Retune America's `Voice'

Article excerpt

AS Germans swung at the first crack in the Berlin Wall, they set in motion changes that will ripple throughout the globe for years to come.

One unintended result, however, was to call into question the future of important institutions that made the destruction of the wall possible in the first place: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., and the relevant services of the Voice of America. To some, the ultimate success of the radios is measured by their ability to put themselves out of business.

Recently, I called for the establishment of a commission to take a hard look at the international broadcasting activities of the United States government. In Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe, local landscapes are being transformed to the point where we must rethink the basic purposes of these broadcasting activities.

In response, the National Security Council has initiated an internal study. This is a welcome step that will lead the White House, I am confident, to recognize the need for a bipartisan commission.

Three reasons support such an undertaking:

- First, the world's enormous changes in the last year. The three regions of the world that most preoccupied our policymakers have undergone transformations that literally scuttle longstanding US policies. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are rapidly receding as military threats, while their economic transition to market economies has become a major challenge. Peace may indeed be breaking out in Central America. At the same time, southern Africa has broken a political logjam.

- Second, a subtle metamorphosis during the last decade of the rationale for US government broadcasting. The goal is no longer just to reach ruling and dissident elites in a target country. We are now part of the global mass media. The US government has a basic need to communicate with majorities anywhere. The man or woman in the street increasingly exercises greater influence on political situations.

- Third, rapid changes in this global electronic-media scene. New technology is driving the marketplace of ideas beyond all past limits. Direct broadcast satellites (DBS) are a reality today. Hughes Communications is building one for domestic use in the US by 1993; the Germans are already using DBS technology. Audience behavior is also evolving. Local media outlets have responded to the revolutions in their countries. East Europeans have begun to migrate away from their favorite shortwave programs to more audible, increasingly more sophisticated programing on local AM and FM stations.

In this quickly changing world, the power of information is magnified. Crucial to democratic societies anywhere is an infrastructure that protects freedom of speech and facilitates the free flow of information. During the postwar era, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and Radio in the American Sector (Berlin) have performed that function wherever free speech was trampled. …