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How news podcasts quickly popped up to cover Ukraine

The circumstances were right to spin up new shows

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated headlines for the last month, with updates being prioritized across newspapers, TV outlets, and social media. But coverage has also popped up in a space that’s less known for handling breaking news: podcasts. Ukraine-focused podcasts or seasons have launched from places like NPR, the BBC, and CNN, with at least 11 designated series popping up in total. Most incorporate firsthand reporting, many publish daily, and some even update multiple times per day.

A podcast isn’t usually the preferred format for such a quickly moving story since audio shows can be difficult to turn around — or build an audience for — on short notice. But the creators of these series tell The Verge that the process is worth it, as audiences were already coming to their teams for information (often through existing podcast offerings), and they felt that audio as a medium allows can give listeners a personal connection to the story.

“It’s a quickly evolving situation that changes day by day,” says Theodora Louloudis, head of audio at The Telegraph, “and listeners are looking for both accurate and up-to-date information as well as analysis and insight.”

Past events have spurred news podcasts to come together rapidly — think Donald Trump’s impeachment or the pandemic — yet only certain events create the circumstances for such shows to be possible, given the sometimes Herculean task of starting and maintaining them. What about this moment lends itself to delivering news in such a way?

Producers of these shows say there are several reasons the events in Ukraine are an appropriate circumstance, making pop-up news podcasts not only possible to produce but worth producing. First, the steps leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were being widely reported on, giving their teams an opportunity to trace if and when audiences went looking for more information.

“We’ve seen clearly how deeply audiences have engaged with NPR’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis in many places, including our daily news podcasts Up First and Consider This,” says Neal Carruth, NPR’s senior director for on-demand news programming. This informed the launch in early March of State of Ukraine, a standalone show.

Similarly, Louloudis says The Telegraph as a whole was seeing “high subscriber engagement in this fast-moving, unfolding crisis,” thus justifying the launch of a new podcast, Ukraine: The Latest. “There are times of crisis when we rapidly pivot our resources into covering a major global story. COVID was one, the Russia-Ukraine war another.”

When Russia officially invaded Ukraine, reporters were ready to respond to the demand that had been growing, and many already had audio capabilities. Both NPR and The Telegraph leveraged existing reporters on the ground for their audio endeavors, and the shows Ukraine Without Hype and Ukraine World’s Explaining Ukraine — launched in 2020 and 2018, respectively — recently shifted from their general-interest coverage to reports focused on the invasion, in order to provide insights that audiences needed.

Sometimes the insights that audiences need are more personal, which audio is well served to deliver. The shows Fighting For Ukraine, In Ukraine: A Civilian Diary, and Tortoise Media’s Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine all provide firsthand accounts, at times bringing Ukrainian voices into listeners’ ears multiple times per day.

Beyond the labor of production and tight turnarounds, which are characteristic of news podcasts, there’s a challenge faced specifically by those that pop up to cover a singular event: that one day that event will end, and they’ll no longer be needed. But audio teams still stand to benefit from this since they can repurpose the RSS feeds from these shows, as well as the subscribers that they either acquired or converted from other series. As The Verge reported in 2019 regarding impeachment-focused podcasts, once the legal proceedings came to an end, some publications used their slowed or stagnant feeds to promote more general-interest shows. Currently, organizations like NPR are motivated by this ability to pivot.

“We’re proud to be providing a useful service for listeners on a fast-moving global story, as we did two years [ago] when we launched the Coronavirus Daily podcast,” says Carruth, who, in June of 2020, helped facilitate the conversion of Coronavirus Daily into NPR’s now-familiar daily podcast Consider This, all within the same feed.

Shows that focus on historical analysis were already in the habit of shifting topics, and some have viewed this current event as worth focusing their coverage on. In the tradition of Slow Burn, the Axios show How It Happened launched in 2021 and has continuously shifted topics and cover art to unpack different historical events. Naomi Shavin, Axios’ senior producer of podcast narrative and development, says it became clear that their show was the right fit for a Ukraine focus. “Because the conflict has vivid characters, huge stakes, and escalating tension and action that played out across years, it was an obvious choice,” she says.

Relatedly, the podcast Open Source had already teamed up earlier this year with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft to produce the limited series In Search of Monsters about “how America’s hyper-militarized foreign policy shapes the world we live in today.” They’ve since pivoted to making the show about Russia’s adjacent aggression and current attack on Ukraine as an extension of that original conceit.

Existing audio teams are increasingly finding success in these quick pivots, but the decision continues to be a layered calculation. Are audiences invested enough in a given story? Will they transfer from existing properties to this new one? Is it possible to picture the eventual off-ramp? These questions will likely be asked more frequently going forward, and it seems possible that they’ll also be answered more quickly: Jonathan Aspinwall, senior news editor for BBC’s news podcasts, says their own Ukrainecast transformed “from an idea to a published podcast” in less than 48 hours.