Throughout the Cold War, U.S. government-financed Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty penetrated electronic jamming screens, providing Eastern European and Soviet listeners with an uncensored alternative to Communist-controlled news. Now that the Cold War is over and Communism no longer is a threat, cost-cutters want to merge them into the Voice of America.
That's a shortsighted idea. The stations' missions are vastly different. The RFE/RL broadcasting colossus deals with topical internal coverage of target countries; VOA's success is measured by its ability to explain official U.S. policies and the American lifestyle. A merger would be awkward.
Yet the U.S. government's worldwide radio effort is ready for an overhaul. Cold War conditions once justified a heavy investment in shortwave transmitter complexes around the globe. No longer.
Many international broadcasters now have so much surplus transmitter capacity they are selling relay services. And the once-unthinkable has happened: many target countries which a few years ago tried to drown foreign broadcasters' signals now sell air time to them on domestic networks.
This change has benefited both VOA and RFE/RL, which are now broadcast locally in many European countries. Yet those stations' lobbyists insist that they continue to need all their Cold War shortwave transmitter capacity plus a costly new superstation in either Israel or Kuwait. This is nothing short of outdated radio madness.
Front pages show every day that the epochal transformation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from communism to free-enterprise democracy is far from being successfully completed. In these uncertain conditions, the expert and credible voices of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are sorely needed to promote stability through an unfettered debate of information and ideas. Particularly important are the latter's broadcasts in the languages of Central Asia and Afghanistan. Such services simply cannot be combined with the Voice of America.
This does not mean the Clinton administration should not combine the three U.S. broadcasters under a single administrative entity so that much unnecessary duplication is avoided. The best way to start is by making a rational use of their combined transmitter capacity and scrap relay sites that are simply too old and redundant.