Since the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, Ukrainian civil society worked to create a true public broadcaster – the organisation that would be publicly funded but would retain editorial independence from whoever leads the government at the moment.
It was only in the mid-2010s, after the Revolution of Dignity brought a new democratic government, that Ukraine’s media community achieved this goal. The Soviet-era state-run media company was transformed into a more modern, leaner entity with governance structures in place to ensure editorial independence.
The Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine, now branded as Suspilne (Ukrainian word for “public”), was fully launched in 2017 after a three-year process of reforms. While its work isn’t without challenges – for one, it has never been fully funded to the extent called for by the law – Suspilne is one of the most important sources of news for the 40-million-people country.
Suspilne has two nationwide TV channels and three radio stations, and a robust network of two dozen regional TV and radio stations. It also has a strong presence on the web, which has increased significantly in recent years, with multiple websites and almost 150 social media channels. Across all platforms, the broadcaster reaches many millions of people.
Today, as Ukraine is battling Russia’s full-scale military invasion, Suspilne plays a particularly important role in delivering information to millions of people – including to those in occupied territories and those who can’t access news online.
Mykola Chernotytskyi leads Suspilne’s 4,000-people team as Head of the Managing Board – a CEO-like role in the organisation. The 38-year-old media manager assumed this position a year ago; before, he was on the top management team for four years as a member of the Board.
The Fix spoke with Chernotytskyi about Suspilne’s achievements and challenges during the war, how it covers occupied territories, how he makes decisions, what is the optimum funding model for the broadcaster, and more.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Fix: What is Suspilne’s role during the war? How is it unique from other media organisations?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Suspilne’s mission is to protect freedom in Ukraine, this mission informs our work.
We have Pershyi, [a nationwide TV channel] which creates the national TV marathon together with other media companies. We have our own regional marathon because we have much more information coming from Suspilne’s regional branches. We also have radio and digital coverage.
We saw an interesting story with Telegram – our subscribers across all channels have grown from 40,000 to 1.2 million [since the full-scale war started]. Why has the growth been so high? People needed quick access to information which would inform decisions about their personal safety. For example, we were among the first media organisations to start publishing information about air raid sirens…
Another important aspect is trust. We are among media organisations that have been strictly adhering to journalistic standards, and we continue to adhere to them… We are not unique in providing access to information, but we strive to do it following the same standards we’ve always followed.
The Fix: Let’s talk about Suspilne’s work during the full-scale war, how the war has impacted you. To start – did you prepare for a potential war before the February 24th invasion?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Yes, we started preparations in November, I think. We began preparing a reserve centre, moved some equipment there… Interestingly, a big group of our engineers went to the reserve centre on February 23rd for a business trip and met the war there.
We had been preparing, but there’s always not enough time to fully get ready for such an event. We hadn’t completed everything we planned. Still, what we had done gave us considerable support [in the beginning of the war].
We had worked through different scenarios, different action protocols. They didn’t work 100% as planned, but nevertheless [they were helpful and saved us time].
The Fix: How did you personally meet February 24th?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Our chief editor for news woke me up at 5am and said the war had started… I arrived at the office within 20 minutes. According to our protocols [in the event of war], we had some time for gathering and half an hour to start broadcasting.
At 6:30 am we started the broadcast. At the same time we were establishing contact with regional branches to make sense of the situation. As cities were being bombed, it was a huge shock for people…
The Fix: What was most difficult for you in the first days of the war?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: In the evening on February 24th, Suspilne’s broadcast was taken over by the government. I think it was a wrong decision. It was soon corrected and we brought back our broadcast, but this discussion was [the most difficult].
There was some uncertainty, but we quickly decided what to do next.
The Fix: What’s most difficult today, now that we are three months into the full-scale war?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: It’s probably uncertainty about the future – you have a short planning horizon. Yet, we are learning to live with it. For example, yesterday we held a foresight session for the company with staff and outside experts… [Note: the interview was conducted on June 1st]
The Fix: Do you have a sense of how large your audience is? How many people are watching, listening to, and reading you – and how has it changed compared to the pre-war period?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: If we are talking about TV, it’s hard to measure that [during the war]. The only survey we held measures our recognizability rather than viewership numbers. Our visibility is growing, and the trust is high.
For digital platforms, the growth is obvious. Overall they doubled. On Facebook, we grew by 41% in terms of subscribers, and there’s been a colossal increase in video viewership numbers. On Telegram, we grew from 40,000 subscribers to 1.2 million.
For radio, measurements are now not being done as well. Still, since everyone rebroadcast us in the first months of the war, I think we covered the whole country.
The Fix: Let’s talk about your approach to working on the occupied territories. Taking the Kherson region as an example [the only region whose central city has been occupied by Russia in 2022] – the occupiers took over your studio, we’ve witnessed a story of Suspilne’s engineer being abducted. What’s your approach to covering the Kherson region and other occupied territories? What do you see as your role in covering occupied territories specifically?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: We receive information from Kherson. However, people who are running these channels are located on the territory controlled by Ukraine’s government. They are as safe as possible in the current situation. They continue working, and we are basically one of the few verified sources of information [there], so we keep up the work.
It’s important not only how we are receiving information from there but also how we are delivering news to the region. Here, it is easier to reach people with radio rather than TV.
I hope [Ukraine] will return this region and the Suspilne branch will continue operating as a public broadcaster.
