Grace Under Fire: Brenda Box Remembrance

Brenda Box. © Photo courtesy Kathy Rushlow.

By Karen Schaefer
March 12, 2013

Some voices can never be silenced, even when they're rarely heard.

Brenda Michelle Box Johnson's voice was one of those.

Most of us in public radio knew her simply as Brenda Box. She was one of those behind-the-scenes voices at National Public Radio (NPR) we all know about, but rarely hear. If you are an NPR contributor, you often heard her voice at the other end of the phone when you called in for an edit on a news spot. If you were an NPR listener, you should know that for six years every daytime newscast as NPR was shaped by her, even if you never heard her name. Brenda was an unseen, but strongly-felt presence, a peerless crafter of public radio news whose actual voice was never heard on air.

And she loved it that way.

Brenda Box died this month of pancreatic cancer at age 58, after a four-year illness. And we in the SEJ community will miss her terribly.

Brenda first attended the Society of Environmental Journalists' Annual Conference as a fellow for the 2002 Baltimore conference. Using her extensive contacts with NABJ, she helped double the number of minority fellows at that year's event. In September 2003 she returned as a senior fellow to SEJ's New Orleans conference, supporting an even larger number of new fellows through a diversity program funded by Columbia University and the National Science Foundation.

In New Orleans Brenda was active in hands-on journalism. She ran a conference mini-tour on the 23,000-acre Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge, even holding a baby alligator for the camera. Brenda was also a craft session panelist on “Radio and the Environment: Using Sounds and Words To Get the Story Across.” She was elected to the SEJ Board of Directors at the 2003 annual meeting.

I remember Brenda as an incredibly friendly voice at the other end of the phone. Filing regular spots with NPR, I quickly found Brenda to be one of the most de-stressful voices at NPR. When Brenda came on the line, I felt my blood pressure drop. I knew instantly I was in good hands. No matter how urgent the topic, I knew that Brenda's take on how I should shape my story would make it the best that it could be.

Brenda's radio career didn't simply span her time as an NPR associate editor, a job she took in 2006. Brenda was first hired at NPR in 2003 as an assistant producer. She also freelanced that same year for WTOP-AM in Washington, D.C. as a reporter and anchor. Before that, she served a nearly three-year stint with West Virginia Public Broadcasting under then-news director (now NPR reporter) Giles Snyder.

Brenda started in radio in 1981 as a capitol hill correspondent for USA Today Broadcasting, moved to the UPI Radio Network as anchor/editor in 1986, then spent two years as an anchor and reporter for NBC/Mutual Radio network, covering Congress and federal agencies. A longtime member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), she won a 1992 Salute to Excellence award for a 4-part NBC Radio series on Black Pioneers, and a 1984 Best of Gannett award for radio coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.

In addition to her long career covering beltway politics and issues, Brenda was an avid environmentalist. Her journalism degree from Colorado State University may have helped set her on that path. For six years, she took a break from journalism to work for national environmental organizations. From 1994 to 1999 she was associate director of communications for The Wilderness Society, then served as communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation from 1999-2000, developing local and national media campaigns.

SEJ Conference Director Jay Letto remembers Brenda as having a “very positive attitude about everything, always can-do, and always wanting to help others.” He wasn't the only one who thought so. After my former news director Dave Pignanelli arrived in Washington in 2006 to work for NPR (he's now supervising senior producer of newscasts and was Brenda's boss), he says it was Brenda who taught him how to direct a newscast from outside the broadcast booth.

“She was calm and always made you sound better,” says Pignanelli. “She was always laughing and nothing ever got her down. She was the epitomy of dignity and grace, even as she fought her long battle with cancer.”

Pignanelli says Brenda's grace under fire was nowhere more evident than on a trip to NPR West in Culver City, California about four years ago. Brenda was already experiencing stomach pains and needed to pick up some medication. He says they stopped at one drugstore, found it wasn't the right one, then drove for nearly an hour before finding another that could fill the prescription. Pignanelli says she laughed long and hard when they discovered the right store was just a few blocks from their hotel.

After they returned to Washington, D.C., Brenda Box was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and began a long series of treatments. But she continued to work at NPR throughout her care, only taking time off when her health deteriorated. Last Thanksgiving, she finally told Pignanelli it was time to be realistic, she wouldn't be coming back anymore.

Brenda Box died on March 7, 2013 at age 58. After her death, NPR reporters and anchors from around the globe began sharing a long string of email remembrances of their beloved colleague.

“Cool beans,” according to one colleague, was her trademark expression, an acknowledgment that her exacting editorial eye had approved the reporter's work. One anchor commented that "although you never heard her name on an NPR broadcast, she shaped what you heard...Brenda Box was the editor that every journalist dreams of, one who elicits the best from reporters and quietly removes the errors.”

Another said, “Her laugh was infectious...and whenever I called in to file a spot — getting a chance to chat with Brenda was like having a little news party.” From yet another, “She made calling in with spots so much fun and really, I never knew what she would come up with.” And then this: “So I’d hang up the phone laughing, feeling like, what a great party! Oh wait, no, I was editing a news spot with Brenda. Amazing how you can come to love someone when you mainly edit news spots on the phone from 3 thousand miles away.”

I felt just the same way. I never met Brenda in person, but I felt like she was my NPR news friend on the other end of the phone. We connected in ways that would be the envy of most friends and family members. I felt like we were buddies in adversity. And I never knew that she was privately suffering. She wouldn't have wanted that.

I'll never forget the time I called in a spot while on vacation in Nebraska with my mother. We were in Kearney, Nebraska and a tornado had just touched down in the city, churning up the downtown area where we took shelter, and tearing apart the local airfield and railway lines. I called NPR from my cell phone in the car, with the rain still pelting down. Brenda answered the phone and I explained the situation. She chortled when she heard I was on vacation and had just happened onto a national news story.

“We love our roving public radio reporters!” she said. Then another voice came on line — my former boss Dave Pignanelli, who echoed the same sentiments and chatted for a moment. I was overwhelmed that Brenda had found a moment in all that hubbub to let Dave know I was calling from an unexpected place, in a tense situation, and gotten him on the line. I felt safe, cared for, appreciated.

That was Brenda Box. Grace under fire, both professional and personal. I will miss her more than I can say.

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