Welcome to the latest installment of our Women in Audio series, in which we highlight some of the extraordinary women in the audio industry. Today, I‘m pleased to introduce Jeri Palumbo, a broadcast engineer, audio mixer and RF (radio frequency) tech who, for the past 25 years, has specialized in working on high-profile sports shows. Jeri is a technical whiz and a regular on the frontlines of events like the Super Bowl and NBA and NHL playoffs. Her musical roots are just as impressive and stretch back through four generations of multi-instrumentalists.
With a vibrant personality, unflappable demeanor and steel-trap mind, Jeri is one of the most highly respected broadcast engineers in the business. I was thrilled to spend an afternoon with her and learn about her remarkable journey.
Jeri sang and played guitar and piano from the time she was a young child in West Virginia. While she dreamed of someday being in the music industry as a record producer or engineer, a high school band director recognized her aptitude for arranging music and encouraged her to pursue it. Jeri’s interest in arranging was inspired by the work of Beatle’s producer George Martin and led her to attend The Julliard School in New York as an orchestration major.
While still a student at Julliard, she was hired to write the music charts for an album project. “The artist assembled all the players, and we went into the studio,” she said. “I was only 19 at the time, but everyone assumed I was a graduate student. When we mixed the tracks, I sat with the engineer and, for the first time, saw someone use a Fairlight CMI, the first digital synthesizer and wave manipulator. It allowed you to change pitch and EQ with the click of a pen and a mouse. I was completely fascinated by how the engineer brought the raw tracks to life with the Fairlight.”
The experience was a game changer for Jeri and inspired her to shift her aspirations from music and arranging to engineering. “I’m pretty technically minded and immediately recognized the potential of digital sound manipulation. At the same time, I was listening to my parents warn that a music career is unpredictable. They said I needed the skills to get a good job, so I could someday retire,” she said.
“I didn’t give the long-term security idea much credence, but did spend two semesters studying computer science and IT,” said Jeri. “Charlotte, North Carolina is the banking hub of America, so I got a job in IT. I worked for First Union Bank, troubleshooting software and hardware on a 250-node LAN system in multiple locations while playing in a band on the side. I loved the technical aspects of the IT job, but I still craved something more creative.”
“I really wanted to mix my technical world with my creative world and thought that audio postproduction might be a good fit. I enrolled in classes at Winthrop University, just south of Charlotte, and called all of the studios and postproduction houses in town, offering to intern for free,” she said. “Most places didn’t return my call, but one, a postproduction house called Media-Comm, did. I interned for an entire semester and got pretty good on the Avid, which was the premier video editor at the time.”
Eventually, Jeri was hired by Media-Comm and used the Avid Audiovision, a wave manipulator that was similar to the early Fairlight, to sweeten audio for television shows. “Charlotte is a NASCAR hub, and a couple of Media-Comm’s shows were focused on it. One of them, ‘RaceDay,’ was a live show that preceded the races on Sundays. One Thursday, I was trying to make a deadline when a producer and director from ‘RaceDay’ came flying in to ask if I would mix their show that week,” said Jeri. “I had never mixed a live show before and had my doubts. The producer countered that, ‘Audio is audio, Jeri. You’ll be fine.’ I asked a guy who had mixed the show before, and he said he wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole because it was live. Live shows have a really different pace than postproduction—the show goes on with or without you.”
Jeri later learned that several people had turned down “RaceDay” that week. “Most were afraid to do the gig, afraid of the pace and the live element. There were a lot of moving parts with two remote satellite feeds coming in. I agreed to do it, though and somehow made it through,” she said.
“As soon as I worked on a NASCAR-related show, I became visible to the sports community without realizing it. Within a week, CBS sports called me to work on the NCAA Final Four. They were in Indianapolis and asked me to assist on an international feed,” she said.
“RaceDay” was a big, complicated national show, and Jeri got on the list of live sports mixers because of it. “I owe my entire career to that show,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of people who do this kind of work and crewing departments across the country talk to each other. Not only did I get on the radar for CBS Sports, the newly formed FoxSports was also in Charlotte because of its contract with the recently franchised NFL team, the Carolina Panthers. ESPN regional was also in the area. As soon as I worked in the live setting, the word spread and I discovered that I could work locally for all of them.”
