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CHARLESTON, S.C. — It started as little more than an offshoot from student media, but on Sunday, Rising Radio will broadcast the USL Championship Playoff Final across the United States.
“I’ve had to really force myself to slow down and be like ‘Hey, you’re a sophomore in college calling a professional final on national radio,'” 19-year-old Devon Henderson said. “Most people would never do that in their whole life.”
Henderson will be filling in color commentary duties alongside 24-year-old play-by-play broadcaster Peyton Gallaher. Both are students at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School most days, but on Sunday, they’ll be the voice of a playoff final across the country on Sirius XM.
It’s been a long journey since ASU students first started broadcasting Phoenix Rising games via Blaze Radio in 2022.
“We sent an email on a whim,” Gallaher said. “Got to hear back about getting a credential, just to have somebody at the games, to write or do something. I had the idea that, well, if they’re willing to do that, let’s see if we can carry the games on Blaze. We did that, and they said yes.”
This season, a few of those students broke off to set up Rising Radio, with the aim to take coverage to a whole new level.
For students like Gallaher, it was an extention of what he’d been doing already, just trying to get himself a foothold in the industry.
“I had done soccer as a freelance means to just broadcast games,” he said. “I did the U.S. Youth nationals, the Presidents Cup in Florida, their streams in the summer of ’21. It was a ton of work. You’re doing three games a day. You don’t have rosters. You’re watching 12-year-olds running around and kicking each other in the shins in the summer heat in Florida.”
Gallaher had played in his youth, but mostly as a backup goalkeeper. It was a sport he loved as a kid, and can recall being devastated watching Belgium defeat the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup.
“It’s the lowest scoring game on Earth, so the stakes of every instance, every bounce of the ball are just magnified by that, right?” Gallaher said. “One wrong foot, one bounce can completely alter careers and lives of people. That’s not true in the same way for other games, so I think with that, there is a heightened sense of drama which leads to a heightened sense of poetry that a broadcaster can do without it being hyperbole.
“It doesn’t exist a lot with American broadcasters. It’s not typical, but I look at guys like Peter Drury and the great broadcasters and the reason people love them is they find ways to thoroughly experience that emotion, and find ways to elocute themselves in a way that strikes a tone and is original. I think you can do that in soccer in a way you can’t do in other sports, especially in America.”
Henderson, the broadcast’s color commentator, currently plays on ASU’s men’s club team.
“I grew up playing soccer my whole life, since I was four or five,” Henderson said. “I played a little bit of every sport growing up. It’s the American kid way. I played basketball for a little bit, played football, played baseball but soccer just kind of stuck.”
When he arrived at Cronkite, he soon caught up with Gallaher and others involved with broadcasting Rising games. That led to him getting his debut in the U.S. Open Cup against Greenville Triumph.
Before the game, though, Henderson was nervous. So nervous, in fact, that he arranged to meet up with Ryan Sykora, another Rising Radio broadcaster, to practice calling an Arsenal-Fulham match.
“After, he texts me when I leave, the first time I’ve called a game,” Henderson said. “Don’t know what I’m doing. I’m starting from scratch. He goes ‘Good job today. You weren’t very good, but we learned some things, and that’s what’s important.'”
Since then, Henderson has honed his craft, and puts a lot of that down to his preparation work and experience with the game.
“Biggest thing that I like to do is look up more about the coach’s history,” Henderson said. “A lot of times, you can kind of tell how they’re going to play based on the philosophy that the coach grew up in. Are they Dutch? Are they Spanish? Are they American? So you learn a lot through that, but I’ll watch a whole game that they play, just kind of leaning on me having played the game my whole life and seeing the things I see with formations and play styles.”
Meanwhile, Gallaher often spends upwards of ten hours each week researching opposition teams, filling up his matchday notes with far more information than he ever actually uses.
“My Dad went to work at 4 a.m. every morning, when I was a kid, and it was important to me,” Gallaher said. “It’s always been important to me. He sacrificed so much. My Mom sacrificed so much for me to get to do something that I love to do, so I’m going to make damn sure that I work as hard as I can to be as good as I can get at that thing and give it the proper respect.”
Now, after two years of broadcasting Phoenix Rising matches and helped by a GoFundMe drive that raised over a thousand dollars to cover expenses, Gallaher has his chance to call a playoff final to the nation.
“It’s taken everything,” Gallaher said. “It has been the most consuming, rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I think I can speak for the whole group in saying that monetarily, emotionally, just in terms of time, right? But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s taken everything, but I’d do it every time.”
Sunday night will be the biggest moment in their careers, that are only just getting started.
“It’s funny because our job doesn’t change at all,” Gallaher said. “It’s not like there’s an audience that’s getting bigger in front of us. There could be two people listening. There could be 200,000 people listening. There could be two billion people listening, and I wouldn’t know. So when the red light goes on, I don’t think about that at all.”
“The nerves haven’t really hit me yet,” Henderson said. “I’ve kind of got this mindset where especially with radio, you can be nervous all you want, but when it really comes down to it, people are going to be listening, but I’m just talking to Peyton about soccer.”
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