Dylan Ratigan: Revenge of the Cable Guy
Credit: Photograph by Chris McPherson

By the time he turned 12, Dylan Ratigan had lived in Saranac Lake, New York; the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco (then at the Harvey Milk–led forefront of gay America); and a repopulated Colorado ghost town called Gold Hill, where townspeople rode horses and where Ratigan was the entire second grade ("It's like 1840 up there," he says. "One of the most incredible years of my life"); back to Saranac Lake for a few years; then to Staten Island, where the gangly, glasses-wearing seventh grader met his first tormentors at Intermediate School 61. And then finally back to Saranac Lake, where the boy's father had grown up and where he had seven uncles. Ratigan was a spirited, popular kid, with, he says, "an appetite for verbal combat." He played tight end and defensive end for the conference champion football team, the hands-down highlight of his youth.

His father split when Ratigan was four. "He went to Alaska to be an alcoholic," Ratigan explains, with more empathy than bitterness. "I think my father's life was extremely challenging. I think that being drunk in Alaska probably sucked." He credits his father with recognizing that he was a shitty father. At least in his absence, he did no harm. "There are so many ways a father can fuck up a son's life," he says. "I'm like, yeah, I suffered. But it isn't clear to me that I suffered any more than this guy or this guy. It's just a different form of paternal abuse."

Ratigan himself quit drinking while at Union College, a small liberal arts school in Schenectady, where he rowed crew, majored in econ and poli-sci, and ran with a crowd of mostly wealthy kids from downstate. "We drank until three in the morning," Ratigan's close friend Jeff Spees remembers, "and got up to row at five." At some point Ratigan, who admits he was "completely out of control," realized "I was in school with a bunch of rich kids who were guaranteed jobs with their fathers in New York or Boston – and I wasn't. I realized that if I was going to make a real play to have a life, I was going to quit drinking."

As a teen, he had a kitchen job at an inn in nearby Lake Placid, which would swell with New Yorkers who came up for vacations. It was at the horse shows where he saw his first Porsche, a black Targa that Paul Newman climbed out of. Spees says that even in college, Ratigan gravitated toward "the action of the city." A few hours after he graduated, Ratigan drove his 15-year-old Volvo wagon to a Manhattan townhouse that belonged to the father of a close college friend, where he stayed until he found his footing. It didn't take long: Using the same connections (the roommate's dad was dating Michael Bloomberg's ex-wife, Susan) to land a job as a "spot reporter," the lowliest journalistic rung at the burgeoning market-news organization known as Bloomberg Business News, he soon graduated to covering IPOs, which in 1996 was a little like drawing a NASA beat in the late Sixties. "I hit the whole Internet boom," he says. "It was phenomenal. By the luck of the Irish, every time I would get on a beat, the beat would get ripping hot."

At Bloomberg, he got an education in corporate finance: banking, underwriting, and capital markets. "I learned on a macro level how everything is connected," he says. He got front-page bylines on IPOs, corporate spin-offs, and the daily fluctuations of the stock market, which in the late Nineties was on an exhilarating tear north. He later covered mergers and acquisitions. To get leads and develop sources, he was told to go where the players go – "anywhere the bankers are, that's where you should be" – and that extended to the Hamptons, where the 26-year-old got his employer to rent him a share in a summer house. He soon insinuated himself into a weekend volleyball game of private-equity guys. "It was the hardest job I ever had," he says, "where I went from being one of 3,000 wire service reporters to being Dylan Ratigan, because I was able to break a shitload of stories."

Watching the market move on the news he broke was thrilling. Ratigan was at his girlfriend's house in the West Village the night before the announcement that Citi­bank would merge with Travelers, a $70 billion deal he and only one or two other reporters were given to break. Just a few years on the job, and he was on the phone with the principal players the night before they announced what was the largest corporate merger in history. It was a deal that would kick off an era of bank consolidation, something Ratigan would later rail against on MSNBC. "I remember asking them if this was illegal," Ratigan says, "and I remember them explicitly telling me, 'It is, but the law is going to be changed before we close the deal.' And I asked them, 'How do you know?' And they said, 'Because that's what we're doing.' That was 1998."

