MAYBE THEY'RE supposed to be public radio's answer to soaps--but for most listeners this week's feverish perils-of-Pauline negotiations over the fate of the financially strapped National Public Radio network are as hard to understand as they are to accept. While there are legitimate issues that have kept NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from agreement on a bail-out plan by tomorrow--which is supposed to be payday at NPR --the inability of the two sides so far to come up with acceptable terms for a lifesaving loan from CPB threatens to force the network into bankruptcy. There are hopes that an agreement might come today; if not, it's time to seek a mediator.

CPB, the channel through which public tax dollars flow from Congress to the public airwaves, is under justifiable pressure to be fiscally responsible --not only to protect any loan it approves, but also to ensure that all transmitting equipment is in good hands no matter what may happen. NPR, in turn, looks upon its equipment as an assurance of sorts for any and all creditors or affiliated operations; officials also see its ownership of the equipment as a possible guard against political attacks on editorial and programming independence that might come from a future, politicized CPB.

But as more and more understandably concerned members of Congress are noting, there is the matter of public interest and money here; they are concerned about preserving an important resource. No one should assume that, whatever happens, the shows must go on--or even could go on. Right now, the negotiating show has gone on far too long. If there is one large public contribution still needed, perhaps it could be the volunteer services of a professional mediator capable of cutting through jurisdictional red tape and keeping NPR alive and monitored. Time is short, and so is the understanding of taxpayers and listeners all across America. Without their trust, NPR would be doomed for sure.