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Financial advice TV show pioneer

Louis Rukeyser, who for 32 years presided over PBS' Wall Street Week, a landmark financial advice show developed in Owings Mills and distinguished by his keen insights, wry puns and idiosyncratic musings on the market, died yesterday at his home in Greenwich, Conn.

Mr. Rukeyser, who was 73, died of multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the bone marrow, said his brother, Bud Rukeyser.

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An imposing but likable on-air presence with deep voice, silver-white hair and mischievous smile, Louis Rukeyser left the airwaves in October 2003 when he started undergoing treatment for cancer.

The former Baltimore Sun London bureau chief and ABC News correspondent spent his last 18 months in television presenting his show on cable channel CNBC after a nasty public battle in 2002 with Maryland Public Television, which had produced his groundbreaking show for more than three decades.

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At its peak in the 1980s, Wall Street Week was carried on more than 300 public television stations and boasted a weekly audience of 4.1 million viewers. The 30-minute program that aired Friday nights at 8 - four hours after the market closed for the week - was public television's longest-running weekly prime-time series, second only to CBS' venerable 60 Minutes in overall TV tenure. The series was canceled by MPT in June 2005 after three years of audience erosion that followed Mr. Rukeyser's departure.

"Before Louis Rukeyser, there was no such thing as a financial advice show on television," said Douglas Gomery, professor and media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Along with Sesame Street, Wall Street Week was one of the first shows on PBS, a landmark series by anybody's definition. The reason for its success was Louis Rukeyser. He was the franchise - proof that the star system worked even for PBS."

Mr. Rukeyser's ability to translate economics into compelling television talk helped make investors out of millions of Americans: "In essence, what he did was bring Wall Street to Main Street - he made Wall Street understandable in terms of Main Street," said Frank Cappiello, a money manager who appeared as a panelist on Mr. Rukeyser's first PBS telecast in 1970 and his last in 2002, as well as his first and last on CNBC.

"You have to remember when the program started in 1970, we had just been through the Vietnam War and rising inflation, and so much changed financially during that 10-year span from 1970 to 1980. And every week, Lou would be there on TV explaining the changes - from commodities to money market funds - in very simple terms to millions of viewers, many of whom became investors as a result of what they learned from him and the experts he brought in."

A wide-ranging economic expertise only begins to describe the formula that made Mr. Rukeyser one of public television's first major stars - along with Alistair Cooke, host of Masterpiece Theatre, and Sesame Street's Big Bird.

The New York City native, who was dubbed "the dismal science's only sex symbol" by People magazine, was known within the ranks of PBS as "The Big Bird of Prime Time" because of the underwriting support, ratings and viewer pledges that he brought to the fledgling public broadcasting lineup in the 1970s.

In an interview shortly before his own death in August, Baltimore financial analyst Julius Westheimer, who was a recurring panelist on Wall Street Week for 29 years, said Mr. Rukeyser never forgot the audience: "Lou always said that the best educators throughout history were in part entertainers, and he stressed that to those of us who were regulars on the show. He also told us to talk about money, not economics. 'Economics puts people to sleep; money wakes them up,' he used to say."

Mr. Cappiello, who logged more hours than any other panelist in Mr. Rukeyser's Friday-night TV boardroom, attributed his longtime friend's on-screen ability to talk so engagingly about money to the relationship Mr. Rukeyser enjoyed as a boy with his father, Merryle Stanley Rukeyser.

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The senior Rukeyser became financial editor of the New York Tribune at the age of 23 and wrote a business column for the International Tribune News Service for more than three decades.

"His father was one of the first real financial journalists in the country," Mr. Cappiello said. "And out of the constant contact with his father - with Lou as a young boy asking his father to explain things - he got the technique, which is very unusual, of explaining how finance works in very simple terms."

Louis Richard Rukeyser was born Jan. 30, 1933, in New York City, the second of four sons of Merryle and Berenice Simon Rukeyser. He was raised in the suburban community of New Rochelle, where he attended public schools and found his vocation at a remarkably early age.

"All I wanted to be when I grew up was a newspaperman," Mr. Rukeyser wrote in personal reference file for The Baltimore Evening Sun. The paper hired him for $55 a week in 1954, the year he graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. "I have been engaged in newspaper work since the age of 11, and getting paid for it since I was 16."

The New Rochelle Standard Star gave Mr. Rukeyser his start in the news business at age 11 by publishing a report he filed about his elementary school. By his sophomore year at New Rochelle High School, he was stringing as a sports reporter for several daily papers in the New York City area. His senior year at Princeton, Mr. Rukeyser was elected president of the Press Club.

He entered the Army for a two-year hitch in West Germany just three months after being hired by The Evening Sun and served as a correspondent for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, before returning to Baltimore in 1957 and a job as chief political reporter.

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After stints in London and India for The Sun, Mr. Rukeyser left the paper in 1965 to join ABC News - first as Paris correspondent and then chief of its London bureau. He returned to the United States in 1968 as chief economics correspondent for the network.

