Wesley Early believes everyone has a story worth telling. That’s part of what drew him to one of the country’s northernmost public radio stations, KOTZ, in Kotzebue, Alaska when he was just 25 years old.
“I went from a majority white community to a majority Native community,” Wesley said. “Not all people of color are the same, but there’s definitely a layer of understanding. I’m not Iñupiaq, but I know what it’s like to not be recognized as white. I know what it’s like to be an ‘other.’”
Wesley moved to Anchorage when he was 13 – and has lived in Alaska longer than anywhere else in the world. His dad was working at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as a linguist for the Department of Defense. Wesley graduated from Bartlett High School and received a degree in journalism and public communications from University of Alaska Anchorage.
Fresh out of college working as a radio reporter for Alaska Public Media, he found his perspective was rare.
“There was a while where I was the only Black reporter in the entire radio network,” Wesley said. “It’s something that I’m always aware of and because of that I’m constantly thinking about it.”
Early on, Wesley filled gaps in Anchorage’s press corps covering education issues and contributing to the now-discontinued series 49 Voices. But he knew he wanted to do more. The news director position at KOTZ had been vacant for nearly a decade until Wesley filled it, giving him the experience he craved.
It wasn’t easy. In a community that hadn’t had a dedicated reporter in a while, not someone just parachuting in, there was skepticism and unfamiliarity to overcome.
“You have to get the community adjusted to having a reporter in town. You have to get public officials used to somebody calling them about something they’re working on. You need the courthouse to be used to somebody requesting records.”
More important, Wesley decided which stories were newsworthy and worked toward an accurate picture of the community. To make those decisions, Wesley relied on the trust and insights of Kotzebue’s residents. He had to quickly adjust to a community that was different, use his perspective to find common ground with his new neighbors, and push back on narratives and news practices that were deeply ingrained.
“You see it with the way that Native issues are covered in Alaska by largely white people and people like me who aren’t Native,” Wesley said. “There are certain stories that may not be covered because people aren’t thinking about certain things. A lot of what I want to do is recognize how news could be doing better.”
After two years in Kotzebue, Wesley returned to Anchorage and is working again for Alaska Public Media, applying the lessons he’s learned to help cover Alaska’s most populous city. For Wesley, it’s not just critical to get the story, but to get the story right.