfit sponsored by Moscow. The name of the station is Radio Liberty. It is part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., headquartered here in West Germany, but directed from Washington. These two radio stations are a key element in the Reagan administration's campaign to bring a stronger Western point of view to residents of Soviet bloc countries. Their entire budget -- $98 million this year -- comes from the American taxpayer, courtesy of Congress.

Children of the Cold War, the radios were to serve as an electronic substitute for a free press for the peoples of the Soviet bloc. RFE covered Eastern Europe and RL the Soviet Union. Officially independent, the stations were in fact funded and loosely supervised by the Central Intelligence Agency. But the CIA was always careful throughout the 1950s and the 1960s not to dictate the contents of broadcasts. Editorial control was left to the fairly autonomous RFE/RL management.

Later in the 1970s, when the CIA connection was publicly exposed, supervision of the stations was transferred to the Board of International Broadcasting (BIB), appointed by the president. And herein lies an inherent contradiction: the radios are expected simultaneously to act as the authentic voice of their East European and Soviet audiences and as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

RFE/RL's top management is always American. Yet, with few exceptions, its writers and editors are mostly native speakers, emigr,es and defectors. These people reject the communist societies they have left behind and not surprisingly, some of them have axes to grind against the governments of their former homelands. However, a few also reject the political values of the democracies in which they now live. They criticize the pluralism of Western societies and extol nationalism and authoritarian government.

The tensions inherent in this situation have been aggravated by the policies of Reagan administration appointees who have given the emigr,es freer rein in preparing the programs that go out over the airways to the East. This freedom has allowed for more emotional, ideological and even anti-Western programming that admirers of the stations fear could undermine the stations' reputation for reliable, unslanted news and commentary, and indirectly undercut their effectiveness in promoting U.S. foreign policy.

Some tension between employes and management may be unavoidable. But in the past the directors made a conscientious effort to strike a balance and avoid either transforming the radios into a voice of the U.S. government, or turning the emigr,es loose.

Traditionally, RFE and RL served rather carefully edited fare. News came off the major Western wire services, and there was emphasis on careful checking of facts, balance and reliability. New was mixed with information from Eastern Europe unavailable from the controlled communist press.

RL carried lengthy excerpts from dissident Soviet literature ("samizdat"), for example. Without RL, Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" would never have reached millions of Soviet citizens.

The highest compliment to the radios is that they are heavily jammed. Nevertheless, some 11 million Poles listen to RFE, according to a recent survey.

Yet the tone has been changing since the advent of the Reagan administration, in response to dissatisfaction with the radios' performance expressed by influential people close to the president. Like the radios' critics on the other side of the electronic Iron Curtain, these critics charge that the radios have sometimes been too objective, taking an approach to the news that is tantamount to pussyfooting before the enemy.

At issue is the underlying RFE/RL philosophy that accurate reporting and responsible commentary is essential to the radios' effectiveness and credibility.

"I believe that RFE exists to transmit Western and American values, the give and take, warts and all," says James F. Brown, the long-time director of RFE who resigned in May after a dispute with the new Board for International Broadcasting. "We should be as open about the West as any of our domestic stations. If the East Europeans think they are getting the hard sell, they will simply turn off."

James Brown has been with Radio Free Europe since 1957. Before assuming the directorship in 1978, he served as head of RFE's highly respected research division.

Brown's resignation was an indication of the tense new climate that has descended on the radios under the Reagan Administration. Last August, Congress put the Board of International Broadcasting (BIB) and its chairman Frank Shakespeare in total control of RFE/RL. (Previously both stations were governed by an autonomous board.) The BIB's nine members are all appointed by the president, but the chairman and vice chairman -- Frank Shakespeare and Ben Wattenberg -- appear to be the members actively involved in supervising the radios.

Of the new board, Brown says: "None of them knows anything about Eastern Europe." The radio's oldtimers think that RKO executive Shakespeare is an "innocent fanatic," as one of them put it, who is more concerned with spreading the gospel according to St. Ronald than with serving an audience of millions that has come to regard RFE/RL as their domestic radio in exile.

Spreading the good word about America (and bad-mouthing the "evil empire" in 20- odd languages) might satisfy the simpler souls among Mr. Reagan's cohorts. But ham- handed agitation will not win the "hearts and minds" of sophisticated East Europeans who know how to discriminate between blarney and intelligent information.

In Munich, nobody wants to kowtow to the rulers of the East; the real issue is how best to serve Western interests. How, for instance, should RFE deal with a spate of rumors about impending food-price increases in Czechoslovakia? Fearing for the credibility of the station, Brown was leery of publicizing them because such rumors had usually turned out to be false in the past. Moreover, they would inevitably trigger a run on the stores, imposing more hardship on the population than on the regime.