Two years later, when Anne Truax Darlington, a producer at MPT, was casting about for someone to serve as host of a show she was developing on economics and financial management, she thought of Mr. Rukeyser. She knew him from his work at The Sun and remembered seeing him on a BBC interview program in 1966 when she was in London as a Fulbright scholar: "Once I got Louis in my head, I couldn't get him out. Louis knew both economics and TV, and I knew we needed someone with an expertise in both if we were going to succeed," Ms. Darlington said.

Mr. Rukeyser and Ms. Darlington persuaded his bosses at ABC News to let him moonlight at Wall Street Week, but by 1973, "the tail was wagging the dog," as he put it, and he left the network.

Wall Street Week debuted on Nov. 20, 1970, and its impact was immediate, with New York Times TV critic Jack Gould asking in print three days later: "Who would have thought that the financial press would have some rivalry from Channel 67 atop a Maryland hill?"

Wall Street Week's format, which was as ritualized as that of Johnny's Carson's Tonight Show, always began with four or five minutes of remarks from Mr. Rukeyser directly addressed to viewers. It included the latest business news of the day along with the host's commentary and explanation of the market's behavior.

When Mr. Rukeyser, who always wrote his copy at MPT just before the start of the show, was asked whether he ever suffered writer's block, he replied: "I was chief rewrite man for the Baltimore Evening Sun when it had nine editions a day; you learn to get unblocked."

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The show's second segment took Mr. Rukeyser across the set to a large conference table that featured the rotating cast of recurring panelists such as Mr. Cappiello and Mr. Westheimer answering questions about money, markets and investing. The host was not shy about challenging their answers.

Additional segments involved Mr. Rukeyser answering letters from viewers, and Mr. Rukeyser and his panelists interviewing influential economists, executives, entrepreneurs and government officials such as Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Malcolm Forbes, H. Ross Perot and John Kenneth Galbraith. There were also predictions as to how the market would behave in coming weeks from Mr. Rukeyser's "Elves," a group of technical experts he regularly sounded for their opinions.

Reassurance and comfort were key components of the Rukeyser formula for TV success. On the show that followed "Black Monday" (Oct. 19, 1987, a day when the market lost 508 points), Mr. Rukeyser opened his show by telling viewers, "It's just your money, not your life."

"He was a calming influence," Mr. Cappiello said. "I remember that show after Black Monday. Lou came on and told viewers, 'Remember this: The sun will rise tomorrow, your children love you, and America is still intact.' And that set the tone; it really settled people down."

Mr. Rukeyser extended the brand to a syndicated column, books, lectures, investment conferences and newsletters during the 35 years since Wall Street Week debuted. But no matter the medium, the secret of his success was essentially the same: Like legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, Mr. Rukeyser was one of those rare early TV personalities whom viewers felt they could trust without reservation. For three decades, his loyal PBS audience was one of the most desirable in television.

"His target audience of people looking for investment advice was the perfect audience when it came to fundraising - people with money," said the University of Maryland's Gomery. "And they were loyal, showing up every Friday night to hear him and the insiders he brought to the TV table. For a long time, Rukeyser and public television were a very happy couple."

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But as Mr. Rukeyser moved into his late 60s and his audience aged with him, PBS and MPT started to question the very formula that had earned them as much as $5 million a year for three decades. The first hints of a breakup occurred in May 2001, at a meeting in a downtown Baltimore hotel when MPT officials told Mr. Rukeyser that they wanted to reinvent his show in hopes of attracting younger viewers.

The strategy was part of an overall campaign by then-new PBS President Pat Mitchell to shake up signature series such as Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery and Wall Street Week. It was a disaster.

On March 22, 2002, Mr. Rukeyser - who had rejected a diminished role on the show and was to leave when his contract lapsed in June - opened his show by blasting MPT and PBS: "A funny thing happened to me on the way to the studio this week - I got ambushed," he said. MPT fired him two days later.

"They decided unilaterally not to proceed with me as the host of the show I created, wrote and maintained for 32 years," Mr. Rukeyser told The Sun at the time.

Within a month of leaving MPT, Mr. Rukeyser and his weekly program were on cable channel CNBC - and within another month, 160 public television stations were carrying the cable show in defiance of PBS. The CNBC show ran until December 2004, when Mr. Rukeyser asked that it be canceled because of his ill health. (He had not been on the show since October 2003.)

As might be expected, Mr. Rukeyser was one of the public television's wealthiest performers. While he earned more than a million dollars a year during the 1980s and '90s for his work on MPT, he made far more with his newsletters, lectures and investment seminars. The two newsletters he launched in the 1990s on stocks and mutual funds earned $20 million annually.

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Mr. Rukeyser lived on 4 acres in Greenwich, Conn., with his wife, Alexandra Gill, a British journalist whom he met while working in London for The Sun. They have three grown daughters.

He enjoyed gambling, wine and fine dining, and traveled the world to sample the best restaurants and casinos.

"The best inflation hedge is living well," Mr. Rukeyser said in a Sun interview. "The government can't tax the psychic benefits, and your Rolls-Royce is bound to appreciate."

Online photo gallery and video tribute on baltimoresun.com


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