Old habits die hard, even if circumstances change. Do something long enough and well enough, and it becomes almost second nature.
Which may explain why, mere minutes before air time for Capital Public Radio's "Insight" news magazine, Beth Ruyak is primping before a mirror. Her chestnut hair, parted on the right and cascading over her shoulders, is obedient and ruly, her smart black skirt and purple jacket unruffled, her ebony pumps positively gleaming.
"Doing hair and makeup for radio, eh?" environmental reporter Kathleen Masterson asked Ruyak, good-naturedly.
Well, yes. Sorry, Terry Gross, but Beth Ruyak may be the best-dressed public radio talk-show host in the nation, which really doesn't mean much, of course, since no one can see her behind the mike. But three decades on national television, as a news anchor, sports reporter and entertainment host, have ingrained this ritual as part of Ruyak's prep.
"It's just the way I am," Ruyak said, sheepishly. She either was blushing or her rouge was a little strong. Either way, she flashed a blinding smile that could've guided boats into a foggy harbor.
Nothing if not prepared, Ruyak finds herself for the first time, at 51, in a medium where she is heard but not seen. And in typically dogged and earnest Ruyak style, she's working hard to be the best in a job that is part host, part incisive interviewer, part voice of the community.
Her hiring two months ago as host of "Insight" seemed a coup for Capital Public Radio, which considers the program its bedrock. But to some radio purists, it also was something of an eyebrow-raiser. Longtime host Jeffrey Callison, a radio veteran, had left in December for a job with the state, taking a chunk of the station's identity with him. Callison was an understated and serious on-air presence, his Scottish burr oozing stateliness.
So when Ruyak came aboard, it perhaps was an aural shock to local public-radio sensibilities. Her voice is crisp and pleasantly modulated, her diction impeccable. It bears that distinctive no-accent accent that national newscasters cultivate though, if you listen hard, you can detect a trace of Midwestern flatness.
"The thing about Beth, as opposed to Jeffrey, is, you really know who she is on the air," said "Insight" senior producer Jen Picard. "Jeffrey almost went the other way, where he hid his personality. Beth is out there. That's good. But sometimes she might need to pull it back a little."
True, Ruyak occasionally ramps up from heartfelt to over-the-top on air. Her sharp wit and incisive questioning sometimes dissolves into maundering banter near an interview's end, anathema to public-radio ears.
But that's just the TV personality in her. You can't expect Ruyak to slough off her ingrained TV persona as easily as slipping out of an anchorwoman's blue blazer. And who says public radio can't use a little pizazz?
With Ruyak, it's no perky act. In a profession often dominated by sly cynicism, she is an optimist, looking for the good in stories to pass along to listeners. It seems churlish to criticize such an altruistic personality trait.
"Beth truly has a kind heart," said her husband, Mike McWhirter. "The kindness she shows everybody, no matter where she encounters them, is genuine and consistent. She is who she appears to be."
Yet Ruyak acknowledges she might have to nurture a slightly harder, more skeptical edge in her new job.
"I don't know how I could've been specifically groomed for 'Insight,' " Ruyak said, decompressing in the station's "green room" after a recent show. "But the compilation of all the things I've done, I think, have given me the ingredients to do the show even though I'm still learning and growing with it."
Her résumé, indeed, is long and impressive.
In local news, she was an anchor in Minneapolis at age 23, and did two stints as an anchor in Sacramento (at Channel 3, KCRA, in the 1980s and Channel 10, KXTV, in the 1990s). Nationally, she hosted two news and lifestyle magazines ("USA Today on TV" in 1988-89 and "The Home Show" in 1991-92). She was a longtime sports sideline reporter for the summer and winter Olympics (1992 to 2002), as well as the NBA, pro and college football and the Tour de France. She once hosted the Rose Parade (1992) and filled in for Joan Lunden as host of "Good Morning America" (1990).
Since the early 2000s, TV watchers haven't seen as much of Ruyak, though she did win Northern California Emmys for two health and lifestyle shows, "Pulse" and "Sutter Health Life Stages," produced by Sacramento's Big Table Media.
