Dylan Ratigan: Revenge of the Cable Guy

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Photograph by Chris McPherson

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.”

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.”

Ratigan’s most epic meltdown came on August 9, 2011. It was a typical day on the ‘Dylan Ratigan Show,’ with a panel of three talking heads each there to deliver and defend their party line. Ratigan got a steady head of exasperation, which carried him out of the realm of cable news shouting and to a place of centrist outrage, to the source of congressional gridlock, campaign contributions, and why the U.S. had $70 trillion in debt. “I’ve been coming on TV for three years,” he spews, “and the fact of the matter is, there’s a refusal on both the Democratic and Republican side of the aisle to acknowledge the mathematical problem, which is that the United States of America is being extracted – it’s being extracted through banking, it’s being extracted through trade, it’s being extracted through taxation – and there’s not a single politician that has stepped forward to deal with this.”

He finished the show and walked off the set and into the dressing room, where his longtime mentor, producer Steve Friedman, a godfather of MSNBC, sidled up to his chair and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Probably not going to do that again, eh?” Friedman said.

“Yeah, probably not.” Ratigan told him. “And that was the only conversation I ever had with management.”

The rant went viral and put Ratigan on the radar of anyone with a growing sense of despair over where the country was going. But in his mind, Ratigan was already gone.

The next day, he and Spees fled to Sag Harbor to keep writing. Exasperated, he told his friend: “There’s no fucking way I can keep doing this fucking job.” He decided that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract later that year after all. So he finished the book, fired his agent, and worked the next eight months until his contract ran out. Then he packed up his stuff and headed to Spees’ house on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain to standup paddle and figure out what to do next.

A few days after the informal future-city get-together in Santa Barbara, Ratigan is in the greenroom of the New York studios of ‘The View,’ gesticulating under a sign that reads: Please use your indoor voice. If Ratigan possesses such a voice, he’s not using it as he holds up his iPhone to a producer he’s buttonholed. “Do you wanna see the city of the future?” he asks. The guy pulls down his headset and listens as Ratigan, pale-gray pinstriped suit jacket flapping, a bright-tangerine tie loosened to half mast, launches into his pitch. “It’s all about circles,” he begins, but he’s cut off by one of the production assistants.

Shhhhh. It’s a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and he’s come on ‘The View’ to talk up the creation of a portal where returning veterans can connect with job opportunities. Huddled on one couch is a couple whose first date was a three-week trip to Europe, which they blogged enough about to get them on ‘The View’; on another is the blond assistant of Dan Abrams – whose own MSNBC show was bumped for Rachel Maddow’s in 2008 and who’s filling in for Whoopi Goldberg – talking about his 18-month-old son and the time he touched Donny Wahlberg’s ass.

“The problem with television,” Ratigan says, as he signs the paperwork for a $524 appearance fee, “is it attracts people who just want to be on TV.”

In walks Abrams, looking lean and tidy, spray-on scruff beneath salt-and-pepper hair. He’s just looking up from sipping his tea when Ratigan pounces. The former colleagues exchange the usual niceties, then Abrams asks: “So, tell me, what are you up to?” Funny you should ask, Dan. I’m actually busting my ass, basically living out of my car, using every resource and connection I have to gain some traction on big, unwieldy, improbable ideas like connecting thousands of veterans with jobs they wouldn’t otherwise know existed, replicating a low-energy hydroponic agricultural program to grow kale and arugula and beefsteak tomatoes using a fraction of the water of traditional methods, and promoting this self-sustaining city so that one day we won’t go broke sending young men to kick down doors in foreign countries so we can heat our McMansions and tool around in our SUVs. How ’bout you, Dan?

Instead, he just shows him the city model on his phone and takes him through the main points. “That’s very cool,” Abrams says, sipping his tea and almost imperceptibly backing away. “Very cool.”

After Ratigan does his segment, the proselytizing continues. Milling around are Jenny McCarthy, Sherri Sheperd, and Barbara Walters, and yet it’s Ratigan who’s generating all the heat. “Everyone loves the city-of-the-future idea,” he announces. He says Barbara Walters gets it entirely, and gets him, too: “She said to me, Dylan, most people who do this, who come on TV, they don’t care. But you actually care.” Ratigan stands in the hall outside his dressing room, arms raised in triumph. “City of the future, baby!” he calls out. “It’s on. We just need the Department of Defense to hook it up.”

Ratigan is no less effusive inside the dressing room. He’s waving his arms, his banker’s suit still flapping around. I try to nail him down on a clear turning point when he stopped being Dylan Ratigan and started being a guy who thought he could change the world, but he says the process was messier and more gradual than that.

Then a few minutes later, he mentions meeting Marines who’d been stuck in Fallujah for months under almost constant fire, and comparing the risks they took every day to anything he stood to lose as a TV personality. “Considering the risks those guys took,” Ratigan says, “if I don’t take risks at this point in my life, what kind of person am I?”

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