Even by Hollywood-insider standards, the Maroon 5 Halloween party in 2012 was off the hook. Katy Perry, Chris Evans, Christina Aguilera, and Aziz Ansari wore outrageous costumes and cavorted at a carnival built inside Hollywood Forever—a real cemetery. DJs in Daft Punk’s helmets removed their headgear to reveal they were in fact Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and DJ Chris Holmes. The real Daft Punk? There, too.
Richard Metzger and his wife of seven years, Tara McGinley, had been invited by Maroon 5’s Mickey Madden, one of their many celebrity friends. They were part of the glitterati themselves; she had been a stylist for buzz bands such as the Strokes, even appearing in one of their videos, and he was an Oliver Stone-annointed veteran of the TV, media, and internet industries. They had done quite well for two normal people who grew up on the banks of the Ohio River—she in Cincinnati, he in Wheeling, West Virginia. McGinley dressed in Army gear, while Metzger wore a devil’s tail and horns. They had a blast.
When October rolled around the following year, the couple were delighted to be invited again. Except, there was a snag. The party, which was less than 10 miles away from their apartment, involved a drive through a clogged canyon. To people who had recently waited 25 minutes in traffic to make a turn—a right turn—the event may as well have been in Montana. Nah, they decided. Not worth the drive.
It was a pivotal moment, in retrospect, for a couple who had spent their lives seeking out offbeat cultural experiences. After a go-everywhere post-adolescence, they were approaching middle age and rethinking priorities. They were ready to buy a house, but the $1.2 million median home price on their street seemed a bit much, especially considering Metzger’s recent sighting, while walking his dog, of a guy wielding a semi-automatic gun.
“It was a five-minute decision to move to Cincinnati,” says Metzger. “Tara had been showing me Cincinnati real estate listings that her friend posted on Facebook.” McGinley, who is 41, had grown up here, but hadn’t been back in five years; her parents now live in Florida. Metzger, who is 50, had visited once briefly, a decade ago. “The most important thing was getting out of Los Angeles,” he says. “Where we moved was of secondary importance.” They packed up last October, signing a rental lease before seeing the apartment in person.
Today Metzger and McGinley run the blog Dangerous Minds from their Pinterest-worthy digs off Ludlow Avenue. With about 10 new articles published each weekday—a total of some 21,000 since its 2009 debut—it is the standard-bearer of outsider culture in any media, not just on the internet. It’s where you first heard isolated vocal tracks from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; marveled at abandoned Egyptian hotels that resemble space ships; and toured transvestite retreats from the 1950s.
Dangerous Minds differs from news-of-the-weird sites in the vast knowledge and cred of its dozen writers. Craig Ferguson’s former stand-up comedy partner; an ex-member of the bands D Generation and Danzig; an NYU creative writing professor; and Iggy Pop’s former coke dealer are among those writing about the music, movies, and politics they know deeply (for between $77 and $97 per post). They are not twentysomething social-media worker bees scouring cyberspace for click-bait. They were there.
When Dangerous Minds does dig for a bone, moreover, it digs deeper than the others. For instance, one day Metzger was spelunking through the ’net for La Dolce Gilda, a black-and-white short film he remembered seeing on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. “I couldn’t believe no one had put it on YouTube,” he says. “I discovered that the director had also done a feature film that was never released to home video. It starred Bill Murray. So I found it on an underground torrent tracker. Dubbed in German.”
Mere days after that 2014 Dangerous Minds scoop, complete with a link to the full lost Bill Murray movie Nothing Lasts Forever, articles on the film popped up in the Chicago Tribune, Yahoo!, and Slate. It was front-page news for Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper. For Dangerous Minds, it was just one of 13 articles posted that day, among them “Make Your Own Marcel Duchamp Chess Set with a 3-D Printer”; “Scenes from Marc Bolan’s Funeral”; and “Freaky Armadillo Purse.”
“Richard is an anthropologist of high weirdness,” says David Pescovitz, a partner and editor at the popular blog Boing Boing, which is like an older, cyber-oriented brother to Dangerous Minds. “He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t exploit. His fascination and obsession is infectious.”
No snark here: “The editorial philosophy is about being enthusiastic,” says Metzger. Despite the blurring of the lines between underground and mainstream culture today—a TV series like Transparent would have been unthinkable 10 years ago—there’s still nothing like Dangerous Minds online. The closest thing you can compare it to is Open Culture, a resource for free online instruction that runs a killer blog.
The editorial filter is simply whatever Metzger and McGinley find interesting, and that idiosyncrasy is what the blog’s fans value. “Who has time to post such cool finds every two hours?” asks drummer-turned-artisanal-jam-maker Laura Ann Masura. For her, the site is a person, not a media property. “They are like the cool high school friend who’s unemployed and has just discovered Facebook.” The majority of the blog’s readers are young people discovering throwback oddities for the first time; the rest tend to be music nerds and Baby Boomers enjoying the nostalgia trip.
