How NV recovered from the first shock of war and kept covering Russia's invasion of Ukraine

1 May, 12:31 PM

The first couple of weeks at work were really tough.

I lost contact with a lot of colleagues and didn’t know whether they were under shelling in Kharkiv and Kyiv or somewhere on the way to evacuate their families. Some people just disappeared.

Others were under major emotional stress and were simply not able to do any work.

One of our prominent colleagues got burnt out completely and was publishing crazy fake posts on social networks about a physical threat to his life gathering huge feedback.

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After several attempts to get him out of Kyiv, I dropped the ball and figured we should focus on sustaining our operation and supporting the rest of our team.

Clearly, everybody with no exception was in a major personal crisis.

A week afterward the dust settled and we were able to get an idea of where we were heading as a news operation and a company.

Our political star reporter spent a week – including nights - in Kyiv’s metro seeking shelter from the bombing.

Our weekend editor on the site got stuck in Kharkiv, a site of extremely heavy bombing, and we lost touch with him.

Later we figured he survived and is fine. The head of our English-language operation, a Scotsman, was trying to rescue his family and go back to Glasgow shifting all the workload to a young Ukrainian editor who in her turn was trying to help her grandmother in an apartment in Kyiv’s left bank with poor wifi.

Our financial and IT reporters joined the Ukrainian army. Our chief designer and political editor weren’t planning to join the army but were drafted in Lviv where they took their families.

Our two most prominent radio anchors joined the territorial defense force in Kyiv – the procedure was extremely simplified – you just show your ID and get a Kalashnikov machine gun.

Well, it looked like we as a news company were in a bit of trouble. For a while, I thought we would physically lack people and our news operation, one of the largest in the country, would not survive.

Then things normalized. As much as they can normalize during the war. Russians turned out to be not as sophisticated as everybody feared and failed to knock down the internet.

Dozens of our people reached safe places with decent internet in Western Ukraine. Though in spartan living conditions and with limited productivity, they got back to work. Several key editors and executives stayed in Kyiv, got a hold of themselves and did a fantastic job.

We stopped our weekly magazine as there was no retail and distribution and directed all the resources to the site. Sports, Techno, Auto, Entertainment, Science – all the people from these sections were asked to forget their previous life and help other guys on war coverage.

We went into 24/7 mode, weekends, night shifts, and three languages – Ukrainian, Russian, and English.

We started cranking out 300 news stories a day and along with Ukrainska Pravda became one of the two most visited news sites in Ukraine. Our audience in March skyrocketed and reached 25 million unique users and about half a billion page views. 

In a sign of recognition, Russians launched major DDOS attacks on us – they were sending 200,000 information requests to our site per second and at some point managed to knock down our site for five hours.

Our chief programmer – even though under shelling in Vasylkiv, Kyiv Oblast – managed to pick up our site and upgrade our cybersecurity to the level Russians never succeeded again.

We even got into Russian hackers’ telegram channels and knew when they were preparing to attack. 

The overall conclusion was, the source told me, that Ukraine is “doable” but it is “Chechnya multiplied by 20 in terms of costs”.

A top Ukrainian oil and gas official that I spoke with on the eve of the war who sustained relatively friendly ties with some Russian decision-makers told me he met a Russian senator in the Alps resort in January. In a rare manifestation of brutal openness, the latter told him there was an internal discussion in Moscow that weighed the costs and benefits of potential aggression to Ukraine.

We are now happy to meet and exceed those expectations. In all sorts of ways, including a number of Russian casualties and our cyberwarfare.

At the same time, we relocated part of our radio equipment to Lviv and organized an improvised new studio right in a shopping mall where we got two technical rooms for free. Our radio covers 44 major cities of Ukraine in FM. Well, a bit less after Russians entered Kherson, Melitopol and other cities taking our retransmitters down. It is still 30+ cities and digital broadcasts on YouTube and our site.

I started a daily radio show in a tandem with a well-known investment banker and blogger who also relocated to Lviv. He speaks Ukrainian and I speak Russian on the air. We did a marathon of 40 days in a row, including weekends. Our idea was not just to inform and analyze the main events of the day but support the audience. We knew they know all the negative news. They get them from their smartphones in bed the moment they wake up.

So we figured we will focus on positive developments such as sanctions and Russia’s economic destruction, support from the world, infighting in Kremlin, Putin’s poor health, and inevitable death.

We aren’t idiots and understand what is going on. The main thing we wanted to achieve is an optimistic tone and a glimpse of hope. And, of course, humor. Sometimes black. All the Russian top officials and propagandists have become objects of our sarcasm. And let’s admit, they are easy targets – they’ve given plenty of reasons for ridicule.

One thing that makes us a bit tense during our live broadcasts is air raid sirens. Every time the sound of airstrike warning fills the shopping mall all the personnel roll down the metal curtains in stores and run to shelter. All shops close immediately.

We all decided to stay and continue the live broadcast. Otherwise, there would be a blank for hours on our wave. Radio chief editor Oleksiy Tarasov confessed he cut the wire that enabled an unbearable air raid siren sound on our floor and right in the studio.

Data shows our radio YouTube figures grew fivefold over the month, even though we have no cameras in our Lviv studio and people just get an audio stream on YouTube.

That is quite an appreciation.

The biggest award to us all was an old lady in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, a site of barbaric atrocities by the Russian army, who spent weeks in a basement listening to Radio NV only.

When our reporter arrived in Bucha after the Russians’ retreat, she hugged her and burst into tears. She said our radio broadcast was her major news source and motivation to survive.

Well, that probably means we did something worthy over the last month.

This story was first published by DIE ZEIT. NV is republishing it with permission. 

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