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Q & A Time on Moscow Call-in Radio Show

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It’s hard to be enemies when you’re trying so hard to be friends.

That reality of human nature has fueled the biggest success and the biggest failure of the first five installments of “Calling Moscow.” The monthly call-in radio show lets American listeners chat with a panel of Soviet citizens in a Moscow studio about life in the Soviet Union.

In the spirit of glasnost and in the name of superpower harmony, public radio station KPBS-FM in San Diego and the North American division of Radio Moscow, the Soviet equivalent of the Voice of America, began an experiment last March linking callers from the United States with English-speaking Soviets.

The program airs live at 3 p.m. PDT (2 a.m. Moscow time) on the last Friday of every month on 25 U.S. public radio stations, including KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica. It was designed to open a dialogue among average citizens about basic life experiences.

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“I think we have succeeded so far just in reinforcing the idea that Soviet and American people are very much alike,” Doug Waldo, the American host of the show, said recently. “If average people can get to know each other and trust each other, it may make it more and more difficult for our governments to get us into dangerous situations that the people don’t want to be in.”

Initially, the show’s American producers worried that some communist-bashing caller would get on the air and obnoxiously spout “evil empire”-style Cold War propaganda.

To minimize such overt political antagonism, both sides agreed to avoid topics such as disarmament and Afghanistan in favor of issues such as education, recreation, the arts, family relations and drug and alcohol abuse.

But the program has been criticized for going too far in its quest for friendship, inspiring American callers to throw soft questions at the Soviet panel, which allow them to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of life in the era of glasnost .

“I think we (Americans) have to stop being polite and behaving as if Soviet-American friendship would die if we talked about real issues,” said Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW. She met with the Radio Moscow producers of the program on a trip to the Soviet Union last March and came back convinced that they were willing to withstand a tough, honest inspection of their society.

“Most of the (listeners) who participate in this program genuinely think that they are taking part in a peace march and see Soviet-American friendship as the thing that will save the world,” Hirschman said.

“This is a wonderful visionary idea and it took great courage for (KPBS) to get into something like this. But, unfortunately, the program also elicits too much of a fawning, ‘Gee, isn’t it wonderful that we’re friends’ attitude.”

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Even the Soviets have been surprised by the simplicity of many of the questions, Sergey Goryachov, the Soviet producer of the program, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his office in Moscow.

He said he wonders at how little Americans seem to know about the Soviet Union when someone asks whether the Soviets are allowed to keep pets in their homes.

The American producers acknowledge that some of the questioning has lacked bite.

In a joint Soviet-American effort to encourage questions with more teeth, this Friday’s show will award a Radio Moscow pin, pennant and Soviet music album to the caller who asks the most “interesting” question.

Overall, however, the Soviets have been pleased with the program and its contribution in helping Americans see the Soviets as fellow human beings rather than as “the enemy,” Goryachov said.

He insisted that each Soviet guest has unqualified permission to answer every question openly and honestly. But he conceded that, for many Russians, this relatively new freedom is hard to get used to.

“When we speak of our problems with each other, maybe we are more sincere,” Goryachov said. “It’s not so easy to admit your problems when you know millions of Americans could be listening.

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“For many years we were not accustomed to speaking about certain problems. But our society is changing and the people are changing too. Some change more quickly while others tend to be overly optimistic on the radio about certain things. I don’t think it’s good, but we can’t change our people overnight.”

Hirschman believes that Waldo should take a more active role in encouraging incisive questions and following up on issues when the Soviets gloss over some of the more telling details.

“So what if there is some conflict, some attacks?” Hirschman said. “Do you think the Russians can’t take it?

“When I was there, I asked them what they would do with the question ‘Can the Russian Johnny read?’ They said, ‘The question is not whether he can read, the question is whether Johnny can think for himself.’

“I would like the program to have more of that kind of sophistication and (guts.)”

Don Martin, executive producer of the program in San Diego, said Waldo has at times intervened in an effort to elicit a more forthright answer from the Soviets, but “we want this to be a program for our callers. We do not want Doug to dominate the conversation when we only have about 55 minutes each month for questions from the audience.”

This approach has its backers. Marc Cooper, media critic for the L.A. Weekly, has written that “Calling Moscow” “sparkles” precisely because Waldo avoids the Phil Donahue-like infusing of his own “personal agenda” into the conversations, thus leaving “the audience to trust its own wits in dealing with the Russians.”

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Waldo’s unobtrusive style has allowed some questionable statements to go unchallenged and unverified. Examples: The Soviets no longer believe that they must match the United States missile for missile and have decided that they only need enough weapons to ensure their own defense. Or, all women, regardless of ethnicity or family background, have the same education and career opportunities as men.

Yet listeners everywhere from Alaska to Arkansas to Altadena have elicited some worthwhile exchanges.

During a program on teen-agers, a question about draft dodging and Afghanistan turned into what Hirschman called a wonderful discussion about Americans evading the draft during the Vietnam era by going to Canada and the Soviet problems during the war in Afghanistan.

And in response to a question about the effects of glasnost and a quip from an American caller about the Soviets being able to eat at McDonald’s, one Soviet guest remarked: “There goes the neighborhood.”

But technical problems in the satellite system that links the studios have sometimes rendered this debate over the quality of the show’s content moot.

Transmission trouble forced KPBS to cancel last month’s conversation with the Russians and several earlier programs were interrupted by communication blackouts.

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But KPBS has switched satellite carriers for Friday’s show, and Martin said he is confident that the technical problems are over.

Each show costs more than $2,000 for satellite time and other expenses, Martin said, and KPBS has been bankrolling the entire cost. Martin said the station is committed to continuing the program through next June, but it is looking for a sponsor to help underwrite the expense.

KPBS is hoping to expand its format to include random Soviet callers asking questions of an American panel, but the station has yet to work out a way to get around the language barrier.

One of the primary limitations of the show, Waldo said, is that having to find English-speaking Soviet guests drastically reduces the pool of average Russians that Radio Moscow can put on the air.

But no matter how rickety, both sides seem downright giddy about their space bridge over the Cold War.

“I am very proud that I do this job and try to bring people closer together,” Goryachov said.

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“By means of radio, I think we can make people talk to each other. We feel here at Radio Moscow that maybe we contributed to the better relations that we see now between our two countries.”

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