Remembering NPR’s Renee Pringle, a pioneering audio engineer, friend and fashionista
Colleagues are paying tribute to NPR audio engineer Renee Pringle, who died Sunday after experiencing a number of health challenges in recent months.
Pringle helped shape and safeguard the sound of NPR for more than 40 years. She is being remembered as a pioneer in her field, a prolific and steadfast presence — even on the most hectic of overnight shifts — and a friend to many.
In 1979 she started at NPR as one of its first Black female audio engineers, at a time when few women worked professionally in audio.
“Renee joined NPR in an era when our engineers carried bulky, 20-pound recorders in the field and everything was recorded on reel-to-reel tape,” said Chris Nelson, NPR’s senior vice president of technology operations. “She recorded and engineered an incalculable number of field interviews, music performances and NPR programs.”
You don’t know her voice, but you know her work
Pringle mixed countless pieces for Morning Edition and the overnight newscast, among other programs, and is being remembered by many colleagues for her invaluable technical guidance (several reporters credit her with “saving” them early in their careers).
Her work took her overseas, across the country and into the halls of government. To mark her 40th anniversary in 2019, Pringle shared a snapshot of her congressional press pass (expiring in 1992) and a photo of her and First Lady Barbara Bush beaming at each other.
While NPR fans wouldn’t have heard Pringle speaking on the radio, they’ve “heard her voice through all the sounds of humanity she brought to listeners for more than 40 years,” as voting correspondent Hansi Lo Wang put it.
Pringle also served as the technical director for the 26-part, Peabody Award-winning Wade In The Water documentary series about gospel music, which NPR produced with the Smithsonian Institution in 1994.
Speaking on a 2019 panel about the series, Pringle said that engineering is a lot of really hard work, but that at NPR and particularly with Wade In The Water, “I was at home. I could feel it in my bones.” And she reflected on her favorite recording from the series, which was of the Howard University Choir performing a particularly quiet number (“engineer-wise”) at a centuries-old D.C. church.
“They did this one many, many times, because it was just really quiet passages,” Pringle recalled. “I would just go crazy if I heard anybody swallow. If I heard them blink their eyes, I would hear it. And I’d say, ‘Who did that?’ They had to do it over. And thankfully, everybody was so cooperative.”
Quick to share her expertise with others
Pringle’s dedication to her craft stood out to many of her coworkers. Audio engineer Stu Rushfield remembers that “Renee cared deeply about sound and was generous with her knowledge.”
Tom Cole, a senior arts editor who retired in 2021 after more than three decades at NPR, said that there was no one else quite like Pringle, but the two of them shared a lot in common: She knew his late first wife from junior high, was one grade ahead of him in high school and they both drove old Volvos. But he really got to know her when they worked together at NPR, “dubbing LPs in the RCs; mixing on reel-to-reel.”
“Renee had a musical ear — she could really make a piece sing (a hackneyed phrase but it was really true in her case). She didn’t use too much EQ — she wanted the humanity in the voices to come through,” he wrote, referring to equalization in audio processing. On top of that, he added, “She commanded your respect and she didn’t suffer fools.”
Carline Watson, the executive producer of Here & Now, says it was Pringle who first taught her to cut tape (a process that looked very different in the 1990s than it does today).
“When I was a student at Howard University learning radio production, our professor brought Renee in to teach us how to cut tape, with a razor blade, and splicing tape, and grease pencil,” she wrote. “When I joined NPR two years later, she remembered me. She was unfailingly kind.”
A highlight for many NPR visitors
Many colleagues shared similar recollections of Pringle’s kindness and generosity — with her knowledge, her time and her friendship — not only with them, but with their own families and guests.
Watson recalls that when her niece and nephew visited NPR years ago, Pringle let them sit behind the mic and recorded them, “much to their excitement.” Even years later, when they became adults, they never forgot the experience – and Pringle would always ask her how they were doing.
Wang remembers the kindness Pringle showed one of his former middle school teachers and his wife while he was giving them a tour of the building. She not only let them into the control room while she was working, but took time to show them the equipment and answer their questions.
“She made their day with a warm welcome from someone who helped build this institution through the decades,” he said.
Special correspondent Susan Stamberg, one of NPR’s “Founding Mothers,” says Pringle was beloved by many, whether they worked with her for days or for weeks.
She came to know and admire Pringle when they traveled together to Nairobi, Kenya, to cover the International Decade for Women conference in 1985.
“She handled all the complicated international audio business, always with a smile and a search for the next challenge,” Stamberg said. “The Kenyans we worked with gave her a nickname: Jiri. It meant something lovely, like ‘dear’ or some such. … For the next 30 or so years, that’s what I called her.”
The ‘secret fashionista’ will be sorely missed
Pringle made an impact not just on the audio she worked on through the decades, but on the people she worked with — whether that was sending Stamberg birthday notes, mentoring teenagers or sharing organic vegetables with overnight shift colleagues.
Michel Martin, host of Weekend All Things Considered, says she got a close look at a side of Pringle that many did not: “She was a secret fashionista.” It was a bit of an open secret, though, as several others also used words like fashionable and stylish to describe Pringle.
There used to be a clothing store they both liked down the street from NPR’s old office, and Martin writes that “we might, um, occasionally both find ourselves there [on] an afternoon … just, you know, occasionally.”
She says Pringle was so familiar with the store’s inventory that she would suggest items for her to look at, and more than once helped her pick out Christmas gifts for friends (and for Martin herself).
“I only rarely worked with Renee as a [technical director] in a studio but in a way I felt she was the part time [technical director] of my wardrobe,” Martin added.
Colleagues from over the years say they will miss Pringle’s voice on the other end of the line, her sense of humor and her honesty — both with herself and others.
“It was always a pleasure to bump into her in the halls,” Stamberg says. “I wish I could look forward to the next time that happens.”