Officials of the Reagan administration, concerned that the United States and its policies often are not portrayed accurately by the European media, are considering plans for the Voice of America to resume intensive broadcasting to Western Europe after a hiatus of almost 25 years.
Administration sources said VOA's tentative timetable calls for beginning this fall with limited, English-language broadcasting of news, current affairs and entertainment programs geared to West European audiences.
Early next year, a decision will be made on possible expansion of the service into more comprehensive German, French, Spanish and Italian broadcasting services, something that VOA has not done since the early 1960s.
The idea stems from the asssumption that younger Western Europeans, unlike the generation that remembers World War II, have little appreciation of American security, trade and cultural ties with Europe.
As a result, some U.S. officials fear, there is a growing risk that understanding of these relationships will be distorted by Soviet propaganda or by neutralist sentiment or anti-American bias in the West European media.
Planning for new broadcasts to Western Europe has been under way for more than two years. The administration's concern has been heightened by difficulty in promoting U.S. views of issues such as the deployment of new medium-range nuclear missiles on the continent and President Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative of research on space-based defenses against Soviet missiles.
U.S. officials acknowledge that if the plan goes ahead, it is likely to provoke opposition both in Europe and in this country. Officials expect the critics to argue that the effort would be discredited from the outset as an American propaganda campaign.
As such, it would have difficulty attracting significant audiences in countries that already have an abundance of sophisticated, technologically advanced radio, television and print media.
Some critics of the idea on Capitol Hill also see a danger that the administration would be tempted to use a West European broadcasting service to depart from VOA's congressionally established mandate of presenting an accurate picture of the United States to foreign audiences and instead use VOA broadcasts to lobby for Reagan's anticommunist views.
VOA is the broadcasting arm of the United States Information Agency. There have been frequent controversies about whether USIA director Charles Z. Wick has sought to impose a hard-line, ideological cast on the agency through a number of right-wing appointees.
"We would have to know more about what is contemplated, but at first impression, it would seem that the idea of a service like VOA being necessary or even desirable in Western Europe is a very questionable proposition," said a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This source, who noted that VOA has made considerable strides under Wick in improving its capabilities for transmission into the Third World and behind the Iron Curtain, predicted that Congress would want any increased funding for VOA to be used for continuing that approach.
"To put the money into much more debatable projects like a West European service would be seen as a diversion and dilution of resources," he said.
However, the idea has supporters in Congress. One of them, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), said, "I've always supported the use of radio as a foreign policy tool. The war of ideas involves our friends as well as our enemies, and we need to catch up in Europe. In recent years, the United States has all but abdicated the use of radio there to the Soviet Union."
Administration officials say they have also received strong encouragement from the conservative government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl in West Germany, where a strong antinuclear movement continues to fight a rear-guard action against missile deployment. West German officials in Bonn confirmed to William Drozdiak of The Washington Post Foreign Service that they have given encouragement to the plan for new VOA broadcasts. However, the officials conceded, the reaction of other West European governments has been more ambiguous.
The VOA's first transmissions in 1942 were German-language broadcasts aimed at Nazi Germany. After the war, it continued a number of foreign-language services to Western Europe through the Cold War era of the 1950s.
The West European broadcasts were ended at the beginning of the 1960s on the theory that the countries there were providing an ample variety of domestic news and information services. Since then VOA has concentrated its extensive foriegn-language services on the Third World and the communist bloc.
During the Vietnam war, the previously pro-American tone of the West European media started to become more critical. In addition, the European student protest movement of the 1960s instilled strongly neutralist or anti-American views in a number of people, some of whom now hold important positions in the West European media. It is their influence that administration officials hope to counter through the projected resumption of VOA service to the area.
A special VOA study group with personnel working in Washington and Munich is considering whether to proceed with European-language broadcasts.
It is trying to determine whether a potential audience does exist in Western Europe and, if so, what kind of programming would be required to lure it away from competing European media.
The study group is also looking into the technical question of how to deliver the product. VOA sources say that the old short-wave transmissions can no longer attract listeners.
And they are investigating whether VOA can obtain substantial coverage through various combinations of leasing time on established medium-range frequencies, FM and such newer techniques as cable and satellite.
"The search for frequencies and delivery systems is a major problem and could prove decisive to the whole project," one VOA official said. In the meantime, VOA is moving ahead with its plans for an English-language service this fall by seeking to recruit a small cadre of broadcasters, producers and editors to generate broadcast material.
VOA already has contracted with an English-language FM station in Paris to carry its initial news and documentary efforts. And VOA sources say they also are negotiating with West Germany for access to one of its satellites that will allow similar transmissions to reach audiences in Germany and neighboring countries.
But, the sources said, these efforts are regarded as a trial run to help test audience receptivity. They stressed that the administration does not expect to be ready until early in 1986 to make a final decision about whether it wants to launch a new full-scale invasion of the West European airwaves.