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A Free Marketer's Flier

April 15, 2002

What a long, strange trip it's turned into for Louis Rukeyser, the 69-year-old financial news talk show host who recently was evicted from his cozy, living room-like set on public television. Bearish fans have threatened to silence upcoming PBS phone pledge banks, and the regular panelists of "Wall Street Week" are boycotting the replacement show.

Maryland Public Television sparked the unlikely protest with its decision that the show no longer was relevant to today's investors--read that as being out of touch with younger viewers. Then the outfit inexplicably hired a 72-year-old replacement host.

The ensuing ruckus would have delighted the late Jerry Garcia, another guy who figured out how to profit from loyal fans. Though small in relative numbers, Deadheads and Lou's Legions clearly stand by their men. The musicians of Garcia's Grateful Dead were masters of spinoff merchandising, and the surviving members continue to market new compact discs and T-shirts even though they haven't played together in years.

Rukeyser likewise has spun his own fortune, with speeches, newsletters, conferences and ocean cruises that generate $20 million in estimated annual revenue. It's no accident that "Wall Street Week" regulars drum up business by strutting their stuff on Mediterranean cruises and at conferences in Italian resorts. CNBC, where a new show called "Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street" debuts Friday night, is getting a potentially hot commodity in the dry world of financial journalism. Rukeyser in turn gains the national television audience he needs to keep his empire flourishing.

PBS can be faulted for its handling of the messy divorce. But maybe it was time for Rukeyser, the cheerleader for unbridled capitalism, to test his free-market theories without the publicly subsidized safety net provided by PBS viewers.

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