OWINGS MILLS -- "Now Lou should walk into the studio in 5 or 10 minutes," announced the technician.
"As soon as Lou walks in, please stay in your seat and keep quiet. Try to keep all your laughter to yourself if he says something funny. And no eating or smoking."
The faces of the small audience lifted in attention and, sure enough, in 10 minutes Louis Rukeyser loped in. He gave a winsome smile and got himself into position. Some last-minute makeup was patted on his nose.
"Do we have liftoff?" Mr. Rukeyser asked.
"Let's go," someone said.
And so it was once again time to tape "Wall $treet Week," that animated, occasionally impertinent Friday-evening dissection of the economic landscape.
As always, the improbable setting was the studios of Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills.
The program, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary Friday with a festive episode at Tavern on the Green in New York City, has been one of the most popular public affairs shows on national television, and it has done a lot to spawn other business programming.
Along with success, however, has come a fair amount of vitriol. Any number of viewers and guests find the program irksome and complain of its game-show feel and question its stock-picking wisdom.
With public television audiences lately migrating to other television choices, the show's popularity has shrunk, though not as much as many other public TV offerings.
"Wall $treet Week" is carried by 318 stations, but its ratings the last two years have settled at their lowest point in a decade.
According to the Public Broadcasting Service, the show averaged a 2.8 rating (which equates to about 2.6 million homes) the last two seasons, after rising as high as 4.3 in the 1982-83 season.
Besides the anniversary program, a one-hour special will be broadcast Nov. 19 crammed with clips from the 20 years: the time when a hunter shot out the video feed and viewers saw no picture; when economist Milton Friedman was asked what he would replace the Federal Reserve with and he said, "a computer"; and when guest Adriaan Schrikker, asked whether he had any stock tips, dug out a slip of paper and rattled off 66 names, in alphabetical order.
Since the program's inception -- the idea came from the offhand suggestion of a Baltimore broker -- the host has been Mr. Rukeyser, a former newspaperman and network newscaster who was the first economics commentator at ABC.
A large-framed, dapper man of 57 with wavy white hair and an impish grin, he is probably best known for his wisecracks and his incurable addiction to egregiously bad puns.
(He once told a gas-and-electric analyst he would now turn him over to his utility infielders.)
The half-hour show is split into several segments: some remarks by Mr. Rukeyser, market chatter with three panelists, questions from viewers and, finally, an interview with a special guest.
For his work, Mr. Rukeyser earns about $300,000 a year -- significant money but a fraction of what he pockets on the lecture circuit.
He delivers about 40 speeches a year on the economy at $25,000 a talk and fills up idle time writing books and a newspaper column.
During its protracted run, "Wall $treet Week" has made stars out of any number of guests and panelists previously well-known only to their immediate families and their dentists.
Monte Gordon, the director of research at the Dreyfus Corp. and a panelist since 1982, says, "I get recognized in bus lines. I get recognized when I'm eating in restaurants. There's a lot of psychic satisfaction to being on the show."
Some on Wall Street regularly pester their publicity agents to mount an assault on Rich Dubroff, the producer who picks guests.
One hopeful broker once offered to send Mr. Dubroff a supply of his favorite liquor to help the process along. Mr. Dubroff reported the broker to his branch manager.
Len Kessler, a publicist for Lee Laino Associates, figures that a mutual fund manager who appears on the program could reap millions of dollars in new business.
So how badly do people want to get on? "It's spelled K-I-L-L," Mr. Kessler says.
But the program is by no means universally adored. " 'Wall $treet Week' is too oiled," says Louis Ehrenkrantz, the research coordinator of Ladenburg Thalmann.
"It's too reminiscent of a game show. It's even got it's own Vanna White. It's also got too much of the unction of the old French court."
Robert Nurock was a panelist on the first show and eventually designed the program's Technical Market Index, a stock market indicator.
He freely concedes that his fame from the program enabled him to start his own investment advisory firm, Investors Analysis Inc., in Paoli, Pa.
But after 19 years of appearances, Mr. Nurock quit, contending that his views were being muffled.
"The show has become more show business than anything else," Mr. Nurock says. "I think it has lost a lot of its appeal to anyone who is interested in anything other than entertainment.