My first assignment on my first day as TV critic at The Baltimore Sun in 1989 was to go over to WBAL radio and appear as a guest on the noontime show of Allan Prell, who died Saturday at age 79.
Before leaving the office, I asked my pod partner Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning feature writer, what Prell was like since I was told she often appeared on his show.
Alice rolled her eyes and said in a theatrical voice, “That, you will have to experience for yourself, David. Good luck.”
She said it with affection for Prell, but the message was clear: Be prepared, this guy is a trip.
That wasn’t the half of it I decided after a few minutes of chatting pre-air with the radio personality who said I should call him Uncle Allie.
I appeared on a weekly basis on Prell’s show over several years, and I don’t think he ever did any prep for any one of the shows. Ever.
He would usually walk in just before the show started with a can of tuna and a couple of soda crackers from the machine in the canteen downstairs at WBAL.
The show would begin with Prell saying, “So, Zurawik, what’s up?” Sometimes he would vary it and say, “So, Mr. Zurawik, what’s happening in the world of television?”
When he used the Mr. in front of my name, he delivered it in a tone of voice that made it sound like an insult – like I was the last person in the world worthy of his respect.
When he really wanted to mock me, he would refer to me as “The Mighty Z.” That usually happened when I wrote something criticizing a media figure and he thought I was taking myself too seriously.
That happened a lot.
And I loved him for it. I didn’t even mind that he would open the can of tuna and start spooning it into his mouth as I started my response to his, “So, what’s up?”
He usually seemed a lot more interested in the tuna than what I had to say.
He even got me over to WBAL several years running for his annual Christmas show where he played a demented character named Allie Elf. I hope WBAL has one of those old tapes and will play it this Christmas season, because you had to hear the madness of Prell’s annual Christmas show to appreciate it.
Prell was a throwback to an old-time radio where hosts like him came on the air for several hours a day and just let it rip. Who they were – neuroses and all – was what the listeners got. And in the case of a personality like Prell, tens of thousands of listeners liked (some of them surely even loved) the voice that came through the radio.
In the 1990s, when I was doing his show once a week, WBAL radio felt like the powerhouse broadcaster of Baltimore to me. It was the voice of news and information in this market with its 50,000-watt transmitter up on Television Hill for everyone driving on 83 to see.
And he and Ron Smith were the guys who drove the ratings for WBAL. Smith was the political one, while Prell was the funny guy. When they were back to back in mid-day and afternoons, it was a winning combination the likes of which I had not heard in Milwaukee, Detroit, Dallas or any of the other cities where I covered media.
I was always surprised that Prell’s old-time, folksy approach to radio played so well that deep into the 20th century. It was from an earlier time in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s when listeners thought of such show hosts as friends talking to them across the backyard fence.
One of the things that surely served Prell well as the media and America became colder, less personal places was his snark. Prell was ahead of his time when it came to snark. I am surprised he didn’t adapt better to social media with it.
Prell was also served well in the ‘90s by a great, young producer, Mike Wellbrock, who more than made up for Prell’s lack of preparation through his hard work. Wellbrock understood in his bones how important it was to let Prell be Prell – or Uncle Allie or Allie Elf or whoever else Prell wanted to be on-air on any given day -- no matter how weird things got.
I came back to my new desk in the Sun Features department that first day on the job after doing Prell’s show and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Not so much in taking this new job as TV critic at a paper loaded with so much talent it seemed natural to be sharing a computer with a Pulitzer Prize winner. But in agreeing to spend the noon hour every Monday for the foreseeable future with this strange and winning character named Allan Prell.