Radio Free Europe Commercials Studied : Information: Some planners say that ads on the U.S. broadcasts could ease the taxpayer burden.


Would U.S. broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union go better with Coca-Cola?

The possibility of commercials to ease the taxpayer burden for the American government service--with its $500 million budget--is just one idea suggested by creative thinkers as part of the first full-scale review of U.S. international broadcasting since the Voice of America went on the air during World War II.

The prime target for economizers--with the backing of Budget Director Richard G. Darman and State Department policy-makers--is Radio Free Europe, a Cold War weapon designed to provide news for Eastern European countries once locked behind the Iron Curtain.

RFE and its companion, Radio Liberty, which is directed toward Soviet audiences, attracted global attention when it was revealed that they were among President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s key information sources while he was being detained during the failed Soviet coup. The two services receive almost $200 million, 40% of what the government spends on the worldwide Voice of America service, which some argue should be enough to speak for the United States in an era of world peace.


RFE is “a surrogate news service, and we don’t need it any more,” one of the 11 members of a presidential-appointed task force on U.S. broadcasting services said in an interview that took place before the Soviet coup attempt. “The Eastern European countries have democratic governments now, and they should be running their own national broadcasting.”

Not so, said Malcolm Forbes Jr., who as head of the Board of International Broadcasting directs the budgets for the two stations. In a phone interview conducted before the Soviet turmoil began, he argued that even the three East European nations most advanced on the path toward democracy--Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary--still need U.S. radio broadcasts.

“President Vaclav Havel (of Czechoslovakia) telephoned President Bush . . . to say he definitely wants RFE to continue, and the leaders of the other Eastern European governments have made it clear that they don’t want U.S. broadcasting wound down precipitously,” said Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine.

He noted that he wants the services to become self-supporting and said he has authorized studies of possible advertising markets.


“We’re exploring it for the three countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary), but given the state of their economies, the support for the next few years is going to have to come from here,” he said. He added that he does not think recession-strapped U.S. corporate donors can provide enough donations to support the service.

RFE was founded in 1952 as a Cold War weapon, purportedly financed by U.S. corporate gifts. But its secret financing by the CIA was unmasked, and the federal government then openly took over.

Another target of cost-cutters is the newest addition to U.S. communications, TV Marti. The 16-month-old television channel and its companion, Radio Marti, are aimed at Cuba. The stations are administered by VOA; the combined Cuban operation costs almost $40 million--a sum one government body has already declared out of proportion. But a potent Cuban-American lobby supports Marti.

The presidential task force, which includes former government officials, diplomats and mass communications experts, was named by President Bush in April to study the U.S. government international broadcast operations. The task force--headed by John Hughes, a former VOA director and State Department spokesman--has six months to make recommendations.


Even those who want to shut down most of Radio Free Europe believe that Radio Liberty should keep operating, at least until Moscow settles with its rebellious republics.

And one task force member--Ben J. Wattenberg, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former vice chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting--argues that existing services should be maintained and that a Radio Free China should be added. That proposal has some congressional support but little in the Bush Administration, which is chary of offending Beijing.