For several years now, Jeri has lived in Southern California, not far from the HARMAN Northridge campus. Through the decades, she has worked nearly everywhere in the country on high-profile sports events, with the NFL remaining her most consistent client. During most of her career, she has primarily served as an A1—an audio mixer who works on a broadcast truck and is in charge of everything you hear in the final broadcast. These days, though, Jeri is more interested in RF Tech and coordination. It keeps her close to the action and provides compelling technical challenges—particularly with the shrinking RF UHF spectrum.
I was curious about the temperament it takes to work in broadcasting for clients like the NFL. “With live sports, if you’re in the truck, you have to be an adrenalin junkie,” said Jeri. “Actually, that goes for any live show. You’ve got to be able to troubleshoot on your feet, but that’s also part of the fun. There are a lot of things going on at once, a lot of pressure and a lot that can go wrong. While mixing a live show, you’re also dealing with comms (intercoms) and listening to an onslaught of commands. You need to be able to deal with all of it and not meltdown. Your skillset might be dynamite for live sports mixing, but your emotional tendencies may not be. It takes a lot more than just pushing faders. As an A1, hopefully you’re controlling chaos both inside and outside the truck.”
Although sports have been central to Jeri’s professional life, some of her career highlights have been in other fields. “One of the projects that I’m proudest of is a bluegrass show out of Virginia called ‘Songs of the Mountains,’” she said. “I was randomly hired to be an A1 on it and walked into a live-to-tape bluegrass show they were broadcasting on PBS. The producers didn’t want us to mic traditional instruments the way we normally would for a live show. They wanted it to be organic and traditional. We had fiddles and acoustic players and did it in the traditional bluegrass style, where everyone plays around a central microphone, then steps forward for their solo. In that kind of situation, it’s all about placement and EQ. We would rehearse then strike the areas where they each needed to stand. The show was particularly challenging, because I needed to ride my EQ more than my actual volume faders. We used an AKG C414 XLS for the setup, and with only using one mic, many frequencies would be in play against each other—for example, a high violin part and a high woodwind. I’m proud that we made something extraordinary, using really simple techniques. It was quite challenging, though, and I ended up receiving a Telly Award for the show.”
A performance highpoint for Jeri was when she was invited to sing with the classic jam band Little Feat; they had long been an inspiration to her. Jeri happened to be in Durham, North Carolina working on the Stanley Cup playoffs at the same time Little Feat was playing in town, and she joined them on stage. “Somewhere out there is me sitting in with Little Feat, singing on ‘Let It Roll,’” she said. “It was a life-defining moment!”
Another project that stands out for Jeri happened last year, when she was hired at the last minute to do comms for a show that ended up being the Tesla Model 3 rollout. “It wasn’t a difficult gig, as I was assisting on comms, but I was in awe to be in the presence of someone who is truly changing the world,” she said. “Watching how Elon Musk works, then getting an opportunity to ride in those vehicles with the engineers who created and designed them was amazing. I was fascinated by how fulfilled they were by their accomplishments. Riding in those cars and getting into their brains while they explained their engineering marvels was truly a career highlight for me.”
Reflecting on a career brimming with noteworthy highlights, she said, “Looking back, everything has come together by way of an accident. I had a big educational background and was a music arranger with a strong IT background. I moved into postproduction and then became a live audio engineer by accident.
You never know where life is going to take you. I never thought I would work with the Yankees, who I was a rabid fan of when I lived in New York and went to Juilliard. It was a path I didn’t even consider.”
Music hasn’t left Jeri, though. Her partner is the acclaimed record producer and engineer Erik Zobler, and Jeri still sings, plays music and records when the opportunity arises. Life for Jeri is an ever-unfolding adventure; whether it’s bicycling abroad, cultivating a rare plant, exploring a new dimension of her audio career or heading to the desert to see wildflowers bloom, chances are she’ll be singing the whole time.
Many thanks to Jeri for the insights into her fascinating life. Are you a woman who works in professional audio for sports? Share your story in the comments.