‘Build Alaska’ educates about industry, records personalities for posterity

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This story was originally written for Alaska Contractor Magazine.


When Xavier Schlee was hired at Alaska Basic Industries 10 years ago, his boss told him he needed to learn to play golf. They went out for Schlee’s first round, having made a bet. If Schlee lost, he had to join the Associated General Contractors entertainment committee.

He didn’t win on the links.

But fast forward a decade later, and Schlee is still volunteering, typically through community engagement projects such as spelling bees, barbecues and now a podcast, “Build Alaska.” AGC’s website says the podcast “aims to inform members of the construction industry and the public at large about the history of construction in Alaska, as well as how you can be part of its future.”

“Build Alaska” has two separate channels: “Legacy” and “Works.” “Build Alaska: Legacy” features people who have been in the Alaska construction industry for years and talks about the changes throughout their experience; these interviews are typically long-form. “Build Alaska: Works” highlights an individual in a skilled labor position and provides an overview of a specific trade; these are shorter, about 15 minutes. From traffic control supervisors to an aggregate manager, Build Alaska has interviewed a variety of individuals in the construction industry. AGC has even digitized some interviews that were originally done on film, including former Gov. Wally Hickel.

Forrest Dunbar, an Anchorage Assembly Chairman representing Anchorage’s East District, was featured on the podcast in 2016.

We spoke mostly about the role of the municipality in the construction industry — about how, especially at a time when the state hasn’t been funding a meaningful capital budget, our projects have provided a really important source of work.” Dunbar said. “I definitely think that the podcast has value, and I hope it is a useful tool to reach out to young people in the industry or who are thinking about joining the trades. It needs to be part of a larger effort to keep skilled labor in Alaska.”

Schlee says that the original idea for the podcast came from Kimberley Gray and Lauren Sharrock, the events and communications coordinator and membership coordinator of AGC. After Gray and Sharrock initially proposed the idea, everyone came on board. Now, the team consists of Gray, Sharrock, Bronson Frye, Ron Pichler, Elisa Hitchcock, Mike Harned and Dominic Scalise, who help with interviewing, editing and everything in between. Schlee said the team now needs two separate sets of equipment to interview as many people as possible.

Funding from the podcast came from the Construction Industry Project Fund and AGC. Episodes can be streamed online at AGC’s website (www.agcak.org/build-alaska-podcast) and through the Google Play Music app and the Apple Podcasts app. New episodes usually come out weekly.

Alaska Contractor Magazine sat down with Schlee and talked about where “Build Alaska” started and where it’s going.

What have you learned in your experience in regard to the podcast?

When I first got started, I bought some equipment and fooled with it. My kids (were born) in 2000. … The idea for that was, I would talk to my family about these events that were super important in their lives. One of them came out (as gay), another one was when their parents died. So my kids would have these things they could listen to. I started out doing that, and then this was much more formal. By the time we had gotten around to (the podcast), the equipment had become better.

We went to the Construction Industry Project Fund with a proposal for, “I need this much money, I need these certain microphones, I need a four-track recorder. … This is exactly what we need to make this work; here’s how we’re going to do it. Here will be your return on investment, how you know what you’re getting for your money.” They very generously gave us the money to get us up and running. From there, it was a matter of, “Now we have money, we don’t want to let these people down.”

How do you find your podcast subjects?

You interview someone, and they’re like, “Oh, you need to talk to this person.” That’s kind of the greatest thing about it is that you, as an interviewer, can meet all these people who are super passionate about what they do, or they are the example of like, a mixer truck driver. “This is our best mixer truck driver.” So you get to meet this guy who has been doing this job forever and talk to him about this thing that they’re very passionate about. You meet really interesting people doing this as well.

What is the most difficult aspect of making a podcast?

The difficult thing for me is on the “Alaska Works” (episodes) — the ones that I’m trying to keep in 15 minutes — is keeping them within 15 minutes. I don’t want to do a lot of editing, I don’t want to force my editor to cut a lot of stuff out, but people become so comfortable so quickly that it’s just a conversation, you know?

What has the response been like from the community?

The Legacy (episodes), where I interview someone who’s been in the construction industry or someone interviews someone in the construction industry for whatever it’s been, 35, 40 years — the guy whose desk was next to me, that guy right there in the picture, that’s Earl Pollen. He started working at this company the year I was born. He died just a couple years ago, and I never got a chance to interview him. My idea was once people get over being freaked out by the microphone, it’s just a conversation. I love the idea that you could interview some of these people, their kids could go back and listen to it years later. They could see, “Oh, this guy that was just my dad was super respected in his community and did all these things that were important for the construction industry in Alaska.” That’s what got me started on those interviews.

The Author

Hi! My name is Sam Davenport. I am a freelance writer and lifelong Alaskan who loves reporting on the state’s history, food and culture. I am a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I received bachelors degrees in journalism and political science. I was the executive editor of The Northern Light — UAA’s student-run newspaper — for 2.5 years During my time at UAA, I completed internships at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. I am the managing editor of The Spenardian, an award-winning hyper-local news blog and magazine for the neighborhood of Spenard. I have been published in Vice, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News, The Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Magazine, Alaska Business, The Northern Light, The Anchorage Press, The Frontiersman, Alaska’s Energy Desk, KSKA, KTOO, Last Frontier Magazine, Crude Magazine, Mountain View Post, The Spenardian, Alaska Contractor Magazine, Wildheart Magazine and True North Magazine. For freelancing rates or a copy of my resume, please email me at samanthabdavenport@gmail.com.

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