Andrei Sakharov's poignant message from exile that he gets news of the world from Western broadcasts on a transistor he carries with him on walks to avoid official jamming is a timely reminder of one of this country's most valuable resources in our continuing conflict with the Kremlin -- the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
There is no way to overstate the importance of these stations in informing tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe about what is going on around the glob and in their own countries. These stations amount to the injection of a free press into lands in which there otherwise is none.
Along with the programs of the BBC, West Germany's Deutsche Welle and several smaller European stations, the American-sponsored broadcasts have become a formidable force in the Soviet bloc, where control of information is central to ideological domination of the populations.
The pity is that so many Americans -- to the extent that they think about the matter at all -- seem more gueasy about than proud of what are regarded as esentially psy-war propaganda vehicles. The reputation of RFE/RL in particular is still clouded by former association with the CIA.
But these are serious misunderstandings of what the radios do now -- and would do even better if they received the public attention and support they deserve.
VOA, for example, broadcasts 14 hours daily to the U.S.S.R. in Russian, providing a substantial report on world affairs and extensive material about the Soviet Union. News is culled mainly from American newspapers and magazines, wire services and, for a lack of a better term, the emigre network.
Say there is a major shake-up in the Kremlin, as there was most recently in 1977, when Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny was abruptly kicked out. Pravda ran a single bland sentence stating that Podgorny had resigned at his own request. That was all the Soviet people were supposed to know -- and it wasn't, of course, true.
But VOA, using all its sources, played back a lengthy assessment of the event's meaning and what little was known about how it happened. So on that occasion, as on so many others of consequence in their lives, what Soviet listeners learned came only from foreign broadcasts.
General jamming was ended in 1973 at the height of detente and, despite the deterioration of relations with the United States since then, it has not been resumed. (Sakharov was apparently singled out for special radio interference as part of his exile.) Radio Liberty still has some problems getting through, but can be heard.
The evidence is that the audiences have grown vast and range across the whole of the country's social spectrum. A Soviet official friend once told me that a high state honor he received was reported in Izvestia and hardly anyone noticed. But a short time later, he said with amusement, after he was interviewed by the VOA while on a visit to the United States, "everyone I knew seemed to have heard it."
In the common usage, these days, when Russians say they heard something "on the radio," they invariably mean one of our stations, not their own.
Unfortunately, for all their potential, VOA and RFE/RL are in the Washington backwaters. A proposal some months ago to expand broadcasts in Afghan languages after the Soviet invasion foundered because relatively paltry funds couldn't be rounded up.
Last fall, VOA Director R. Peter Strauss, an ambitious and aggressive manager of the operation, resigned, he said, because he couldn't get President Carter's attention to "innovations needed to continue the forward thurst in motivation and creativity at the VOA. . . ."
The stations need better treatment. Soviet listeners listeners like Andrei Sakharov certainly deserve it. Ronald Reagan, for one, understands the issue. He makes the VOA and RFE/RL an important point in his foreign policy speeches.