The Fix: How successful are the occupiers’ attempts to use your infrastructure?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: They stole everything that could be stolen. There’s little there apart from bare walls. It’s [just] an office now, there is no infrastructure as such which they could use. That’s why they disassembled it. They use the office, we can’t prevent that.
The Fix: How is Suspilne covering regions where active fighting takes place? What is your approach to protecting your journalists?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Yesterday, the parliament approved the law on journalist protection. Also, there’s a great initiative on journalists’ insurance realised by NGOs…
We don’t have anyone in [for example] Severodonetsk because it’s too dangerous now, and people evacuated from that city, but we have a base branch in Dnipro. A group of journalists is making short trips [from there] to wherever it’s possible given safety reasons. It’s not as often as we would want to, but these courageous people are doing a fantastic job.
[Editor’s note: Severodonetsk is a city in Donbas where intense fighting is taking place; it’s now partly controlled by Ukraine and partly by Russia. Dnipro is a major city in eastern Ukraine, about 150-180 kilometres away from the frontline.]
Previously, [when Russian forces were present in these regions], our journalists were remaining in Kharkiv, Symy, Chernihiv and continued providing information.
The Fix: The Russians are trying to destroy the physical infrastructure of Ukrainian TV and radio. How strong is the impact of these efforts on your work? What’s your approach around countering it and finding alternative ways of delivering information?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: [Maintaining physical infrastructure] isn’t particularly Suspiline’s field of responsibility, it’s in the domain of the Broadcasting, Radiocommunications & Television Concern and Zeonbud. When [the Russians] were bombing radio and TV towers, these companies were reacting quite quickly…
Still, [the Russians] keep shelling the towers, jamming the satellites, [so it’s constant work].
The Fix: You wrote about cyber attacks on your web resources. How powerful are they, what is their impact on your work?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Thankfully, we’ve beaten them back. It’s unpleasant, but we’ve coped so far. The website has been and will be working.
The Fix: Let’s talk about the future. What do you see as Suspilne’s role in rebuilding Ukraine after the war?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: We have to continue working because a public broadcaster is an integral part of any democratic country. For the country to develop, it needs a strong and independent media organisation… We have to keep up the work, produce honest news, and provide objective information.
I would like to be able to invest more, put money in Ukrainian content, order more quality content that meets Suspilne’s values and is useful. I think it would improve the country’s media market and benefit our citizens.
The Fix: What’s the situation with financing now? What do you see as an optimal model for the future?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: It’s hard to say because there are different financing models. For us, it’s money from the national budget. Of course, there are [different views here] – some people say Suspilne should switch to a licence fee, some people promote yet another model. But, as far as I know, many European states have a model similar to ours, funding through the state budget.
I would prefer more guaranteed and predictable financing. The law declares [Suspilne should receive] 0.2% of the budget’s previous year’s fund, but this rule has never been met. I’d like to see Suspilne’s budget tied to a percentage of specific taxes – Lithuania had a similar model; we would be able to plan our work accordingly. There was an idea from our colleagues for Suspilne to receive a percentage of the rent for radio frequency resources. [Under this model] we would understand that we have a specific yearly budget and have to work within this budget, and no one can cut it and use half of it for other purposes.
The Fix: Do you see the future [of funding] in advertising, in content licensing?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: The quantity of advertising we can sell is constantly shrinking… [If relevant restrictions are lifted], I would rather see selling rights for Suspilne’s content as one of revenue streams. But, in any case, I don’t think it would be a huge sum which we could live on. 20% of the budget would be a great achievement, and that would take a lot of time to reach.
The Fix: What is the situation with funding now?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: Last year, our budget was approved in the amount of 1.87 billion hryvnias [€60 million], it’s 526 million less than called for by the law. Since the war started, 227 million hryvnias were further cut from our budget. Now our budget is 1.6 billion hryvnias [€52 million].
The Fix: Is that enough to sustain your work?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: It’s enough to operate in an austerity regime. But we don’t know what will happen with energy prices in the winter.
The Fix: What’s your typical work day like today?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: I have a lot of Zoom meetings, a lot of non-standard situations every time. Every morning we are working on coordinating the national marathon, meeting with colleagues from other, private media groups.
Now, Ukraine won the rights to host Eurovision next year, so there’s a ton of work there, including bureaucratic work. [Editor’s note: two weeks after the interview had been recorded, the European Broadcasting Union announced its decision not to hold Eurovision 2023 in Ukraine, after conducting a security assessment. Ukrainian authorities, including Mykola Chernotytskyi, stated they don’t agree with the decision.]
Besides, it’s constant communication with colleagues from the Board to get a sense of what’s happening with news, TV, radio, operations…
There’re a lot of challenges which we’re facing for the first time. In the past, I would be surprised if someone told me that we would be setting up a studio in a bunker. One of the challenges, as I mentioned before, is to calibrate the direction of where we’re going.
One important factor is uncertainty. There are challenges you solve in a certain way, and in two weeks you need to change the approach. [Not everything depends on you]. Plus, you have to take into account that [people are impacted by the war] – someone is stressed out, someone’s wife and children have been abroad for three months or relatives have been affected; it’s an important factor as well.
The Fix: What is the type of decisions you personally are making? What are the decisions where you have to make the final call?
Mykola Chernotytskyi: My governance style is more collegial than personal. I try to consult with colleagues from the Board… Decisions I have to make are usually strategic or political. But even if I have to make a decision, I don’t make it unilaterally, I discuss it.
Photo by Anastasiia Mantach from Suspilne