Among the stable of commentators at Baltimore's top radio news station, WBAL-AM, are the baritone-throated Alan Waldon, house conservative Ron Smith and maybe most popular of all, Allan Prell. To listeners of his weekday morning talk show, he's the merry, madcap "Uncle Allie," who titters and chortles and sounds a little like the comedian Charles Nelson Riley.
However, when his show turns to the topic of Baltimore County school Superintendent Stuart Berger, as it often does, Uncle Allie becomes Uncle Fester. Local talk radio's Dr. Jekyll mutates into Mr. Hyde.
Since last summer, Mr. Prell has been on a mission to get Dr. Berger fired, unlike any campaign seen in the Baltimore media in recent years. While the commentator scolds conservatives for knee-jerk attacks against President Clinton, he pursues Dr. Berger with maniacal zeal. Without concern for overstatement, he refers to Dr. Berger as "the personification of Beelzebub."
He gave Dr. Berger a going-over when the superintendent appeared on his program last July, and when Dr. Berger understandably declined to return to WBAL for further punishment last month, Mr. Prell ambushed him at a luncheon. In a scene that embarrassed even Mr. Prell's media colleagues who had arranged the press-conference event, the talk-show host chased Dr. Berger into an elevator.
Why the jocular "Allie-pally" gets so out of character on the Berger issue is hard to fathom. The best guess is that the rift is both personal and professional: The radio host fielded calls of distress from listeners, he didn't hit it off with Dr. Berger himself and the row worsened since Dr. Berger and the school board president won't go on his show. One thing becomes clear during an interview on Television Hill: He is as bitter about Dr. Berger off the air as on.
In his 36 years on the radio, nearly a third of that in Baltimore, Mr. Prell says he's never had an issue resonate with listeners like the controversial tenure of Dr. Berger. The superintendent was hired in Baltimore County last year, specifically to shake up a school system that had been led by the fatherly Robert Dubel for nearly a generation. (Mr. Prell himself attended Baltimore County schools briefly in the '40s while his parents worked at the Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft plant before they returned to their native Nebraska.)
What Mr. Prell says to his 70,000-plus listeners shouldn't be enough to topple a school administration. He is also as entitled to his opinions as anyone, including this newspaper's editorial board, which has supported the superintendent. But because of its frequency and ferocity on the topic, Mr. Prell's show doesn't focus on facts so much as it feeds a frenzy.
Mr. Prell belittles callers who support the school system. His reporting goes no farther than the calls that come his way. One morning, he exhorts the school board to heed the findings of its task force; the next, he lambastes it for spending money to hire an ombudsman the task force recommended. He admits to exaggerating for entertainment value, but says he's merely turning "ant droppings into elephant droppings."
His main criticism is that Dr. Berger has infected the system with "fear and intimidation," but the more he rants about it on the radio the more fearful and intimidated employees and families will feel. He may receive scores of anecdotes about individual problems in the system of 10,000 staffers, but he could hear the same from any sector of the government or most large private firms.
Even supporters of Dr. Berger acknowledge he lacks antennae for performing in a political environment, and needs an &r; administrator he trusts who could supply that. (Someone to advise him, for instance, not to use the word "vindication" about lawsuits over special education, as he did last week; it is a term of battle, not healing.)
Mr. Prell sees Dr. Berger's political deficiencies as sufficient to disqualify him for his job. Most of what Dr. Berger has accomplished -- all-day kindergarten in needy neighborhoods; magnet schools; greater emphasis on at-risk students -- Mr. Prell dismisses as isolated successes. As long as the name "Berger" ignites his switchboard and as long as he fancies himself the "junkyard dog" fighting for the oppressed, he isn't likely to turn down the volume, nor to be a constructive force.
In a period of talk-radio popularity, the canard about never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel must be amended: Don't pick one with anybody with a 50,000-watt transmitter at his side.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.