The reason for her absence? Ruyak felt the overwhelming tug of parental responsibility. She thought she had successfully juggled work and life in her frequent-flier career.
She learned otherwise one night in her hotel room in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ruyak was crazy busy as NBC's on-air interviewer for figure skating, which featured judging controversies that had the whole sports world buzzing. Ruyak was seen by millions, as NBC garnered unheard-of 26.8 Nielsen ratings for its figure skating coverage.
It should've been a high point of her career, so why was Ruyak sitting on the edge of her bed, distraught?
"I was a single mom then, and I lived in Sacramento but was traveling for sports," said Ruyak, whose children, Robb and Sami, were then in junior high and elementary school, respectively. "I started to see what I thought were the effects on my son of my having traveled. It was in his attitudes and choices in middle school. Robb was having trouble. I was just hearing about his difficulties over the phone. It was like the light bulb went on. I needed to be home.
"We'd been living in this fun blur of life and I could see we had some catching up to do. I wasn't performing (as a broadcaster) at the professional level I was before, because I was torn. It was an internal crisis. The answer was simple; I came home."
How much a blur Ruyak's life was back then could be seen on a calendar she kept during her son's first year, 1989, four years before Sami was born. She placed a sticker each time Robb accompanied her on a road trip. There were 32 stickers.
"I took him with me on stories," she said. "I'd ask people to hold the baby while I did an interview. My son was with Jesse Jackson, with Mrs. (Barbara) Bush, with Dolly Parton.
"Because of how I grew up, I felt I was exposing him in such a wonderful way to the world. He went to Spain for the Barcelona (Olympic) Games with me. Then I realized that, when he was in seventh grade, he was missing some of the grounding the other kids might have had."
A childhood in flux
Ruyak's own nomadic childhood shaped her in several ways, notably in her work ethic and penchant for travel. Children of Jim Ruyak, a builder for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Beth and her three siblings moved to six states and 11 cities before she finished high school.
"With the way I grew up, the security I developed was within myself," Ruyak said. "I was accustomed to the skills needed to make changes on the move. Then I got into a career that was the same way, gypsylike. I never saw a (TV) contract that was more than three or five years, but even with a contract, there was always a way for the contract to end. How different is that from my mom coming in and saying, 'Your dad's taken a new job. We're moving to Ohio?' "
Adapting to circumstances became second nature. She tells the story of being on the high school track team. She was a mediocre hurdler but, a week before the conference championship, her coach asked her to compete in the 880-yard run. Ruyak had never run that distance.
"I finished first and set the conference record," she said.
She didn't relate the story to be boastful. In fact, she'd rather gloss over many of her accomplishments, such as being Miss Minnesota in 1981 and competing in the Miss America pageant (she played Chopin's "Fantaisie Impromptu" in the talent portion). Ruyak says she turned to beauty pageants in her teens simply to earn college tuition. Her parents had divorced by then and money was tight.
"I just didn't think of myself as whatever a beauty queen was," she said.
Yet that experience didn't hurt when it came time to pursue a TV career, though she said her first news director at KAAL in Austin, Minn., Steve Rollison, told her, "I'll consider hiring you if you can hang your crown at the door."
She soon was so busy traveling the world that a crown wouldn't have fit in her luggage, anyway. As an anchor at KCRA in the late '80s, she persuaded management to send her to Paris to cover the Tour de France, since favorite Greg LeMond had trained near Sacramento. They told her she could go if she could do it for $3,000, plus file several other stories from France.
She wound up covering LeMond's last-day victory, plus doing a piece on AIDS research from the Pasteur Institute and a couple of travel stories.
The next year, she was covering the tour live for ABC's "Good Morning America" on the back of a motorcycle, and her career revved up from there.
Now, with the nest empty since her daughter left for college, Ruyak brings that same doggedness and drive to her first radio gig. Only now, she can sit behind the mike at Capital Public Radio's studio wearing bifocals to read her scripts. Radio does, indeed, have its advantages.