Getting The Picture

At first glance, 'The Movie Show on Radio' seems an odd idea. But thanks to the voice -- and imagination -- of Allan Prell, positive reviews are pouring in.

January 06, 2000

SILVER SPRING -- In this post-modern, omni-ironic world we inhabit, fewer and fewer things are exactly what they say they are. "The Movie Show on Radio" is one of those straightforward rarities. It's a show about movies. It's on radio. How hard is that? Think "Sneak Previews," minus the thumbs. And minus clips, too, at least visual ones.

Once you get past "The Movie Show's" straightforward mission, however, its back-story is as full of twists and turns as the latest installment in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. Well, maybe not. But it does feature two buddies and a redhead.

Here they are now, preparing for the live Saturday afternoon broadcast from the "Martini Lounge," a studio inside the World Building on Georgia Avenue. Max "Mad Max" Weiss is poring over her list of best films of 1999, trying to remember the name of the actress in "Boys Don't Cry." Doug Roberts, who handles the video reviews on the show, is crafting his trivia questions.

And Allan Prell is standing behind the bar he built with his own hands, vetoing various sound effects for the broadcast's segment on bad movies.

How about vomiting sounds, ask producer Jason Wilson and Bob Dane, Prell's partner in this venture.

"No vomiting sounds," Prell says firmly.

A flushing toilet?

"No toilet sounds," he says, even more emphatically.

Wilson then cues up an unnamed sound effect. Although no one is sure exactly what it is, everyone agrees it's vile. The bad movie segment, though, will have to be sound-effect free, for it's 30 seconds to air, now 20, now 10, and now, "Live, coast to coast from the Martini Lounge, it's `The Movie Show.' "

And Allan Prell, who spent the shank of his career talking local politics and stalking school board superintendents, finally has a national audience for what he has deemed "the most thrilling thing I've ever done."

Make that an international audience, because a chunk of Canada is listening, too.

It wasn't that long ago that Prell, who once told The Sun he had worked at 27 radio stations and been fired from most of them, seemed to have found a permanent home on WBAL-AM's morning show. He had been there since 1982, a lifetime in radio. Everyone knew the distinctive voice and opinions of "Uncle Allie."

So it came as a surprise in August when Prell and WBAL announced he was switching to evenings, in order to concentrate on his syndicated movie show. A surprise, largely because no one in Baltimore had ever heard it.

"The Movie Show on Radio?" With Doug Roberts and Max Weiss? What was Prell talking about? On air in 68 markets, the show had no local outlet until WBAL picked it up late last year.

"It's the prodigal son story," Prell says, with his characteristic glee. "[But] the program has really started to work, and I really have confidence in the long-term of it. I had to make a decision, where was I going to put my priorities. I own a piece of the show, and I don't own a piece of WBAL.

"It does," he adds, "give one a different perspective."

"The Movie Show" had been conceived over a lunch in 1998 between Prell and Dane. The two had known each other for two decades, since Prell hired Dane for his first radio job. What was it? "Some on-air flunky job," Dane says now.

Dane had gone on to work for Westwood One, supervising its syndicated talk shows. He saw what appeared to be an obvious gap in the growing gabfest that is AM radio. "There had been oodles and oodles of political shows and sports shows and financial shows, even gardening shows. But the one thing everyone is doing [on the weekends] was just not properly represented."

In other words, why was there no movie show on radio?

Dane recruited Prell, who became a partner in the venture. For Prell, it was a no-brainer to bring along Weiss, whose free-form movie reviews had been a weekly fixture on his WBAL show, and Roberts, a local actor perhaps best-known to Baltimoreans for his WBAL restaurant critiques as the "Beltway Gourmet."

Attracting attention

The show went on the air in June 1998, with little fanfare. Slowly, however, it began to attract advertisers and new markets. "It was a rough year, the first year, and we still aren't making money," Prell says. "But it looks like we're going to make money this year."

But the trio, who had never worked together as an ensemble, also had to find a rhythm.

"The way it breaks down, I'm the Gen-X voice and the female voice," explains Weiss, who is 33. (Prell and Roberts are both over 50.) "Doug's the everyman, but the truth is, he's a very intelligent, intellectual fellow, so he's almost putting on a persona. We're supposed to clash in our opinions, but I find myself agreeing with him more than I should.

"And Allan -- Allan is Allan."

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