When the lights of War Memorial Stadium shine at the 2023 Salt Bowl, the athletes on the field will not be the only students who have worked for months to hone their craft. The award-winning students of Bryant High School’s Sports Production Class and their teacher and play-by-play announcer Michael Westbrook will be ready to share the Salt Bowl’s legacy and to deliver the highlights of Bryant’s football team to an audience nearly 30,000 strong.
Hailing from Weatherford, Texas, Michael Westbrook has been a sports fan for as long as he can remember. While his initial career aim was in banking, an invitation to run the sound board at a local radio station piqued his interest and landed him his first part-time job while he was still in high school. He studied at the University of North Texas and became the Sport Director for campus sports, a position that lent him valuable experience with the university’s television and radio stations and at NewsRadio 1080 KRLD in Dallas.
After several years of working in various states across the country, Michael set his sights on instruction. By the age of 28 he had worked his way up to an administrative role in higher education, but he wanted to spend time in the classroom teaching something he was passionate about.
In 2016, Michael began teaching at Texarkana Arkansas High School and established the Arkansas High School Razorback Television program. Building the curriculum from the ground up took a lot of time and investment, but it paid off: after five years it had become an award-winning program.
Then, Michael received a call from Bryant High School. “I had no intention of leaving Texarkana,” explains Michael. “I received a call from Bryant, and they were very serious about building a program. Basically, I ended my time in Texarkana on May 31st and began revamping a studio for students in Bryant on June 1st.”
Michael invested in teaching the fundamentals to students eager to learn more about how to create a live sports production. In class they learned how to write and produce highlight features for each week for the Bryant Buzz, create graphics, interview, edit their stories, and run a live sports production. During football season, classes created pre-show programs, set up equipment, monitored the scoreboard, ran cameras, and served as technical directors for each game. Michael led the play-by-play coverage for football, which meant his students were responsible for running their roles when it was game time.
“Here’s what differentiates us,” explains Michael. “Most schools don’t have a teacher doing the play-by-play for each game. Bryant students have to lead their roles for the games on their own. Whether it is changing the graphics or ensuring the score is correct, they are leading the production and working on their own. Each week we review the games in class to highlight ways to improve for the upcoming week.”
By the end of the 2022 season, Michael had built his own roster of talented students, which includes directors, graphic designers, commentators, camera operators, writers, and editors.
Michael believes the program teaches his students valuable lessons that will last long after they have left the halls of Bryant High School. “Who is willing to work, be reliable and consistent? If you don’t show up, you get replaced. My students signed up to cover home basketball games as a part of their grade. Most all of them showed up to the game,” he adds with a chuckle.
“I am very big on explaining to my students—it’s okay if you do not go into this field. I’m teaching them how to be ‘on’ and show up. I have a student who wants to be a lawyer. I am teaching them how to be a better human.”
The hours are long during football and basketball season, and Michael works well beyond 40 hours a week, but the program has also helped instill in the students a sense of pride in their work. “This season, I was baffled: the kids never complained, and did a great job each and every week while working in the elements. Some days it was 100 degrees outside and others it was 40 degrees. There’s nothing like the live atmosphere of a sporting event.”
Now in its third year at Bryant High School, the television production program offers fundamental, intermediate, and advanced classes. Recently, the program received Regional recognition at the Mid-America Student Production Awards (the Student Emmys). Students submitted their work across a five-state region and Bryant brought home four student Emmys in 2023. They are currently awaiting the November national results.
Bryant students also placed in the top ten at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Atlanta in June. Students Nick Gibbs, Taylor Dischinger, Hannah Rudnick, and Bentley Balisterri placed top ten in the nation for Video Broadcast News. During the competition students must record a three-minute newscast in front of judges prepared for two anchors and a technical director. Students then receive grades on the newsworthiness of the story, camera angles, and pronunciation.
Sam Morgan and Asher Bird also brought home awards as they finished second in Audio/Radio Production. This accomplishment is particularly noteworthy, as only one representative from each state qualifies to attend and this was the first medal in that category awarded to an Arkansas school since 2013.
Michael proudly exclaims, “What these students have been able to do the last two years in national competitions speaks volumes for the success they are going to have in life after leaving high school.”
“Mr. Westbrook has helped me come out of my shell,” said Taylor. “I’m not the best communicator, and he’s taught me how to talk to people. I began the program as a camera operator and I was hesitant to get behind the anchors’ desk, but he has a good eye, he is supportive, and he wants us to grow.”
The Arkansas Scholastic Press Association also named Michael the 2023 Advisor of the Year. Four of Michael’s students wrote letters supporting his nomination, with Bryant Senior and Technical Director, Nick Gibbs, taking the lead.
“Westbrook is a great guy,” said Nick Gibbs. “He is a great combination of teacher and best friend. He tells me things I need to hear to improve my work in class. He’s great at cultivating students. He’ll provide honest feedback and he’s always been there.”