Talking Back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Allan Prell was back on the radio the other night and, as he might say, it was a glorious occasion. He laughed riotously at his own jokes. He made fun of callers foolish enough to share details of their personal lives. And he was oh so naughty.

Baltimore remembers naughty Allan. His provocative and often hilarious morning talk show aired on WBAL Radio from 1982 to 1999. Since then, he's worked for stations in Denver and Seattle, before returning to his home in Northern Virginia. Tuesday night, he filled in on the nationally syndicated Jim Bohannon Show out of Washington.

He was vintage Allan. He called the Iraqi Army an "out of control Boy Scout troop." He claimed to be Jim Bohannon's illegitimate love child. And after a commercial break at 12:20 a.m., he told his audience, "You stuck with us! Thank you very much. You're doing better than my first wife."

Prell, who declines to give his age but appears solidly in his 60s, hopes that with enough substitute hosting and enough hustling -- and, he believes, with talk radio turning in a more moderate direction -- he can get back to work full-time. That would delight some of his listeners and enrage others, because when it comes to Prell, everyone has an opinion.

"If they offered a degree in cowardice -- in fact, an advanced degree -- he would win it," said Gerry Altman of Pikesville, a frequent talk-show caller who was banned from Prell's show. (Prell says he pontificated too much.)

"His basic technique was talking like a small child over the air," Altman said, "I gather, to gain sympathy from the more vulnerable parts of his audience."

Prell throws his head back in laughter when he hears this. When you've had 31 jobs in radio and been fired from about half of them, you develop a thick skin. For him, what matters most is that people listen and people call. And Tuesday night, the phones were lit up from the beginning to the end of the show as Iraq dominated the discussion.

Before the program began, he gave his producer instructions on screening callers: "We're getting young, we're getting female, we're getting smart. And no compliments! People who disagree with me go to the top of the queue."

Steve of Oklahoma tried to compare the U.S. occupation of Iraq with the occupation of Germany after World War II. "Allan, it's called history. Read it!" Steve said. Prell shot back: "Don't try and out-yell me, because I can do that better than you can."

In Baltimore, Prell's problem was that the people who disagreed with him were running the station. Talk radio took a decided turn toward the conservative in the 1990s, and Prell, who considers himself moderate but others call liberal, said he was under enormous pressure to change his show.

"They favored an extremely conservative approach to radio, as evidenced by Ron Smith and by going to such lengths to get Rush Limbaugh," Prell said of WBAL management. (Limbaugh was dropped by WBAL in May and now airs in Baltimore on WCBM.) "The world, in their view, was getting more conservative all the time. I think I just gave them the constant weebeejeebies when I didn't just fall down for the conservative line."

He said the pressure was so intense that he went to a psychiatrist and went on tranquilizers. But none of that could change the basic situation at the station, and he realized he had to quit. "I just adored being on the radio, but you have to put it all on balance," he said. "I would have flipped out eventually or wrapped myself around a telephone pole."

Jeff Beauchamp, station manager and vice president of WBAL, said yesterday, "His characterization of what transpired is not at all what happened." Beauchamp said the station does not discuss internal matters, but added, "It's in the past. We wish him well."

In 2002, after intermittent work for several years, Prell landed on a small station in Denver. The station's signal was 20,000 watts during the day (not much for a metro area as large as Denver) and 1,000 at night. Prell said he lived five miles away and could barely hear it.

"A cat could whiz off the tower and get further than our signal could," Prell said. For one three-week stretch, he didn't get a single call. "I would have had more listeners on CB radio," he said.

He eventually left that job and last year landed in Seattle, where he got a $200,000 contract for a morning talk show on KIRO, an AM news-talk station. He started in January and was fired by September. But this time, people were listening, and there was an outcry.

The station received more than 2,000 e-mails in protest, Prell said, and his fans staged a demonstration outside the station headquarters. Prell showed up and wrapped himself in an American flag, chained himself to a U.S. mailbox and sprayed aerosol cans ("air purifier") at the building.

"God, was it fun!" he said. Prell says the station has still not given him a good explanation for his firing, but he believes corporate honchos didn't think he sounded like KIRO. (Station officials did not return a request for comment.)

Prell's voice is certainly distinct. The charitable would call it nasally. The mean-spirited would call it whiny. But it's his own, and he's done well by it. A Nebraska native, he's worked in radio since age 19, when he made $1 an hour and got fired when he asked for a 15-cent raise.

"I love doing it," Prell said. "Getting a job is hell. The logistics of the job is hell. But doing the job is like doing the most enjoyable thing on earth."

One of Prell's fans in Seattle -- a businessman named Matt Lutthans -- is helping Prell get a new gig. They have set up a Web site, allanprell.com, and are sending mailings to industry executives. Prell is also building a studio in his Oakton, Va., townhouse so he can be an emergency fill-in on stations across the country when a regular host "falls under a truck."

Prell believes talk radio, like the country, has entered a malaise.

"It's only preaching to the converted," he said. "Conservatives listen to the radio so they can be told how smart they are. Liberals don't even pay attention any longer because they can't find any voice that reflects what they think with intelligence. So I'm hoping, and I think, that talk radio will go somewhere to the middle."

According to Arbitron radio ratings, Limbaugh's audience share on WBAL last fall was down 27 percent from the previous year -- one factor in the station's decision to drop him in favor of local hosts.

Prell, always possessed of a healthy ego, declared Tuesday night that his fill-in job for Bohannon "couldn't have gone any better" and then headed for a drink at the Palm Restaurant in downtown Washington. If he was in Baltimore, he would have gone to McCafferty's, if it was still open.

The Mount Washington restaurant was a favorite Prell hangout and even had a caricature of him up on the wall alongside 180 politicians and sports stars. When the restaurant closed last year, the caricatures were auctioned.

Prell wondered how much his fetched and was told that Brooks Robinson beat him.

He scrunched up his brow and puzzled over that before asking, "Do you really think so?"

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Allan Prell

Hometown:

Lincoln, Neb.

Education:

Completed freshman year at Nebraska Wesleyan University before entering radio

First radio job:

Announcer at KFGT in Fremont, Neb.

Jobs in radio:

31

Jobs in radio from which he was fired:

About 15

Longest-running job:

Morning talk-show host on WBAL, 17 years

Personal:

Married to wife, Sally, for 26 years. Two sons and three grandchildren

Residence:

Oakton, Va.

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