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A radio station in Ukraine balances music, laughs and war news in their broadcasts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today in Ukraine, it was too dangerous for a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross to execute a large-scale evacuation in the besieged city of Mariupol. They hope it will be safe enough to try again tomorrow. Meanwhile, in the northwestern part of the country, life looks a little more normal, if still tense. And if you tune your radio to 100.8, you can find a station known as Wave of Lviv, broadcasting pop music and witty banter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: But what do you do with a station like that when war comes to your country? The answer involves a lot of careful balance. NPR's Scott Detrow reports from Lviv.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: To get to the Wave of Lviv's broadcast studio, you walk through a courtyard, down several stone steps and through a long, arched underground hallway past an old, gray boombox.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAYDEN JAMES: (Singing) We don't say much as we lay here. We just friends.

DETROW: The studio itself has thick, brick walls.

TARAS HAVRYK: Do you see this wall? It's a big one.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: It doubles as a bomb shelter when Lviv's air raid sirens go off. And that's especially important since the radio station is right near the kind of big communications towers that have been targets in other cities.

YURIY KHOMYAK: We also broadcast the siren saying people to go to the shelter.

DETROW: Yuriy Khomyak is the station's director. He's 26. He took over the job from his dad just a few months ago.

KHOMYAK: When the war started, we had a tough decision. Our radio station works on the - from the advertisements. All the businesses closed down in Ukraine, in Lviv. So we had no funding. And we thought about, should we stay on broadcasting?

DETROW: They decided to stay on the air. Everybody took pay cuts to keep the station afloat. And they made another important decision, too - to keep their irreverent style.

KHOMYAK: Yeah. Especially at the beginning of the war, people telephoned us, said that we were too sarcastic, too ironic about our hosts. They decided to stay this way. We tried to mix things up just to keep our listeners more happier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAVRYK: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: Taras Havryk has been on the air for eight years. Listeners know him for his jokes and his rapping. He's got on two earrings, a leopard print shirt and has bangs under his Hilfiger hat.

HAVRYK: I want to have, like, funny airs. I want to joke in my studio. But it is what it is. We have war here, so...

DETROW: His show is more serious than before - more segments on how listeners can help raise funds and morale for the army, things like that. But Taras makes a point to save time from music and laughs. People still need a break.

HAVRYK: Maybe distraction is one of the roles of this music, too - to feel relaxed in this situation. It's not possible to be relaxed, like, for 100%. But we want to calm people.

DETROW: One way to do that is playing all the new songs that seem to pop up about the war every single day online. They're often darkly funny and blunt.

HAVRYK: So he has done this song named "Die Die Die, Putin" (ph) with a funny chorus. (Singing) Die, die, die, Putin. Dun dun dun dun dun (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIE DIE DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HAVRYK: Now we have wartime, so we can air whatever we want. Putin, [expletive].

DETROW: We might have to bleep that (laughter).

HAVRYK: Why? Americans...

DETROW: This rule does not apply to NPR.

HAVRYK: Yeah, but do Americans know what does [expletive] means?

DETROW: Somebody will.

As Taras does his show, a small staff of reporters clacks away on keyboards in a room just across the hall. They're writing the upcoming newscast, which tops the hour.

IRYNA SHUBINETS: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: Iryna Shubinets, one of the lead newscasters, does a final check of the copy. There's so much news now. It's changing constantly.

SHUBINETS: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: She walks over to the studio and takes her seat less than a minute to air.

(CROSSTALK)

DETROW: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE DIALING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHUBINETS: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: The top stories this hour - shelling in the south, alleged Russian war crimes and aid for internally displaced people.

SHUBINETS: (Through interpreter) Journalists are like firemen. They need to be ready at any time, if it's a war or whatever.

DETROW: Iryna tells us through our interpreter that doing the newscasts is calming in a way. Being able to curate and take in the latest updates helps her deal with the anxiety.

SHUBINETS: (Through interpreter) When the war started, the first day when I came to work, we had this discussion. It seemed like this is the end, like this is the end of the world. How we're going to report on this?

DETROW: Iryna says they realized that they were going to report on death, maybe even of people they knew personally. The day we visit, five weeks into the war, it happens. A cameraman Iryna had worked with before was killed in the east, and she reported on it.

SHUBINETS: (Through interpreter) I was almost crying, and I even had goose bumps on my skin.

DETROW: Taras and his co-host - they knew not to joke after that. The war is personal for everyone. One of the station's hosts joined the Ukrainian army and is on the frontline. Taras has family in Russian-controlled territory.

HAVRYK: Everybody - I think everybody in this country has some stories right now about deaths, about fighting, about losing their houses. It's - such bad things are happening right now.

DETROW: Like Iryna, he struggled at first. They both told us they needed anti-anxiety medicine. But as the weeks have gone on, he's adjusted. And he sees his mission right now as helping his listeners try to get to that same place.

HAVRYK: I want my listeners to feel a little bit better right now.

DETROW: And sometimes that's talking about something else. Sometimes that's talking about the war but in a joking way.

HAVRYK: Not every person in this country goes to a psychologist, goes to church, where they kind of feel safe. But many guys are listening to me. And I want to be like some kind of psychologist, some kind of priest right now.

DETROW: Yeah.

HAVRYK: I'm not, but I want to be.

DETROW: (Laughter).

CHANG: That was NPR's Scott Detrow reporting in Lviv. Scott will be guest hosting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from Ukraine all next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.