MUNICH, JULY 31 -- In Riga last week, the head of the Latvian Communist Party called the local Radio Free Europe correspondent and asked to be interviewed on the air. In Moscow a few weeks ago, thousands of people gathered at a sold-out tribute to Radio Liberty organized by Soviet television.
And starting tomorrow morning, if all goes well, commuters across Czechoslovakia can flip on their car radios and, at the same spot on the AM dial where they used to hear the voice of their government, tune in Radio Free Europe -- the U.S.-funded station that for four decades transmitted news of the underground opposition to the Communist countries of Eastern Europe.
These might seem to be heady times at the sprawling Munich headquarters of the two radio stations. Countries that once spent huge sums to jam Western radio signals and even jailed citizens for listening to the stations now express gratitude for the news and commentary they broadcast during the decades of Communist rule. Newly appointed government leaders have even cut ribbons at new Radio Free Europe news bureaus in Prague and Budapest.
But the success of the stations -- which were secretly financed by the CIA until 1971 but have been part of a congressionally funded private corporation since then -- may yet be their undoing. Morale at Radio Free Europe is at an all-time low, according to staff members and office managers.
As the nations of the former East Bloc open themselves to free, private media, the role of Western broadcasters must change and may vanish entirely. The U.S. National Security Council is expected to release a report later this summer calling for a task force to study whether Radio Free Europe should be folded into the Voice of America -- the U.S. government's worldwide broadcast service -- or shut down entirely.
"When our job is done, we ought to close the doors," said William Marsh, executive vice president of the stations. "But that point has certainly not arrived."
Unlike the Voice of America, which presents listeners with a government-approved view of the United States, Radio Free Europe also acts as a local radio station for each of six countries and the Soviet Baltic republics, devoting programs to local news, political discussions and cultural affairs in nine languages.
Radio Liberty serves a similar function in the Soviet Union, where its programs are heard in 12 languages around the vast, ethnically diverse country.
In the months since the political transformation of Eastern Europe, the Munich stations have struggled to adapt their programming to keep up with current events. Hundreds of hours a month are now dedicated to programs like "Privatization Scorecard" and "The Democratic Experience," as well as an extended series on how West European countries handle social and environmental problems.
"We have to be vigilant now not to preach to people," said Robert Gillette, deputy director of Radio Free Europe. "These are very confusing times in many countries, and people look to us as their local station to analyze what's happening."
In fact, listenership already is on the decline, according to station figures. State-run broadcasting in most East European countries has shaken off many of the constraints of the old Communist regimes and won over many local listeners. But the government radio stations still remain loyal to whoever is in power, and editors at Radio Free Europe say they have a new role to play as a political guide to the new parties and factions popping up in each country.
Despite the dwindling number of listeners, the Munich stations retain great popularity. In the first listener survey conducted since the fall of Communism in the region, a French company found that 45 percent of all Romanian adults had tuned in to Radio Free Europe in the months after the December Democratic uprising there, a drop from 61 percent in the period just before the revolt.
For the hundreds of emigres who produce programs for the two stations, the sweeping changes of the past year have been the realization of distant dreams. Not only in the Czechoslovak department, but in offices around the building, posters of new Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel are taped to the walls.
"If my fellow citizens knew me before I became president, they did so because of these stations," Havel said last month. Havel has ordered his communications ministry, which has been swamped by applications for airtime on the local radio dial, to put the others aside and concentrate on a deal for local transmission of Radio Free Europe.
But the sympathies of emigres who kept their countrymen informed on dissidents such as Havel pose a problem for a news organization whose upper management is composed in part of former American newspaper and radio journalists.
"Our programming used to be easy -- black hats and white hats," said Marsh, who runs the editors conference each day in a room decorated with Cold War-era posters. "He needs a mind of his own," reads a poster depicting a sad-faced young boy. "He needs Radio Free Europe."
"Now we have to be extremely careful not to be seen as supporting any particular factions," Marsh said.
Recent changes have brought some anomalies. For example, Vladimir Matusevitch, head of Radio Free Europe's Russian department, is proud to say that he has a stringer -- a part-time correspondent -- in the remote Soviet city of Novosibirsk.
"Finally, an on-the-spot reporter in Siberia," Matusevitch said. The reporter, Alexei Manannikov, is a former teacher who spent three years in forced labor camps. By late 1988, Manannikov was delivering stories over the phone to Radio Liberty and publishing an illegal newsletter.
Last year, Manannikov was elected to the Soviet Congress of Peoples' Deputies -- the country's supreme legislative body -- defeating the local Communist Party secretary by campaigning as a Radio Liberty correspondent. As a legislator, he continued filing, not only commentaries on his congressional experience, but news stories as well, Matusevitch said.
"There's no conflict of interest at all," Matusevitch said. "He's a good news reporter."
But would Radio Liberty hire a Communist legislator as a reporter? Matusevitch laughed. "I never thought about that," he said. "Probably not."
Asked how having an elected official as a reporter fit in with the stations' impartiality guidelines, Marsh said: "As soon as people join the political process, we don't want them. He shouldn't be there." Three hours later, Marsh said that Manannikov had been released.
But the ties between Radio Free Europe staffers and the members of the opposition they have worked with for decades persist.
Pavel Pechacek, the station's director of Czech and Slovak broadcasting, said that his programs seek to "build democracy, and you can't do that by simply saying everything's okay now. We don't want to be blind to the new government's problems."
But Pechacek is an old friend of Havel and several other ministers in the new Prague government, and every day he sends the president a copy of Radio Free Europe's news analysis. "Often Havel doesn't have enough paper for his fax," Pechacek said. "So we send him the paper."
"We've been mutually co-opted," said Gary Thatcher, Radio Free Europe's director of public affairs. "Our most vociferous critics from the old days are now on the margin. Our old supporters are now in critical positions of power."
Radio Free Europe's staff -- once criticized by the East as a "nest of spies" and by the West as uncomfortably unsubtle -- remains divided between what one executive called "unrepentant Cold Warriors" and mainstream journalists devoted to producing unbiased news reports.
In the daily conference on news programming, at which editors review the stories each language service is preparing, the tension shows:
"We've got a situation which is out of control," Radio Liberty director Enders Wimbush said of the Soviet economy. "It's heading for collapse. This thing could just go belly up in the coming hours."
"I think we have to be very careful using the word 'collapse' about the Soviet Union," responded Paul Goble, the stations' research director. "They're still operating at 90 percent of what they were a year ago. We don't want to get out ahead of events."
As programmers in Munich debate what Soviet and Eastern European citizens need to know, Washington officials consider how much longer U.S. taxpayers should spend $190 million a year broadcasting to the region. And in countries from Poland to Romania, local entrepreneurs and global media magnates, such as Britain's Robert Maxwell and Australia's Rupert Murdoch, are planning print and broadcast ventures.
"Are U.S. taxpayers indefinitely going to underwrite the flow of information to people who have access to free, private media?" Thatcher asked. "Obviously not."