Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and TodayFM's Tova O'Brien. Photo: Supplied/MediaWorks

How do you prepare for an interview with the president of a country at war? What do you pack – and do you get nervous? The Detail talks to Today FM’s Tova O’Brien.

Today FM producer Tom Day was at work on February 24, when the many TV screens around the newsroom were tuned to a now-infamous press conference.

The cameras were homed in on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was delivering a speech announcing a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

Six months later, this is regarded by many as the moment the invasion of Ukraine began.

And so, like many journalists around the world, Day began to think of ways to cover the story for the show he works on, Tova, hosted by Tova O’Brien. 

“In those early phases I found that the Ukrainian people were very open to having conversations.

“I was able to be like, ‘Hey, do you know so-and-so?’ They’d say, ‘Sure, let me help you out’.

“Even on the day [the invasion was announced], I was able to get a Ukrainian politician on the show even as she was running into the parliament.”

Over the coming months, Day lined up interviews with Ukrainian commentators, politicians, business leaders – but there was one interview that eluded him and O’Brien: Volodymyr Zelensky himself. 

“The very first time I sat down with my team…we started plotting our dream list of interviewees, people we wanted to talk to,” O’Brien says.

“He was the first person on my list.”

Day – who, as a producer, was tasked with the grunt work of forming relationships, making calls, sending messages to Ukrainians – set about his task with gusto.

And, after four months of WhatsApp messages, missed phone calls, and mounds of researching, they finally got their man.

Earlier this month, O’Brien travelled more than 40 hours to Kyiv – via Kuala Lumpur, Warsaw, and an eight-hour van ride alongside a security detail – to interview one of the world’s most recognisable men. 

The result: a 34-minute interview with the president, as well as a complementary documentary showing what life in the war-torn country is like for Ukrainians and overseas volunteers alike. 

The motivation for O’Brien’s trip is obvious. Zelensky is one of the most sought-after interviews in the world: the charismatic, embattled leader of a country fighting to the death against subjugation at the hands of its superpower neighbour. 

But, of course, the invasion of Ukraine has been going on for half a year: much of the rest of the world has normalised what’s going on, if not accepted it.

Fatigue is a very real challenge Zelensky and Ukraine face – another reason, O’Brien says, why keeping this story in the headlines is so important. 

“For me that’s even more reason to go, more reason to sit down and talk to him about his fears about fatigue of this war, even more reason to talk to the New Zealand-based Ukrainians who are still trying to get their families here.

“Because it’s still being fought. And there are still Kiwis fighting. So, no: the fatigue is a reason to go, to see what’s happening, to speak to the president, even more so.”

Asked whether she feels sorry for Zelensky, O’Brien doesn’t miss a beat.

“No. I feel sorry for his country. And I feel sad – for him, and his country.

“But pity is not a feeling that president Zelensky evokes, and it’s not something he would want, either.” 

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