Ratigan parlayed a possible job offer with the 'Wall Street Journal' into a gig hosting a show on Bloomberg TV, where he was already a frequent guest. "They gave me a job in television and told me I had to be at work every day at 4 am." It was lonely – "From the ages of 26 to 30," he says, "I woke up every day at 3:30 in the morning" – but it gave him two hours of daily practice on live TV.

By 31, he'd gotten good enough to land a one-hour time slot on CNBC, and the biggest paycheck he'd ever seen. He bought the loft in Tribeca and was soon hosting a daily frat party in CNBC's Times Square studio called 'Fast Money,' where Ratigan was the smartest knucklehead in the room. "It was ESPN for CNBC," he says. "It was dudes breaking balls and talking stocks, and it was a hit." He was soon on three shows a day – a morning market show, then he'd drop in on 'Closing Bell' with Maria Bartiromo, and then he'd do his own hour after that.

"I spoke the language better than most people at CNBC, because of my years at Bloomberg," he says. "I asked good questions, and I was a great hang." Then came the 2007 financial crisis, and Ratigan couldn't hide his disdain for the policy of too big to fail. "I started railing against the crisis maniacally on 'Fast Money' and I ended up in a war with [CNBC president] Mark Hoffman, because my whole thing is, capitalism is based on retained risk, and retained risk is: If you fail, you fail. And what was going on on Wall Street was the opposite of that. I was openly confronting that with my platform on 'Fast Money,' and I was saying things – like that we should send [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson to jail – that a CNBC anchor shouldn't. So it was pretty much impossible for me to stay there."

When it became clear that their loose cannon was shopping his talents elsewhere, CNBC retaliated, leaking a tape of Ratigan screaming at a producer off air: "I'm not going to host a fucking TV show that consists of reading fucking emails to fucking traders." "It happened," he says now. "It's recorded on tape. I can't deny it, but it wasn't a common thing."

He soon landed in the left-leaning halls of MSNBC, where Ratigan was offered the ultimate in TV ego gratification, a self-titled show. The 'Dylan Ratigan Show' mixed business and politics, which was too lefty for the business types and too capitalist for the liberal audience. Still, he got solid ratings, but after years of yelling about TARP, the partisan gridlock in Congress, and the lessons not learned from the mortgage scandal, his belief in the system was badly eroded.

"Before I got to MSNBC, I was José Good Times. I'm not going to yell on TV. I'm throwing a party with a bunch of Wall Street traders in Times Square. We're living the dream. It's all shiny rims and platinum blondes. But you can only live like that if you believe the root of the system has integrity. And I knew it didn't."

Compounding Ratigan's crisis of confidence (in seemingly everything but himself) was that he'd also begun writing a book, 'Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry' – a process that forced him to scrutinize the weaknesses in our trade, banking, and taxation systems every morning. "I was writing the book in the morning and doing the show in the afternoon and not sleeping. A lot of smoking, a lot of coffee, a lot of yelling and screaming. There was a lot of craziness in Tribeca."

The chapter on banking was the most complex and challenging to dissect, and the one Ratigan knew he could not afford to flub. "I'm like, when Carl Icahn or Mike Bloomberg reads this chapter, it has to be smart enough for him to think it was worth writing. And it has to make sense."

Spees, a professor who runs a stem cell lab at the University of Vermont, and whose precise writing and financial layman's perspective guided the book, saw his buddy at the breaking point. Writing wasn't an easy process; some furniture was smashed. "Being in Manhattan and dealing with the politics and the government and the investment bankers," Spees says. "It was almost like it started to eat away at Dylan like an infection. Having to see it and understand it and not being able to do anything about it aside from talk – that was very frustrating for him."