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U.S.-Operated Stations Claim Local News Role in Disaster

June 9, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty became virtually local news stations for the Soviet Union and other East European communist countries in the weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, officials of the U.S.-financed broadcast operations said Monday.

The atomic accident not only boosted listenership but also generated thousands of listeners’ telephone calls from three countries with automatic East-to-West dialing, they told reporters.

Radio Free Europe has been receiving 150 calls a day about Chernobyl from Czechoslovakia alone in its unique call-in show, an RFE-RL headquarters report said. The other two countries from which listeners can dial RFE to record messages are Hungary and Bulgaria.

″The media here do not tell us anything substantial about radiation,″ a typical call from Bulgaria, on May 9, was quoted as saying. ″But I have seen trucks loaded with with vegetables, fruits, spinach, salad, cucumbers, which have been collected ... just to be thrown away. I am a regular listener of RFE and I am grateful for your information.″

The rise in listenership followed the traditional pattern of other times of crisis when the communist-controlled media were late and incomplete with vital interest news, said the report. ″All RFE-RL services were ahead of the regime radios - in other words, the radios performed the function of a domestic radio station.″

From April 28, when Scandinavian monitors started reporting unusual levels of radioactivity, ″We were first on the air with such news and information as was known at the time,″ said RFE-RL President E. Eugene Pell.

Tass, the Soviet news agency, reported an accident a half-hour after Radio Liberty and the RFE Polish service was more than two hours ahead of Polish official media with the news, he said.

Pell said even in normal times the U.S.-operated stations estimate listenership as high as 60 percent at least once a week. He quoted official Radio Warsaw as admitting last month that Polish listenership to all Western stations is growing and has reached 31 percent.

Magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes Jr., who is chairman of RFE-RL Inc., said the Chernobyl broadcasts were at all times ″factual, objective and non- emotional,″ and as the story unfolded it included information about health precautions.

Radio Liberty, broadcasting to the Soviet Union in several Soviet languages, increased daily broadcasts in Ukrainian, the language of Chernobyl, from 10 to 12 hours since the disaster and news about Chernobyl accounted for half of its air time the week after the accident.

Radio Free Europe broadcasts to other Soviet bloc countries.

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