Balancing Act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Order from chaos.

On the air, that's the charge of Karen Gibbs, co-host of Wall Street Week with Fortune. Relying on years of experience as a financial and commodities analyst, she seeks to make sense of the daunting and unsettling data that cascades her way about the nation's markets for the investors who watch the PBS show.

Off the air, too, Gibbs is supposed to help resurrect success for Maryland Public Television, where her arrival followed hard on the heels of the spring 2002 ouster of original Wall Street Week host Louis Rukeyser. The show lost its long-term underwriters, which led to major layoffs a year ago. Unrelated state budget troubles have forced more cuts. And membership is down from its high of a few years ago.

The weight placed on the shoulders of Gibbs and her co-host, Fortune magazine's Geoffrey Colvin, is considerable. She says she's willing to do whatever it takes to promote the program and MPT, but Gibbs barely registers those pressures.

When Gibbs first appears on-screen, her eyes are steady, blinking only infrequently, like the beacon from a faraway plane. As the camera's gaze pulls back a bit, you see the hints of a smile creasing across her broad face, and a friendly presence emerges. When Gibbs starts to speak, her words serve to soothe.

The markets may be in flux, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the tank, but she offers viewers - and her employer - the unstated promise that she'll make sense of an uncertain world. Order from chaos.

In person, Gibbs is warm, profane, funny, an enthusiastic hugger, someone who is clear about what she wants in life.

In Gibbs' office at MPT's Owings Mills headquarters, framed photographs show youthful versions of her parents, her sisters and her nephew. She loves to cook at her home, a short drive from the studios, and dotes on her 3-year-old cocker spaniel, Maxwell. Several small vases with flowers sit on a windowsill and shelves, testament to the appreciation guests on the show feel for the chance to address more than a million American investors. On the wall, a framed poster advertises Gibbs' rise as a Dean Witter executive nearly two decades and a career ago.

A small television on her desk is tuned to Fox News Channel, another former employer. A steel briefcase rests against a wall. It contains several newspapers and magazines, and, on days when Gibbs is particularly organized, her lunch. She trolls those publications - and a raft of financial Web sites - each day to mine data as she prepares to write analyses and to question guests.

"She really has paid her dues and earned her right to provide insight," says Colvin, the editorial director of Fortune. "She has this very deep knowledge of the markets and the people who are in them. Many of the guests turn out to have known Karen for years."

Neil Cavuto, a former colleague at CNBC and Fox News, calls her "the 'Rain Man' of finance" - someone who boasts an incredible command of market minutiae.

The way Gibbs tells it, that knowledge stems from her search to understand a world that fascinates her.

Born in Boston, Gibbs grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a chemist and a special librarian at the Field Museum. Both of her parents had earned master's degrees and preached the value of education. While waiting as a child for her father to finish work in his lab, she would often dip rubber bands into liquid nitrogen to watch them freeze and snap. Gibbs intended to pursue a major in biochemistry when she enrolled at Knox College, a few hours' drive southwest of Chicago. It didn't take.

She switched to Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1971 and studied the way the business and financial worlds operate. She had been captivated by money as a kid, setting up her own toy grocery store on the corner of her street and demanding payments from neighbors. And, as a young adult, she was asking: Why does something cost so much? Or cost so little? How come there's a lot of this, and not enough of that?

As she recalls it, an academic counselor chided her: "Why do you want to study economics? You'll never be on the President's Council of Economic Advisers."

Gibbs says now: "What a small mind!" She attended school part-time, however; in gingerly entering the study of finance she had taken a low-rung job at the Chicago Board of Trade that same year. There, standing before a blackboard that dwarfed her, she was responsible for scrawling in white chalk the high, low and last three prices for each day's trading of Winnipeg oats and rye. (Purchasing the Canadian crop remains a popular way among some investors to protect against possible losses from drops in the value of American oats.)

Each morning, she remembers with affection, "at 9:29:50, a roar goes up that does not go off until 1:15" in the afternoon.

There were 1,402 traders in that pit, including just one woman and no blacks, by her recollection. Two black traders joined later in the decade. Both were popular former Chicago professional athletes. (Officials at the Board of Trade say they do not keep demographic data, but did confirm Gibbs' precise memory of when those particular traders joined the board.)

It was the ultimate men's club. But she learned how to handle herself. "If you get sensitive trading with 1,400 guys, you're in the wrong business," she says. Here's her self-description, which she says stays true: "Cusses like a Marine - and she has the best filthy jokes. Not dirty jokes. Filthy jokes."

In April 1976, Gibbs switched to the Board of Trade's audits department, then soon arrived at a conclusion: "In the middle of all of that, I decided I wanted to be on the money side," she says. "Money will do all kinds of things for you. It will open many doors - especially if you know how to trade money and to keep people from losing money."

And, she acknowledges with a laugh, "I do have a greedy side. I wanted a fat check."

She enrolled at the University of Chicago, earning an MBA in 1978. After graduation, she went to work at Conti Commodities and then went on to sell government securities to institutional investors for Harris Savings Bank. By 1982, she was hired by Dean Witter, a major investing firm. Within a few years, her insight into the markets would pay off.

Gibbs was a vice president at Dean Witter for much of the '80s, and every morning at 7:20 and again at roughly 2:30 each afternoon, her voice emerged from a company-wide squawk box, informing hundreds of the firm's investment analysts around the country about the vagaries of that day's bond markets.

And race, while always a factor, receded as a factor in her life, she says. "When you make money [for people], they don't count it against you that you're a black woman."

A scattering of interviews as a guest on FNN, the precursor to CNBC, turned into a frequent appearance, and then she left Dean Witter entirely, hired by then-CNBC chief Roger Ailesto to be the original "Bond Babe." (That's bond as in a Treasury bill, not 007.)

