TV's financial dean celebrates 30 years
Louis Rukeyser brings markets home to individual investors
By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
BALTIMORE — Louis Rukeyser is kicking back with a fat stogie and glass of burgundy at 2 a.m. in the Havana Club cigar bar. Judging by the fawning he's getting from several women, it's obvious that Wall Street's best-known financial commentator is one heck of a babe magnet.
Unwinding after the Friday wrap of Public Broadcasting's Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser, the show's courtly, white-haired star is resplendent in tailored navy blue suit, pale blue shirt and a yellow power tie. Gracious and charming, Rukeyser relishes the attention from several women, as any happily married, 67-year-old grandfather might. Two are shushed away by the bar manager, only to sneak back over to gawk and banter. Rukeyser smiles broadly, eyes a dinner companion but says nothing. The look, though, is pure "Ain't life grand?"
Comely young groupies adore him. Modern Maturity and People magazines have attested to his sex appeal. Viewer letters contend he's sexier than actor Brad Pitt. Clearly, though, Rukeyser has much more to feel good about these days. In the ever-expanding world of flashier TV, Internet and even print competitors, Rukeyser remains the biggest hottie of financial journalism. Wall $treet Week, already TV's longest-running program with the same host, celebrates its 30th anniversary tonight with a live show from New York's Carnegie Hall.
Two years past what many consider normal retirement age, Rukeyser shows few signs of slowing down:
• He'll host a four-hour program on election night for cable network CNBC, gauging the impact on the economy, business and stocks. Two more CNBC shows are planned within the next year.
• His investment newsletters on the stock market and mutual funds are the largest monthlies of the genre, with combined circulation of 400,000. Rukey-ser's Web site — now undergoing a revamp to offer expanded market advice and service — got nearly 500,000 hits in September.
• Rukeyser's twice-yearly investment seminars aboard European and Caribbean cruise ships sell out months in advance. His most recent annual Las Vegas financial seminar drew 11,000.
• As a public speaker, Rukeyser commands $80,000 to $100,000 a speech, fees typically reserved for former presidents and top-flight CEOs. He makes about two dozen a year. Based on demand, Rukeyser says he could book a couple hundred a year.
Casual observers may regard the sedate Rukeyser and his talking-heads format show as a charming anachronism in a high-octane media world of fast-flowing screen tickers and hyperkinetic financial reporters. But Wall $treet Week spawned the genre and cable TV networks devoted to investing, such as CNBC and Financial News Network. Without Rukeyser, some say, there'd be no specialized market programs for financial junkies, such as CNBC's Squawk Box and its glib, wisecracking commentators. Most were born long after Rukeyser began his journalism career in 1949 as a 16-year-old sportswriter for his hometown paper in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Rukeyser's enduring legacy is as the impartial champion of the individual investor — a prime reason about 3 million households continue to tune in Wall $treet Week. The audience is four times the combined average daily viewership of CNN's Moneyline and CNBC's News Center, Nielsen Media Research says.
"Despite the advent of all the expanded coverage and choices, Rukeyser's perspective remains important and relevant," says former Moneyline host Lou Dobbs. "You can't ask for a better emblem of what a business journalist and market commentator should be about."
Wall $treet Week has changed little in content and style since its November 1970 launch at Maryland's Owings Mills PBS station near Baltimore. While Owings Mills is an outpost from both Wall Street and Rukeyser's Greenwich, Conn., home, the station holds the rights to the program, and neither Rukeyser nor Wall Street heavy hitters seem to mind trekking there.
Being a guest on the show, in fact, is being a player in the financial world's version of the Super Bowl.
"People will try anything to get on the show. There's a backlog of good analysts, portfolio managers and economists," says Frank Cappiello, head of Maryland-based money manager McCullough Andrews and Cappiello and a panelist since the first show. "It's good for business, and it's a mark of esteem. When you can say you've been a guest, that's big stuff."
Rukeyser, as always, opens Wall $treet Week with a wry, pun-laden monologue, which he writes Friday afternoons, then fiddles with until the 7:45 p.m. taping. Many viewers consider the monologue the most entertaining part of the show, because Rukeyser deftly weaves the week's market action with economic news, topical items such as politics or the World Series, and an occasional oddball story. So predictable is the format that it was parodied on Saturday Night Live.
During the Oct. 20 taping, a klieg light blew midway through Rukeyser's four-minute monologue, popping with the intensity of a rifle shot. Unfazed, Rukeyser kept talking in sonorous baritone. Most of the 1,430 shows have been taped, but technical glitches and other snafus occasionally prompt live airings.
Monologues are followed by the "Elves Index," the show's only nod to what could pass for market timing. Ten market strategists track assorted market influences, predicting changes in the market's direction — or misdirection. Rukeyser then saunters over to a dining table, where he affably schmoozes with his three panelists about the market's weekly action and some of their latest stock picks. Panelists rotate each week from a group of about two dozen market sages, portfolio managers and technical analysts.
