Allan Prell, the popular, folksy WBAL-Radio morning talk-show host recalled for his vivid imagination and gentle way of making fools of certain listeners, died Saturday at his Oakton, Va., home. He was 79.
His wife, Sally Bryan-Prell, said he had undergone abdominal surgery in January. She said that a cause of death had not been determined.
Mr. Prell hosted a talk show from 1982 to 1999 at WBAL Radio. He later joined a Seattle station.
"Allan could be the silliest person in the world and the smartest person in the world, all on the same day," said Malarie Pinkard, WBAL-Radio news director. "He knew precisely when he had to be intelligent, and he knew when it was time to take a break."
She recalled that Mr. Prell liked pranks. "One day he asked, 'How do people make taffy?' He then took over the station's penthouse office and invited 20 taffy makers. He knew what the consequences would be, but he'd do anything to make his listeners happy."
"From the standpoint of a radio guy, he was uniquely a Baltimore talent. He was really attuned to Baltimore and understood its audience. He related to them, and they took to him," said Ron Matz, a veteran Baltimore radio personality who is now a WJZ-TV reporter.
"He really was a legend and totally unpredictable, and that's why people enjoyed him. You never knew what he was going to do," he said. "He was a very creative guy and had a unique way of delivering his message. He had all of these characters and was himself a Baltimore character."
John Patti joined WBAL in 1984, two years after Mr. Prell brought his brand of zaniness to the station along with the numerous characters he had created and which the audience readily embraced.
"He brought creativity to radio at a time when it was leaving radio. He had a long leash at WBAL — like the time he made root beer in the elevator shaft. Every time the elevator came down, he had to get out of the way," Mr. Patti recalled.
"Every Friday afternoon, Mr. Prell did a segment called 'Honest Al's Yard Sale' in which listeners called to sell an item, which they actually did.
"It could be a car, roller skates, a baseball bat or even a refrigerator," Mr. Patti said. "And then he'd say, 'Why do you want to sell a refrigerator that hasn't run in three months or a car that's been in an accident?'"
Another segment was a point-counterpoint, when Mr. Prell, a liberal, debated issues with afternoon talk show host Ron Smith, a conservative, and the two went head-to-head.
"It was called 'The Friday Tiff: Prell & Smith' and it was always about politics. They would really go at each other, and when the segment was over, they'd go down the hall still yelling at each other, they were so angry with one another," Mr. Patti said. "We've lost a great talent in radio."
Born in Shelby, Neb., Mr. Prell was the son of Philo Prell, a carpenter, and Ruth Ransom. He spent time during World War II in Middle River while his parents were defense workers. He spent a year at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., and he got a job at radio station KFTG. In a 1989 Baltimore Sun article, he said he worked at 27 radio stations — and was fired from most of them — before joining WBAL.
"He was perceived as a silly, goofy guy, but there was a lot of craft and thought behind what he did," said Max Weiss, with whom he later worked on a syndicated program, "The Movie Show on Radio."
"He was extremely smart — but he was a kind person," said Ms. Weiss, who is now Baltimore Magazine's managing editor. "There was a great humanity about Allan that shined through. I think he was a radio genius. He could extemporize. There was a touch of vaudevillian comedian about him. He could bounce off a dullard."
As a boy, Mr. Prell spent his time listening to radio and dreaming of a career as an announcer. One day, his mother took him to the local station announcer, who liked the enthusiastic boy and offered him a job playing a few records at night.
His mother, Ruth Prell, told The Sun in a 1982 profile, "Allan went coast to coast doing what he liked best. I think that was talking."
Mr. Prell likened his personal style to the stage.
"It's one thing I try to do on radio," said Mr. Prell in a 1989 Sun article. "I try to do a theater of the mind."
"Both lovers and haters are treated to his sappy, nerdy voice," the same article said. "Still, underestimating him can be a serious mistake, for a huge part of his wicked charm is his skill at making fools of listeners."
"Allan had staying power, and he had almost 20 years here. He was incredibly successful, and I respect that kind of talent," Mr. Matz said.
Mr. Prell's departure from WBAL wasn't particularly harmonious, friends said.
"I think I just gave them the constant weebeejeebies when I didn't just fall down for the conservative line," Mr. Prell told The Sun in a 2006 interview.
Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL's station manager, whom Mr. Prell called "Semi-Big Boss Beauchamp," said in the 2006 interview that the station did not discuss internal matters, and added, "It's in the past. We wish him well."
Mr. Prell then took a job at KIRO in Seattle, hosting a talk show, which was later canceled, and returned to Northern Virginia, filling in on the nationally syndicated "Jim Bohannon Show" in Washington.
A Sun article said his performance there was pure Allan Prell. He called the Iraqi army an "out-of-control Boy Scout troop" and told listeners that he was Jim Bohannon's love child. After a commercial, he told the audience, "You stuck with us. Thank you very much. You're doing better than my first wife."
His wife said it was Mr. Prell's wish that his ashes be scattered on a family farm in Nebraska.
In addition to his wife of 28 years, survivors include two sons, Mark Prell of Oakton and Scott Prell of Los Angeles; a brother, Steven Prell of Lincoln, Neb.; and three grandchildren.