She was on the air all the time. Fifty-one minutes after each hour during the trading day, Gibbs would give analyses of the commodities markets in a language comprehended only by the professionals who made their living buying and selling them, along with a few avid amateurs.

Gibbs says she never minded her moniker. Executives at General Electric, which owns CNBC, might have had little idea of her name, but they always knew the Bond Babe. And by working in the financial markets before covering it, she intuitively perceived the heated human factor involved in investment decisions along with cooler facts.

"She is electrified by the market arena - be it in stocks, bonds or currencies," says William V. Sullivan Jr., a former colleague at Dean Witter who is now a senior economist for Morgan Stanley in New York. "A lot of people in front of that [television] camera don't have an appreciation for the emotion that goes into making those market valuations. She does."

People panic. They fall in love with the concept of nascent companies or the star power of high-flying executives or the seeming logic of a can't-miss investment. Taken together, millions of such discrete decisions by investors move markets, as profits and losses lurch back and forth. And Gibbs tracks them. Decisions may be illogical. But they can be understood.

People at MPT sound a remarkably similar theme about the strength of the new generation of Wall Street Week.

"Today, it's the No. 1 financial business show on television in prime time," says Robert J. Shuman, president and CEO of MPT. "I can't tell you how happy I am to be talking about that."

"We're the highest-rated business program, and we're very proud of that fact," says Larry Moscow, the program's executive producer.

"We're the highest-rated financial news program on television," says Gibbs.

That the show's status could even be in doubt illustrates how high the stakes are for Maryland Public Television.

The program has long been the state broadcasting system's crown jewel. Last fall, MPT cut its $38 million budget by $3 million, as it confronted the loss of underwriters after the departure of Louis Rukeyser. The effect was compounded by a state budget crunch. Fourteen percent of the workforce was laid off. Salaries were cut and executives were demoted. Rukeyser embarked on a competing show on CNBC during the same time slot.

This year, state funds set aside for MPT were pared back to $10.7 million by the General Assembly, $500,000 less than Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had proposed. Much of that state money covers the cost of leasing new digital equipment needed to meet federal technology requirements.

Yet there are promising signs, too. Donations for the year ending June 30 are up a half-million dollars above the previous year's levels.

While the size of the show's audience is down significantly from its peak under Rukeyser, he had seen some erosion, too. For the nine months ending June 30,Wall Street Week's viewership has held steady at about 1.36 million each week. It is carried by 307 PBS stations - about 87 percent of PBS affiliates.

By contrast, 150 PBS affiliates carry Rukeyser's CNBC show in repeat broadcasts each weekend. Rukeyser's combined weekly viewership on CNBC and the PBS stations reaches about 1.1 million viewers weekly. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment for this article. (Aggregate weekly viewing levels are higher for daily financial shows such as CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight or Nightly Business Report, which airs on many PBS stations.)

In the absence of sponsors for Wall Street Week, PBS stepped in to subsidize the show. But MPT officials say they have achieved progress. Wausau, a major business insurer, has signed up for a four-month contract, according to the station. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development has also agreed to become a national underwriter for three months, starting next month.

Reviews for the show have been largely respectful, but mixed. One unflattering assessment came from Gibbs' hometown Chicago Tribune, whose television critic, Steve Johnson, characterized her this summer as a "verging-on-Stepford business journalist."

And the program remains the subject of frequent tweaking. The emphasis on the heavy-hitter interviews - Citigroup's Robert Rubin, AT&T;'s C. Michael Armstrong - is giving way to notable analysts who can offer investors usable tips, Gibbs and Moscow say.

In a tough market, more of an emphasis has been placed on the implications of government policy on the economy and the financial markets. Big names in government still pop up, such as William H. Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But so has Ben Stein, the economist, commentator and comedian. And Moscow has started to rely more on the assets of Fortune, recently introducing a roundtable of the magazine's reporters as a test-run for recurring use.

The program's style is shifting slightly, too. Shuman says the shifts represent a "soft re-launch," though Moscow demurs.

"The show is constantly finding ways to showcase" Gibbs and Colvin, Moscow says. The program has dropped the introductory remarks, in favor of a more colloquial banter between Gibbs and Colvin sketching out the program ahead. A long, formal table is being dumped, in favor of talks by the set's working fireplace.

Changes or not, John Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS, says the program is hitting its stride. The new Wall Street Week has "a sense of pace that I think works well in today's TV environment," Wilson says. "She's got great energy and a good attitude. I really like the team that Geoff and Karen represent."

On one Friday, Gibbs walks from her office to a brilliantly lit, all-white room where mirrors cover almost an entire wall. After she sits down and puts on a protective smock, Carla L. Williams sponges makeup onto Gibbs' face, then paints her upper eyelids in a color to complement her pastel pantsuit. Fake eyelashes are applied a few minutes later.

"Women are not allowed to grow old on television," says Gibbs, 51, "unless you've got the stature of a Barbara Walters." Something askew in her appearance, she says, can distract viewers from listening to what she has to say.

Colvin sports an elegant wardrobe with suspenders, French cuffs and a hairline in full retreat. He is unlikely to receive quite so much attention for his looks from viewers. It's part of the gender dissonance of television. But Gibbs doesn't dwell on such disparities.

She also doesn't belabor the challenge ahead. Gibbs has gamely participated in on-air fund-raising drives. She contributes regular reports on regional economic issues to MPT's Business Connection. Along with Colvin, Gibbs recently taped "thank you" messages to employees at Wausau. And she appears around the country at events geared toward corporate executives, cementing ties and making sure Wall Street Week is a constant presence.

"This is a much more usable show than ever," Gibbs says. "The progress we've made this year is incredible."

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