CNBC's Dylan Ratigan Is 'waiting To Be Conan O'Brien'

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- CNBC's Dylan Ratigan has a goal extending far beyond business news.

"My dream job is late-night TV," he told me. "If I could get an audition, I'd be in heaven."

When I informed CNBC Senior VP Jonathan Wald that Ratigan craved a shot at the big time, I figured he'd reach for the Maalox. But Wald, no stranger to the eccentricities of the television world, nodded and said: "He is waiting to be Conan O'Brien."

For now, Ratigan happily serves as the anchor and co-creator of CNBC's "Fast Money," and with Maria Bartiromo, presides over the 3 p.m. hour of "Closing Bell."

When you examine Ratigan's improbable career path, nothing seems impossible. By having enough chutzpah to fill a jumbo jet, the 35-year-old Ratigan already has become CNBC's unlikeliest star. The last time I saw anyone show that much swagger, it was Vince Vaughn's character in the movie "Swingers."

CNBC appreciates Ratigan's exuberance.

"In cable TV, you have to break through the clutter," said Susan Krakower, CNBC's vice president for strategic programming and development. "Personality does break through, and Dylan's the kind of guy you stop [channel-surfing] for. He's loud and says things with great passion."

Ratigan is anything but self-conscious. In April, he played the with Fountains of Wayne on stage at Webster Hall in Manhattan. He once appeared in a movie called "Focus Group," playing Rich, who was, of all things, an irritable Wall Streeter.

"I don't see myself as a voice from on high," said Ratigan, who joined CNBC four years ago. While cable-TV ratings can seem puny, Ratigan is nonetheless making an impact. His show "Fast Money" debuted to 63,000 viewers a year ago, and now has an average of 111,000, according to CNBC.

Knowledgeable freak

A freak by many broadcast-industry standards, the native of upstate New York and graduate of Union College didn't start out by doing scut work in small markets. In contrast to the circumspect talking heads you often see on the tube, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 215-pound Ratigan expansively waves his arms, speaks in great bursts of energy and occasionally bellows. I once disparaged his shtick as "preening," but have warmed to his antics since.

As Wald once said about Ratigan, he is "an acquired taste."

Ratigan had no formal on-air training before he answered a house ad at Bloomberg, his previous employer, a decade ago. It invited employees to audition for the then-burgeoning Bloomberg TV operation.

Too many people in TV news strive to look and sound just like everyone else. There is nothing smooth or polished about Ratigan, though he isn't quite as wild and crazy as CNBC's Jim Cramer. (Then again, who is?)

Like Cramer, Ratigan has communications skills, charisma and a solid knowledge of the financial markets. Before Ratigan came to TV, he was an accomplished mergers and acquisitions reporter for the Bloomberg newswire. In the late 1990s, nobody at Bloomberg got harder-hitting stories or did more to put the company on an equal footing with the Wall Street Journal. (I know this because I sat next to Ratigan for a year when we were colleagues at Bloomberg News.)

"My real value-add is in the analysis, turning cocktail-party conversation into information to try to help viewers make more money." he said.

Ratigan learned the value of consistency a couple of years ago, when he hosted a lively CNBC panel show called "Bullseye." He came across as Larry King on steroids, and viewers almost fretted that he might leap off the screen altogether and land in their lap. Since then, Ratigan has exhibited a bit more restraint.

The vintage Ratigan story involves how he got his first job in journalism, at Bloomberg. As he remembers, he had just graduated from college, with no fixed job prospects, and was crashing in the Upper East Side home of a college friend. It just so happened that his pal's fathr was a friend of Susan Bloomberg, the ex-wife of Michael Bloomberg, who had founded Bloomberg LP (and is now the mayor of New York).

"Susan asked me what I was doing, and I said I was working for a parking garage," Ratigan recounts. "Me, this Russian guy and this Haitian guy would go from garage to garage to make sure the owner wasn't getting ripped off by his employees. Susan said, 'You should work for my ex-husband's company, Bloomberg.' I said, 'I don't know what Bloomberg is.'"

Not long after, Ratigan got a gig rewriting press releases on the 6 a.m. shift, moving up from there. "It was like Mike hired the pool boy," Ratigan laughed.

"I took to reporting like a fish to water," he said with a big smile. "I loved working for Bloomberg -- it was all about reporting and building new things."

Fox's challenge

Ratigan's immediate objective is to help his employer fend off a frontal assault by Fox , which intends to compete directly with CNBC by launching a business channel in the fourth quarter.

"CNBC will be as OK as it chooses to be -- whether it has 10 competitors or no competitor," according to Ratigan. "I grew up at Bloomberg, one of the most wildly competitive places around."

With a shrug, Ratigan noted that the publicity being heaped on Fox can actually work to his advantage. "At the end of the day, Fox is free marketing for me and the whole category."

You'd think that trying to vanquish the Fox juggernaut would be a big enough task. Ratigan is still keeping his eyes on the prize.

Conan O'Brien is planning to succeed Jay Leno as the host of the "Tonight" show in 2009, leaving an opening at the 12:30 a.m. time slot. And they are, after all, under the same General Electric umbrella. Hmmm.

"I'm funny as hell and a great host," said the irrepressible Ratigan.

Nobody at CNBC would bet against him.

"I think he's destined to do something like that," Wald said. "The guy knows how to work a tough crowd."

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you like or dislike about Ratigan and CNBC?

FRIDAY STORY OF THE WEEK: "How Libby's Trial Hurt the Press" by Norman Pearlstine (Time)

THE READERS RESPOND to a column discussing TV news: "Fox News has many attractive anchors, and nobody except liberals who hate all things Fox/Republican/Christian/Wal-Mart seem to think they are airheads. I wonder when the liberal media is going to figure out that we don't like it when so-called newspeople, like [Katie] Couric, try to shove their opinions down our throats. I'm not holding my breath. And I fully expect that if you reply, it will be smarmy liberal crapola." Mercedes Martinez

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By Jon Friedman