For two years, Radio Liberty, the U.S.-supported station that broadcasts to the Soviet Union, has been troubled by internal dissension that some critics think has weakened the station as an instrument of U.S. policy and made it an arena for refighting obscure doctrinal battles from the mists of Russian history.
At issue are charges by several staff members and outside specialists that right-wing Russian emigres, taking advantage of the Reagan administration's hard-line views on communism, have infused Radio Liberty's programming with overtones of anti-Semitism, extreme Russian nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments.
The dispute gained international notice last year when a program about Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous novel, "August 1914," stirred a furor over whether the novel and the broadcast were subtly anti-Semitic. But other programs also have come under attack in the continuing debate about the implications for Radio Liberty of ethnic Russian -- as distinguished from communist -- nationalism and its traditional suspicion of Jews and other minority groups.
The convoluted nuances of this debate are rooted in ancient feuds that seem incomprehensible to non-Russians. However, they have become so intertwined with Radio Liberty's image that they cannot be ignored by a generation of U.S. managers who are just beginning to revitalize the station in an attempt to maintain its credibility with listeners in the Soviet Union while meeting the requirement of U.S. law "to operate in a manner consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States."
They are taking on that task as Radio Liberty and its sister station that broadcasts to Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe, narrowly averted a financial crisis that could have forced them to stop broadcasting. Their Munich location requires that most of their expenses be paid in West German marks. When Congress allocated their budget for fiscal 1986, it overestimated the dollar's current exchange rate against the mark, which resulted in a $21 million shortfall in the funds available to the two radios.
Despite these difficulties, the American managers of the stations insist that RFE/RL, as the combined broadcasting operations are commonly known, will continue to be an effective tool for opening the Soviet Union and the East European countries under Soviet hegemony to western ideas and influence.
The funding crunch was eased on June 26 when Congress approved an $18 million supplemental appropriation.
As to the long-range financial outlook, they note that the administration's strong belief in propaganda as a weapon in the East-West contest of ideologies has caused it to be generous in seeking appropriations for RFE/RL even in a time of budgetary austerity. Under President Reagan, the RFE/RL budget has increased from $87 million in 1981 to a fiscal 1987 request of $168 million.
In response to the complaints about anti-Semitism and anti-democratic attitudes at Radio Liberty, the managers insist that the controversy is a greatly exaggerated affair that involved a small number of broadcasts in which the programming content was subject to differing interpretations.
Nonetheless, the persistence of the dispute is thought to have been an indirect factor in the replacement late last year of the top management at RFE/RL and its parent supervisory group, the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB). Since then, E. Eugene Pell, who moved from the U.S. Information Agency's Voice of America to become president of RFE/RL, has been quietly making personnel and program changes at Radio Liberty.
In an interview, Pell contended that the real importance of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe should not be measured by debates about "whether Solzhenitsyn's writings should be regarded as anti-Semitic or as a commentary applicable only to certain events at a specific point in history." Instead, he said, a better gauge would be the performance of the radios in the aftermath of an event like the April 26 Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Western journalists who managed to get into nearby Kiev found that many area residents first learned about Chernobyl from the Ukrainian-language broadcasts of Radio Liberty, the VOA and the British Broadcasting Corp., and that, for the next several days, they relied on these broadcasts as their only source of advice on radiation hazards.
Nor was this phenomenon limited to Kiev. Diplomats and journalists reported that people throughout Eastern Europe kept their radio dials tuned to the short-wave frequencies carrying news about fallout from Chernobyl.
It was a new demonstration of the role played by western radio stations, particularly Radio Liberty and RFE, in keeping East Europeans informed in a crisis.
The BBC and VOA are worldwide operations that devote only a fraction of their time and resources to Eastern Europe. The VOA also has had its focus restricted by Congress to news and information about the United States.
