CONGRESS IS considering, somewhat inconsistently, organizational surgery on the United States' international radio stations. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) would remove the Voice of America from the U.S. Information Agency and make it an autonomous station responsible to its own presidentially appointed board. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) would take the two stations that already report to such a board, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, which broadcast to the Soviet Union and East Europe, and bring them one technical step close to eventual USIA control. The point of the bid to distance VOA from the government is to add credibility. The point of the move to enchance the government's connection to RL/RFE is to add responsibility. In official international broadcasting, that is what most of the old arguments have been about.
In fact, we are not particularly sympathetic to either proposed change. The fact that radio is the principal mass medium for two-thirds of the world's people is reason enough for the United States to run an official station to serve its foreign-policy interests. The VOA's broadcasting credibility is a worthy concern but it is less important than overall policy credibility, which can only be earned by national performance. As for RL and RFE, which function as a sort of surrogate domestic press for audiences otherwise dependent on state-controlled information, they have been operating effectively in the public framework set up after their CIA cover was broken five years ago. Even the Kremlin, in an occasional unguarded moment, acknowledges that their former diet of hostile propaganda has "almost disappeared." Why fidget?
In fact, behind the boxes on the government organization charts lies a whole set of difficult "new" international communications issues. The approach of the World Administrative Radio conference in 1979, the first general discussion of frequency allocations and radio regulations in 20 years, forces upon Washington a need to shape an effective national policy in an increasingly politicized field. Against the American commitment to freedom of information, Communist and Third World states are posing with increasing force their own notion of a "balanced flow." And even as nations become more sensitive to the kinds of information crossing their frontiers (in both directions), technology is making the spread of information easier. Communications satellites, for instance, can now beam television programs around the globe. It is on matters like these that international communications issues should now be focused.