Dylan Ratigan was one of the great shouters. In what will someday be considered a golden era of outraged TV ranting, few showed more promise than Ratigan. He was born for a bull market – hyperarticulate, effortlessly chummy, as fluent in Wharton nerd as he was in broker bro. He was handsome, if older-looking than his years, and without a trace of slithery pretty boy. Ratigan rode the tech boom from the Bloomberg wire desk to Nasdaq's Times Square offices – where he ripped through the day's market report on CNBC as though he had a limo of freshly wasted friends waiting for him at the curb – then to an MSNBC show of his own, where his personal brand of nonpartisan anger rose up from America's pissed-off center, above the din of cable TV's most divisive era.
Just after his 36th birthday, he had a multimillion-dollar contract, a loft in Tribeca, two Porsches, and an old moonshine shack he rented in Sag Harbor, Long Island. But after mortgage-backed securities started melting down and the rotten core of the financial system was revealed, Ratigan was feeling fraudulent – just another loudmouth cheering on players in a rigged game. Between banking, which he said had become "a criminal enterprise," and what he called "the unadulterated idiocy of the entire government," his show began to reflect his belief that the country was "completely screwed."
But he kept at it: "I tried to use my rhetorical power and my platform to prosecute this stuff at four in the afternoon on MSNBC," he says, "and it wasn't working." And as the great shouter's frustration grew, his profile rose and his bosses were happy. (YouTube clips titled "Dylan Ratigan Loses It" and its variations have been viewed nearly a million times.) "I was exhibiting more and more aggressive behavior in a more public forum," he says, "and that was beneficial in the short term and utterly self-destructive in the long term."
Ratigan could have kept building his big, shiny New York life: There'd be raises and ratings victories. There'd be an Escalade and a driver, racks of new Valentino suits, and expense-account dinners. There'd be girls and fans and hedge-fund friends with houses in Ibiza. And it would have kept him close to the action, which is the only place Dylan Ratigan ever wanted to be.
But when he took the 'Dylan Ratigan Show' on the road, on two jobs-themed reporting series – the Steel on Wheels tour, which optimistically sought out growth industries around the country, and another called 30 Million Jobs – he finally stopped talking and started listening, to frustrated tycoons like T. Boone Pickens, prosthetic-limb designers, and Marines who spent months kicking down doors in Iraq and years wondering why. And rather than continue losing his mind on TV five days a week, he did what very few television people ever do: He left his show, gave up his loft and his million-dollar salary, and decided to do something with his life.
In May 2012, I meet Ratigan for breakfast near his loft in Tribeca. It's a few weeks before his final show, and he is caffeinated and pleasantly agitated. He comes across as a man with boundless energy and a brain full of unfocused ideas. His intentions are good, but he has no discernible plan. He speaks vaguely of resource scarcity, the irrelevancy of the upcoming presidential elections, and kale – specifically, kale being grown by Marines in hydroponic greenhouses in San Diego County. (He loves the irony of jarheads copping farm tech from the pot growers.) "Bro," he says, sweat gathering on his forehead, "Marines growing kale. That's what it's all about."
Since then, the 41-year-old has been on a tear, crashing at friends' places as he crisscrosses the country for meetings in San Francisco, New York, Newport Beach, and Baton Rouge. Clearly, he's hustling – but what exactly is he doing?
The long answer: creating a network of bankers, media executives, energy barons, Silicon Valley heavies, a manufacturing giant, a retired Marine Corps major general, an NFL team owner, and some veterans turned vegetable farmers – and then looking for ways to apply their collective expertise and capital to help America "overhaul its food and energy system." It's a matter of tasking and training veterans ("the best logistics team in the world") to update infrastructure and build systems to preserve resources in the future: "You line up the military with resource management and you kill, like, 17 birds with one stone." Oh, and maybe these projects will yield some quality television programming in the process. ("Mechanical engineering porn," he says. "People love that.")
Today he's in the arid mountains above Santa Barbara. His red Porsche 911 Carrera is parked on a rocky incline next to a solar-powered modular house. "Welcome to the future," the 6-foot-2 Ratigan booms, arms stretched wide to take in the expanse of the canyon behind him. There are easier ways for Ratigan to get on TV, but he suspects these wonky efforts would fail without a powerful narrative. The story, as he sees it, could also go something like this: He channels private equity into a business that trains veterans to do something critical – build storm shelters in Tornado Alley, install charging stations for electric cars. "It's fantasyland," Ratigan admits, "but the workforce exists."
The night before, he drove down from San Jose, California, where he tried to persuade Monster.com and others to agree to build a dedicated job-search portal to connect retiring vets with job opportunities. Then they'll need to persuade the Department of Defense to coordinate the enrollment. For that, he'll rely on retired major general Melvin Spiese, who oversaw global training for the entire Marine Corps and is now an advocate for veteran employment. ("We do whatever we can to help Mel Spiese," he says, "no matter what. No questions asked.") Ratigan is planning to fly east the next morning to continue talks with bankers and other high-net-worth types about pumping capital into his project – not out of altruism, but because they believe investing in infrastructure, energy, and sustainable housing will reap returns.
The Santa Barbara crew is crunchier. Ratigan has assembled a core group of believers at the home of environmental designer Harold Powell, whose modular design is a key part of the overall vision: Among them are Kohlie Frantzen, a lawyer whose Louisiana family is into oil and natural gas and who has 100 acres abutting the Texas Hill Country that he imagines populating with newly employed veterans living in modular homes and growing hydroponic vegetables, and Mike Hanes, a recon Marine staff sergeant who was part of the first-wave invasion of Baghdad. Ratigan has a special affinity for Hanes ("He's my boy"), in part because of how the Marine's perspective – recognizing that our reliance on fossil fuels got him to Iraq in the first place – changed Ratigan's thinking.
Hanes has driven up from San Diego in his 1986 Subaru Brat to share his vision for the future, a circular model called the helio-city, which represents the long-term, pie-in-the-sky endgame goal for Frantzen and Ratigan. Only it's not so pie-in-the-sky. Companies in Louisiana will need to fill 150,000 energy jobs in the next five years, and Frantzen and Ratigan are in talks with a local manufacturer that builds blastproof shelters and is looking to expand. Modular houses would be a natural fit. And by the way, the company has 1 million square feet of manufacturing space just waiting to be put to use. "The idea is bigger than all of us," Ratigan exclaims. "It's ridiculous that we're having this conversation."
Suddenly, with a massive demand for jobs, and a manufacturing concern able to start building solar-powered modular homes for newly hired veterans, the city of the future, or something like it, seems less like a hippie dream and more like a crucial step in an inevitable conversion toward a resource-positive future. And none of these people would be connected without Ratigan.
Later, as Hanes is loading his model city back into his Subaru, Ratigan goes in for a hug. "I love you," he tells him, and climbs into his Porsche for the ride south to Laguna Beach and then to the airport for an early morning flight east. "Thank you," Hanes calls after him. "Keep doing what you're doing."