War reporting in the podcast age: How The Telegraph kept tabs on Ukraine

“Thank God we didn’t have social media on D-Day”

They say that war never changes, but while that may arguably be true from a philosophical standpoint, the way we experience conflict has dramatically changed over the last several years. Like every other major facet of human experience, war is now digital, driven by social media and internet access as much as artillery and arms. 

While this means we have faster and more accurate information about the shape of modern conflicts, the omnipresence of social media within warzones has been a double-edged rocket launcher, enabling the spread of disinformation and propaganda at alarming rates.

Podcasts have proven to be a key way to combat this, and when the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, news organisations around the world turned to podcasting in order to relay the ongoing developments. The situation in Ukraine continues to be covered extensively in a number of podcasts, including the BBC’s Ukrainecast and Power Lines from Message Heard and The Kyiv Independent, but one of the first newsrooms to respond to the conflict was The Telegraph.

The Telegraph’s social media team launched what would become Ukraine: The Latest at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour, says Dominic Nicholls, the Telegraph’s associate defence editor and one of the podcast’s main contributors. It started as a live broadcast on X - or Twitter, as it was still called at the time - using its ‘Spaces’ live audio feature, which the team has used for a number of previous projects. Around the fourth day of the invasion, the team decided to clean up the audio and put it out as a podcast.

“We had done Coronavirus: The Latest during the pandemic,” Nicholls says, “so we thought Ukraine: The Latest was a natural follow-on; our readership would recognise that as the sort of emerging brand. We did Ukraine: The Latest, and we carried on doing that in those frenetic first few days - it turned out to be crazy months - but after a few days of that, it was just off the clocks, the amount of interest we were getting.”

The Telegraph has continued to record and release the podcast on a daily basis - one of the few major news organisations still doing so, Nicholls claims - and it’s still broadcast live every day on X. This may seem like an odd choice, as both brands and users continue to abandon the platform, but Nicholls says that the platform’s accessibility and ease-of-use are what keeps the podcast on X.

“We use it because it's a very versatile platform,” he explains. “It's a bit clunky now; we have noticed the degradation since a lot of the engineers have been, well, sacked - so it is occasionally glitchy. But it means that all you need is a smartphone and a data connection.” 

“So we can speak to our team on the ground in Ukraine, and then we can instantly flick to Sophia Yan, for example, when she was in Taipei covering the reaction from China. We had one episode where I was hosting it here from London, and I was speaking to somebody in Colorado in the Midwest US, and Singapore; all seamlessly, everyone on a data connection.”

The podcast’s listenership has been steadily growing over time, Nicholls says, with the best part of 70 million listens since its launch. However, it has a tendency to spike when something particularly dramatic happens, such as when Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aircraft mysteriously crashed shortly following his public criticism of Russia’s military strategy. Nicholls attributes this to a reputation as being one of the go-to sources for insight into the war, combined with having a consistent audience that regularly comes back for new episodes.

That regular audience is predominantly based in the US, making up about 33% of the total, and anecdotal evidence suggests that most of that comes from the East Coast. Keen students of geography will note that a significant amount of the US governmental, political, military and intelligence apparatus is also located on the East Coast, which Nicholls suggests is probably not a coincidence.

“I don't think we would have got interviews with Mitt Romney and inside the White House if we weren't known, and if somebody hadn't said, oh yeah, they're alright,” he explains. “I know we have people emailing us saying ‘I can't say where I work, but…’ Now, that might be some utter fantasist - we’ve no idea. But I think the evidence speaks for itself.”

The podcast’s popularity within the beltway is presumably at least partly responsible for the brand’s decision to launch an anniversary event in Washington DC. Marking the first year of the podcast, the event - which was held at the British Embassy - saw political scientist Eliot Cohen and Kim Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, in conversation with the podcast team. Although tickets were free, it was run as a subscriber-only event (partly to control numbers, Nicholls says) and all the spaces were taken in just over 24 hours.

“Some people came from North Carolina,” he says; “they drove six hours to attend the event in Washington.”

The goal of the event was to convert more podcast listeners into subscribers of the wider brand. Nicholl says it was well-received, and while there are currently no active plans to launch more live events, he adds that he’s spoken to “a very senior politician” who was deeply involved in the situation, who has said they would be willing to join a similar event in future.

Unfortunately, the podcast is likely to have plenty of material to cover if it does choose to expand its events strategy in future: while it may no longer be in the spotlight for many news organisations, the conflict in Ukraine is very much still ongoing and, according to Nicholls, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. 

“Some people commentating seem to want to say, ‘we’re a bit bored of this war now, we want it to finish, we want to move on to the next thing’. That's not going to happen. I mean, thank God we didn't have social media on D-Day.”

The team intended to adapt the show into “a big foreign policy, security and defence digest” on a less frequent schedule once the war ended. However, the outbreak of open conflict in Gaza has led the Telegraph to bring these plans forward, launching its Battle Lines podcast at the end of October as “a weekly podcast that will be a more generic, internationally-focused foreign defence and security offering”.

At the moment, Battle Lines is focused on the situation in Gaza, but has the freedom to cover developments in other regions if necessary. Ukraine: The Latest, on the other hand, remains “laser-focused” on its original subject and despite predictions that a newer conflict would lessen interest in Ukraine, Nicholls says this has not been the case. 

The team behind the podcast plans to keep producing it for as long as the conflict goes on, and as Nicholls points out, it won’t stop at the point when arms are laid down.

“This is a UK-based, internationally-focused geopolitical defense and security podcast, that is laser-focused on Ukraine. We have discovered that there's a very large audience for that type of journalism. So we've always thought when the war ends, that we can't turn the lights off, pat each other on the back and say 'nice one, everybody, let's move on now'. There is a desire for that type of journalism.”