By contrast, Radio Liberty-RFE, funded by the U.S. government but run by a private corporation, aim only at Eastern Europe and are designed to be "surrogate" stations providing information and opinion that its audiences cannot obtain from the state-controlled news media. U.S. officials estimate that in normal times more than 50 million adults listen to these stations at least once a week. In times of crisis, like Chernobyl or the crackdown on the Solidarity movement in Poland, normal listenership is estimated to rise by as much as 20 percent.
To preserve this wide audience, the stations emphasize objectivity in news coverage, and in their commentaries they are supposed to avoid heavy-handed propaganda. But, in the competition for credibility, RL and RFE have been handicapped by constant Soviet reminders that they were Cold War creations of the Central Intelligence Agency and operated for years under thinly disguised CIA control.
That link was broken a decade ago when Congress fused the two formerly separate radios into a nonprofit corporation, with a U.S. management staff responsible to BIB, whose members are presidentially appointed but independent of official direction. Funds for operating the radios are appropriated by Congress and channeled through the BIB.
Three-quarters of the combined staffs are East European emigres from the countries served by the two radios. That has produced a frequently volatile chemistry between traditionally hostile nationalities.
The problem has been most acute at Radio Liberty, whose foreign staff includes three waves of emigrants: those whose families left Russia at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, those who came West at the end of World War II in 1945, and a third, predominantly Jewish wave that was allowed to emigrate in the 1970s.
Many of the earlier emigrants, steeped in Russian nationalism and the attitudes of the Cold War, have resented the Jewish newcomers as "non-Russians" friendly toward socialism. Inevitably, that caused a jockeying for influence that was reflected in Radio Liberty's programming, particularly in its commentaries on the lessons of Russian history.
Ben J. Wattenberg, a BIB member, summed up the problem in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. He said: "We are dealing with a blood-soaked part of the world, with endemic intergroup hostilities . . . . Many of our broadcasters, and many emigres involved in these disputes, have sharply divergent views about the history and possible future of that part of the world."
The old guard has taken much of its cue from Solzhenitsyn. From his retreat in Vermont, he has been sharply critical of American democracy and has propounded social and political theories that liberals charge are tinged with religious authoritarianism. Nevertheless, his ideas, and those of other emigre writers who share his views, have been given frequent airings on Radio Liberty.
Many younger staff members think that such ideas are dangerous and contrary to Radio Liberty's stated purposes. Yet, they contend, programming with an allegedly anti-democratic cast has increased under the Reagan administration because the station's managers and the BIB members judged broadcast content solely on the basis of ability to undermine the Soviet system.
According to the critics, that approach was especially pervasive when two outspoken conservatives, Frank Shakespeare and James L. Buckley, headed BIB and RFE/RL. Their departures last year came as BIB was being forced to recognize that the internal ideological controversy was out of hand.
In choosing Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., a member of a business-publishing family, as BIB chairman and Pell as president of RFE/RL, the board assigned top priority to putting Radio Liberty's house in order. In that context, most observers of Radio Liberty agree, the key figure has been Pell, a veteran radio and television newsman who had been a Moscow correspondent before going to the VOA.
It is too early to tell whether he will be able to keep Radio Liberty on the beam as a professional station that will be respected by its Soviet listeners. But, for starters, he has sought to establish greater control over program content by moving some Russian-language broadcasts from Munich to Washington, where they can be supervised more closely, and by instituting comprehensive program reviews.
More importantly, he also has quietly removed or transferred many of the emigre personnel with allegedly extremist views and has recruited new American directors. Radio Liberty's new director is Nicholas Vaslef, a former Air Force officer and professor at the Air Force Academy with a doctorate in Russian studies. RFE will be headed by Gregory Wierzynski, a veteran Time magazine correspondent who covered Eastern Europe.
One BIB member, who asked not to be identified, said: "These men are different from the political appointees who typically held their jobs in the past. They know the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at first hand, and because they have an up-to-date view of the region that is attuned to current realities, they are well equipped to ride herd on those emigres whose vision of their homelands has not changed in the years since they came to the West."