Reducing Ukrainecast episodes could mean 'deeper, more meaningful' reporting

BBC likely to stop producing Ukrainecast daily, but presenters hope fewer episodes could have greater impact

Ukrainecast team on stage at The Podcast Show

The BBC’s Ukrainecast is likely to stop putting out daily podcasts as audience interest in the war has “dipped”.

But producing fewer episodes will mean it can report “in a deeper, more meaningful way,” presenter Gabriel Gatehouse argued.

Gatehouse and his co-presenter Victoria Derbyshire also spoke about how they deal with their own emotional reactions to the most horrific stories coming out of Ukraine, with Derbyshire saying: “Whatever we’re experiencing is fucking nothing like they’re experiencing.”

The pair were speaking alongside Jonathan Aspinwall, senior news editor for news podcasts including Ukrainecast, Newscast and Americast, at The Podcast Show in London on Thursday.

BBC News scrambled to quickly launch Ukrainecast on 24 February, the same day that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, to dissect the latest news coming out of the war every weekday.

It became one of the three most listened to podcasts on BBC Sounds in the first quarter of the year according to the BBC – alongside Newscast and The Coming Storm, also presented by Gatehouse, about the Qanon conspiracy movement in the US.

Aspinwall (pictured, left) told The Podcast Show there was “massive momentum… [and] so much hunger” from listeners at the start of the invasion and that although audience interest “has dipped” it has not gone down “as much as I thought [it] would actually”.

Many publishers and broadcasters saw record audiences in the first few weeks of the Ukraine war but interest began to wane by the end of the first month.

The Ukrainecast team is now having conversations about scaling back the frequency of episodes, Aspinwall said, acknowledging the fact that now the war is a longer-term story “there is a danger that episodes can sound similar on a day by day basis, and we have to really analyse that”.

He said the questions involved include: “What is this pod going forward if it is a reduced number of days, from the five days a week? What is the pod? What does it look like? What are the main priorities in this story now? I think that’s a fair representation of where we’re at and we’re really honest about that and we’re just kind of, we’re grappling with it, we’re discussing it as a trio, as a team.”

However, Aspinwall said engagement from listeners who “say this pod means something to us” remains high, making the discussion a “really difficult” one.

But he added: “There’s a moral obligation, obviously, to stay with the story for a long time. Now, you know, it would be awful for us to walk away from it.”

Comparing it to his previous jobs in breakfast TV, local media and BBC 5 Live, Aspinwall said: “I would say the level of eloquence, the long emails, which are super engaged, which refer to stuff on the podcast, is just a different level. Not necessarily the volume but I’d say the level of engagement.”

He put this down, at least in part, to the conversational nature of podcasting: “Undoubtedly I think it’s to do with the medium,” he said. “I think it’s just so conversational, so personal and so intimate. That barrier that exists sometimes with people talking at you on the radio or on the telly – I think that barrier is just gone and it’s just such an intimate forum and it’s special.”

Report in a ‘deeper, more meaningful way’

Explaining why he personally thought the number of episodes should be reduced, Gatehouse (pictured, right), said: “Those first weeks everything was new, and there was a new thing that you were like, ‘oh my God, they [Russia] did what?’

“But now you can get to a stage where it’s no less bad, it’s no less impactful for the people who are there, but it’s less new because it’s happening every day and the same thing is happening every day.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about first drafts and second drafts, and you don’t want to constantly be writing the first draft of something, and then moving on to the next first draft. At some point, you want to sit down and go, ‘Okay, we’ve written all of that out, let’s kind of go back over it and refine it so that they actually mean something more.’

“And I think if we went down to fewer episodes we would be able to do that a bit more, with essentially the same story that’s happening over and over again, but reported in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

Derbyshire (pictured, centre), who agreed “at some point it will reduce” in frequency, added: “We can all see it’s dropping down the TV news bulletins, we can see that and that’s just the nature of news and the nature of audience interest.

“But there are Ukrainecast listeners who say, ‘I listen to this every single day because I’m not going to allow it to drop down the bulletin because I need to bear witness to it and the way I’m doing that is by listening to Ukrainecast’. And we care, we have a responsibility.”

‘It affected me more’

Sometimes that feeling of empathy from the presenters can mean they wear their emotions on their sleeves.

Gatehouse, who has previously been based in Ukraine and speaks Russian, admitted he was “close to bursting into tears” during the recording of the first episode.

He acknowledged this “sounds a bit self indulgent, because obviously I’m not in Ukraine being shelled and not a Russian journalist who’s been forced to leave their homes and become exiles suddenly overnight. But I do know a lot of these people personally and I’ve spent many, many years living there looking at this country and these two countries that are so intertwined.

“So in a way, it affected me more than some of the other conflicts that I’ve covered,” he went on, citing the wars in Iraq and Syria amongst others, “just because of familiarity. And I think also knowledge of the language – so much of it has been played out on social media and we see so many of those clips and when you can hear those people and understand what they’re saying in those clips it just feels a bit closer to home.”

[Read more: Journalists respond to double-standards criticism over Ukraine coverage]

Derbyshire said that, especially in the early days of the war, she and Gatehouse were regularly sent private messages on Instagram and Twitter containing images of dead bodies “because people in Ukraine want us to see what’s actually happening”.

She pointed out that, when they open these types of messages they have no way of knowing that they will be so graphic.

But she added: “I feel that’s our job to look at those images and in a sensitive and accurate and measured way describe them on Ukrainecast for our listeners… In terms of whether we can handle it or not – it’s our job to handle it. We’re not there. We’re not in the middle of it. Whatever we’re experiencing is fucking nothing like they’re experiencing and that’s all we have to remember because it’s not about us.”

Derbyshire also said “we don’t do journalism that’s sanitised” while Aspinwall agreed: “We’re not going to shy away from the reality because a sanitised version of what’s going on is doing a disservice to our audience.”

Despite this, rules had to be introduced for the Ukrainecast production team’s Whatsapp group, he said, because he was aware of the impact on them of messages “coming in thick and fast” with some “horrific” content.

“We had to introduce a whole set of rules about how we’re going to interact… there is a duty of care because actually, some of the things are just plain horrific.”

War as entertainment

The presenters were also asked if they fear there is a risk in producing content about the Ukraine war that leads to it becoming “a form of entertainment that people watch on TV”.

Gatehouse said he does worry about that “but I think that the human element is the key to making that not happen”.

He said: “Geopolitics is made up of the thousands and millions of individual stories that fuel these bigger events… and I think the key is to making those connections between the individual stories and the big picture so that it’s not entertainment, God forbid… but there is absolutely a risk.”

He added that news is an industry but that in some countries “it’s an entertainment industry and we must be absolutely very careful we don’t let war become entertainment”.

Derbyshire disagreed, however: “I don’t feel there is a risk because I feel that we are very experienced journalists, but we are human beings first. And I really give a shit about people that we interview on Ukrainecast, and I care about them and we have developed relationships with them and we go back to them continually because we want to know how they’re doing and our listeners want to know if they’re okay.”

Picture: Press Gazette

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