He recalls a discussion with the board's vice chairman, Wattenberg, who advocated a different tack: "Why not create some trouble for the regime?" As Wattenberg recalls the conversation, he argued that "we should not refrain from reporting something just because it might create trouble."

Brown, however, demurred. "By spreading threadbare rumors," he said, "we would merely damage our own standing and thus end up helping the regime.

"The basic problem is not what the new management did," Brown charges, "but what it allowed to happen. Shakespeare and Wattenberg did not actively discourage those disaffected hardliners who, by mobilizing emigre organizations in the U.S., sought to turn the radio into a crude propaganda device."

Whether Jim Brown's departure will lead to a change in tone and quality of RFE reporting is still a matter for speculation. There are signs, however, that some damage may already have been done to RFE's sister station, Radio Liberty, which broadcasts only to the Soviet Union.

Under RL's new director, George Bailey, managerial controls on the station's staff have been loosened to an unprecedented degree, with some remarkable results.

Some RL broadcasts now claim that Western style democracy is decadent and corrupt, that political pluralism does not befit a society like Russia's.

Consider, for example, the way RL handled a speech given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Taiwan. The famous author declared: "It is a favorite Western fashion, a trend, to demand from everybody who stands at the front line of defense . . . total adherence to democracy . . . all the way up to decadence, treason, the right to destroy the state, as has become the practice of the countries of the West." The speech was broadcast in full by RL. Instead of airing a critical panel discussion about the speech that had already been taped, but rejected by Bailey, RL accompanied the address with a highly laudatory editorial introduction in which Solzhenitsyn was described as "unofficial envoy of the Russian people to the Chinese island of freedom."

Another broadcast stated point-blank that Soviet emigr,es in the West "had the opportunity to become convinced that democracy in its traditional meaning has slowly but steadily begun to outlive itself." The quote was taken from a 1975 issue of a Russian emigr,e magazine, but the broadcaster who read it, Boris Paramonov, left little doubt that he identifies with such sentiment.

Paramonov's own writings in emigr,e publications reflect an evident distaste for political pluralism. Two years ago, Paramonov's anti- democratic pronouncements in RL broadcasts outraged former White House Soviet affairs advisor Richard Pipes to the point that he lodged a strong complaint with the previous RFE/RL management. Subsequently, Paramonov was no longer used as a free-lance commentator. One of Bailey's first steps when he took charge of Radio Liberty in October was to reinstate this outspoken critic of Western democracy.

No wonder Paramonov and like-minded comrades feel encouraged by the new RL leadership. Russian czars are regularly praised. Their opponents, even including supporters of constitutional monarchy, are summarily denounced. Paramonov's idea of "socialism with a human face" is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's England, according to one broadcast.

The new RL/RFE board began looking for a new RL director in late 1981. According to Wattenberg, George Bailey looked like the ideal candidate for the job. A former roving correspondent for ABC and the Reporter magazine, Bailey was well acquainted with the German scene and the politics of the emigr,e community. He speaks Russian and, as Wattenberg points out, it did not hurt that Bailey was "ideologically compatible" with the Reagan administration.

But Bailey had other experience that made him a controversial choice to run Radio Liberty. Between 1974 and 1982 he was "coordinating editor" of the Soviet emigr,e magazine Kontinent, based in Paris. Kontinent's politics are outspoken; they reflect the extreme Russian-nationalist and authoritarian orientation of its editor, Vladimir Maksimov.

The list of those whom Maksimov has condemned as "idiots" or Soviet agents includes Henry Kissinger, Willy Brandt, Reagan's former National Security Council staffer Richard Pipes, and liberal dissident Andrei Sinyavsky.

In addition to the Soviet Union, Maksimov's favorite targets include Western democracy and its adherents. "I cannot, I don't want, I don't intend to accept political pluralism," he declared in one of his Kontinent columns.

Maksimov's vision of a future Russia liberated from Communism -- also spelled out in Kontinent -- leaves little space for democracy. Parties and labor unions would be allowed to function -- but only on a local level. No national organization except the church would be permitted to exist.

For those who disagree with him, Maksimov shows little patience. Recently, he ousted his long-time deputy editor-in-chief Victor Nekrasov, a prominent Russian writer, who dared to remain friends with people on Maksimov's list of opponents. Maksimov immediately advised RL that since Nekrasov was no longer associated with his magazine he could not be considered a genuine writer and, accordingly, should be denied access to RL microphones. Nekrasov, however, is still making RL broadcasts.