Rukeyser and his weekly threesome then amble over to two facing leather couches. From there, they greet and grill guests. Financial biggies such as Prudential Securities strategist Ralph Acampora and PaineWebber's Mary Farrell are regular panelists.
In recent years, both guests and panel members have skewed younger and expanded ethnic lines. Rukeyser brought women and minorities to the show long before they began breaking through Wall Street's gender and racial barriers that are still prevalent today.
Rukeyser has delivered a consistent message to viewers the past 30 years.
"What I've tried to teach is no big secret: Buy good stocks. And don't get spooked every time the market panics," he says. "It sounds dull, but it's worked."
Rukeyser practices the same buy-and-hold strategy he preaches, and he's made himself, as well as many viewers, wealthy. On a May 1976 show, then-Wall Street analyst Ben Rosen — recently retired chairman of Compaq Computer — recommended semiconductor maker Intel. The stock, then trading at a split-adjusted price of 20 cents a share, has since climbed 23,000%. Microsoft, recommended by a 1989 guest, is up more than 5,000%.
"It may be more exciting to hear about the three hot stock picks of the week," Rukeyser says. "But the short-term predicting game is hopeless." Of the now-burst Internet bubble, he can barely hide his contempt. "I think a lot of people have awakened to the shallowness of the Internet's adolescence," he says.
Rukeyser maintains some basic tenets for Wall $treet Week: Keep it simple and understandable, and do it with flair. That means dialog free of the often-undecipherable market jargon bandied about on most market shows. And have some fun.
Rukeyser has dressed up as Superman, Dick Tracy, Bugs Bunny and a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Even without the superheroes, Wall $treet Week fits viewers like a comfortable leather chair.
"For me, the show is a way to relax at the end of the week," says Dave Peace, a Lincoln, Neb., stockbroker who rarely misses it. "Even if I have an invitation to something, I watch. I guess I need to get a life."
Ouch! Eek! Medic!
Viewership tends to jump after particularly grim weeks in the financial markets, with spooked investors tuning in for advice and reassurance that no matter how badly the market behaved, things will be OK. The evening of the Friday market crash on Oct. 19, 1987, Rukeyser refused to serve as Wall Street's somber undertaker.
"Let's start with what's really important tonight," he told viewers. "It's just your money, not your life. Everybody who really loved you a week ago still loves you tonight. And now that that's all fully in perspective, let me say. .. Ouch! And: Eek! And: Medic!"
Long-time panelists such as Farrell are amazed not only at Rukeyser's staying power, but at the enduring loyalty of viewers. Farrell says strangers still approach her to ask how her son is doing. Rukeyser announced the 1982 birth on air.
"You go to the Las Vegas financial show or one of the investment cruises, and what really comes through loud and clear is the strong feeling people have that Louis has been their champion, the defender and protector of the individual investor," Farrell says. "He's earned some extraordinary trust."
Indeed, when Rukeyser decided on tonight's Carnegie Hall show, he invited 2,000 viewers to attend. About 16,000 requests for tickets came in. Many were poignant, expressing deep, long-standing admiration for a droll raconteur who's been a longtime Friday ritual.
Rukeyser graduated from Princeton University in 1954, then spent two years in the Army. He later joined The (Baltimore) Sun newspaper, working in London and Asia. He joined ABC News in 1965, working as a Paris correspondent, then London bureau chief. When he returned to the USA in 1968, he became the network's first economics editor and commentator.
Wall $treet Week was a part-time gig for Rukeyser until he left ABC in 1973. At the time, he was 40 and wondered whether the warnings from friends that he was nuts to quit a network TV career would ultimately prove true. These days, he politely deflects questions about his income and personal investments. Between the newsletters and personal appearances, he's obviously made up for lost income.
Rukeyser could make some really big bucks shilling financial products. But he's spurned all offers, including one eight-figure deal with a company he declines to name, saying it would undermine his role as journalist and commentator.
"You better always be on the level with people," he says. "Not everyone is going to agree with you, but they better have confidence in you."
Rukeyser's list of more than a thousand guests includes Alan Greenspan (before he joined the Federal Reserve) and former Fidelity Magellan Fund manager Peter Lynch. But his favorite was his father, Merryle Rukeyser, a highly regarded financial columnist who wrote 10 business books over a career spanning more than 60 years.
The younger Rukeyser waited until Wall $treet Week had been on 14 years, hoping by then, he now quips, that the show had gained respectability and he'd avoid the appearance of nepotism. His dad, who died at 91, made appearances until 1988.
Rukeyser says he'll continue with Wall $treet Week "as long as it's still fun." That likely means 35th and 40th anniversary programs.
After all, an hour-long "best of" show to be telecast immediately after the Carnegie Hall performance is called Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser: The First 30 Years.
Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser - 30th Anniversary (TV) (2000)
Host: Louis Rukeyser