To appreciate the excitement triggered in the Russian emigr,e community by the appointment of Maksimov's friend Bailey to head RL, it is crucial to understand the deep antagonisms that divide emigr,e Russians. Former friends who fought together in Russia against communist repression have fallen out so thoroughly as emigr,es in the West that many no longer will speak to each other. Cliques have formed that bitterly dispute one another. It has become a matter of routine to lambaste personal enemies as communist dupes, Russophobes or anti-Semites.

Maksimov's position in the emigr,e community is strengthened by his control over Kontinent, the best-known and (perhaps more important) best-financed emigr,e publication. With the backing of Axel Springer, the conservative West German publishing magnate, Kontinent has become the only emigr,e journal that can pay its authors well -- thousands of dollars for an article, and even hundreds just for a letter to the editor.

Outside of writing for Kontinent, RL was seen by emigr,e writers as the only place to eke out a living. So many of them saw Bailey's appointment as a personal threat. They were also concerned that Bailey's appointment signified official American approval for the Kontinent faction.

Bailey's previous affiliation with Kontinent does not, of course, make him responsible for Maksimov's attitudes. Yet his long-term tie to one extreme emigr,e faction does raise questions about impartiality. The BIB's guidelines state that RFE/RL do not "identify themselves with any opposition group, political party or organization, located inside or outside the broadcast area."

"There are many articles in The Washington Post I don't agree with," argues BIB Chairman Frank Shakespeare. "But, if somebody (from The Post) asked me for a job I would consider that person on his own merit." Yet, Bailey was not just another Kontinent staffer. He was its de facto publisher, managing the affairs of the magazine. Moreover, Bailey was involved in a long and aggressive campaign launched by Maksimov and his allies against the previous RL management, according to knowledgeable sources in Munich and Paris.

Kontinent has published five articles critical of RL. One of them, signed by Maksimov and two members of his editorial board in the form of an open letter to President Carter, denounced RL's "absolutely irresponsible recruitment policy which has turned espionage into a matter of routine at the station."

Maksimov openly sought to replace the RL management, to purge its staff and to unleash a full-scale ideological offensive against Moscow. His candidate for the job was Bailey, for whose appointment he lobbied. Both Shakespeare and Wattenberg say Maksimov never approached them directly and that his effort played no role in their decision. But Maksimov's preferred tack was to operate behind the scenes through influential intermediaries.

Many interested parties opposed Bailey's appointment, including the previous RFE/RL management. The State Department recommended a different candidate. NSC's Richard Pipes voiced serious concern. And finally the BIB was approached by several leading Soviet dissidents in exile who were against Bailey.

They argued that the appointment of a man so closely linked to one extreme emigre faction would symbolize U.S. government support for its illiberal views. They were also fearful that the station would eventually lose its Soviet audience. A Kontinent editorial which coupled a ringing endorsement of Bailey with a call for a massive purge at RL added to the excitement.

Bailey specifically dissociated himself from Maksimov's threats. "I am my own man, and have my own agenda," he said in a telephone interview. And almost a year after Bailey's arrival in Munich, he has not justified all the previous anxiety. There has been no purge. (German labor laws and the restraining hand of RFE/RL's new president, James Buckley, have acted as obstacles, if one was intended.) RL staffers and freelancers whose moderate views are said to clash with Maksimov's are well-treated and allowed to express their opinions.

On the other hand, several of Maksimov's extremist prial to uoteg,es have been hired or promoted. While some of them are professionally qualified, others are unsuitable by any standard, according to old-time staffers.

A few analysts at RL's reorganized research division have resigned, and others are looking for new jobs. Virtually all of them complain about the "menacing and demoralizing uncertainty," as one of them put it, left in the wake of Bailey's arrival. Some say that Bailey is "basically a nice man" but could be manipulated by some Russian emigr,e editors anxious to get rid of American controls. "Sure, Bailey is not in a position to implement the Kontinent blueprint for RL in every detail, but he is certainly influenced by it," a Russian-born RL staffer commented.

RFE/RL remain invaluable tools of U.S. diplomacy, and most of their broadcasts still make a useful contribution. Congress will be wise to support Shakespeare and Wattenberg in their efforts to increase funding for the stations. But in the process of appropriating more money, Congress should make sure that high quality and credibility of RFE/RL will be preserved.

Amazingly, no committee of Congress has ever looked at the actual contents of RL broadcasts, to see exactly what America's officially-financed radio stations are saying. It is past time for such an inquiry.