Those fans make for 10 million page-views each month. That, in turn, has attracted enough advertising to pay Metzger and McGinley full-time salaries since 2012. The company has no debt, no investors, and steady revenue. More than 4 million Facebook “likes” work to proselytize Dangerous Minds articles. That’s more than twice the Facebook followers of the Reds or the Bengals, and 42 times that of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Cincinnati, it turns out, is as good a place as any for the nation’s leading experts on punk-rock action figures, Japanese yakuza tattoos, and serial killer last meals to land. For one thing, it’s one of the few U.S. cities with gigabit ethernet, the fastest broadband available. Then there are the Fortune 500 companies—one of the highest rates per capita in the country—which have attracted tech start-ups eager for relationships with them. But Metzger and McGinley weren’t seeking any kind of in with Kroger or Procter & Gamble. It was another aspect of Cincinnati’s blue-chip status that appealed. “I knew there would be a restaurant infrastructure that Fortune 500s would demand,” says Metzger, adding that Metropole, inside downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel, is “as good as anything in New York or L.A.”
Ah, but the real estate. Listings of grand houses for less than $300,000 seemed almost too good to be true. “We work at home, and space is an important thing,” says McGinley, who is quieter and more modest than Metzger. On the occasions we met, she wore highwater jeans with a sweater or tunic, little makeup, and her long blonde hair was pulled back.
“That’s where you cannot beat this city,” says Metzger, who rarely strays from his uniform of a crisp Brooks Brothers shirt and tie under a sharply cut jacket. “There were so many wealthy people here this past century, and so many big homes they left behind—and they are not expensive!” he exclaims. Their change of address is part of a growing exodus of tech-savvy professionals priced out of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. “This is a lifestyle job,” Metzger explains. “We could do what we’re doing on a beach in Mexico.” Instead of tequila or sand, their HQ has a curving staircase, Persian carpets on hardwood floors, a faux fire lighting up one of three Rookwood fireplaces, and a second-floor walkout porch. It’s not a nerdy-collectors’ den; framed original art on the walls has room to breathe, and there’s no curio cabinet in sight. You have to look around to notice details like a Gnome Chomsky (a garden gnome that resembles the philosopher/activist) and the David Bowie shower curtain.
If quality-of-life desires hadn’t prompted the move, though, the internet economy might have. “When Richard started Dangerous Minds, the web was a very different place. It was a hotbed of independent culture,” says David Pescovitz, the Boing Boinger who works at the nonprofit Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, California. It was also a place where Facebook posted to your newsfeed all the content published by friends and companies you had “liked.” Those days are over, and it has hurt sites like Dangerous Minds, which depend heavily on Facebook for traffic to their website. Larger media companies, such as BuzzFeed, now game their social-media prominence by paying for the exposure that used to be free. Dangerous Minds doesn’t have the millions that BuzzFeed, according to some of the company’s documents leaked last year, spends on Facebook.
“Facebook has a throttle they use that actively prevents you from seeing what you ostensibly said you want to see,” says Pescovitz. “That is a terrible situation for a small publisher to be in. There’s a mass corporatization talking place. A few very large media companies are taking over the web.”
In such a climate, surmises the writer Douglas Rushkoff, a longtime friend, Metzger and McGinley made a wise choice. By Midwestern standards they were comfortable, but in L.A. they felt like prisoners in their own home. “We had cheap rent,” says Metzger. “Which meant that even if we doubled what we were willing to pay, we wouldn’t find a place any bigger.” Similarly, their blog was humming along, but was in no position to rent office space or bring on staff. It’s not what the duo wanted anyway. Metzger admits it’s a stressful, herculean effort to keep revenue ahead of the destructive effect of ad blockers, which have grown in popularity. “If 30 percent of the audience uses ad blockers, that’s 30 percent of the ‘inventory’”—their inventory is traffic—“that’s worth nothing,” he says.
If running the blog was going to feel like, well, running, the couple figured, why not do it from Cincinnati, where guns are (generally) kept concealed, and I-75 flows like so much thin chili? Maybe the move here wasn’t so arbitrary after all. Maybe it’s part of Metzger’s seemingly magical ability to be in the right place at the right time.
It felt like anything but, of course, when he was growing up in a working-class, born-again Christian household in Wheeling. He was gifted, read obsessively, and had designs on his future. He got accepted to Harvard, but was kicked out of high school for smoking hash. So Metzger sold his record collection and, in 1983, moved to Amsterdam. No one bothered you for toking up there, but more important, he could meet his idols who regularly gigged there, like Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, who became a lifelong friend, and punk priestess Nina Hagen, with whom he had a fling. “It was a startling time with startling art forms,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend four years in college and miss it all.” So began two decades of seeking out stimulation, growing bored, and moving on.
After a stint in Amsterdam, he drifted to London and lived in squats. “I was out seven nights a week because I did not want to miss anything,” he says. But two years in Europe sated him: “I started to feel like I was doing the same thing over and over again.” Next stop: New York.
“He’s a very charismatic person,” says Stevan Keane, who runs a media production company and has headed projects for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “He tapped into the vein of the counterculture and took those people seriously before anyone else did.” With no apparent need for sleep, and having boned up in a technical college, Metzger got work in computer graphics and video production. By the time he was 20, in 1986, he was pulling down $60,000 a year.
“He used to chain-smoke joints but he still sounded like someone who was on Adderall,” says friend and Vanity Fair contributing editor Steven Daly. Metzger would borrow company equipment to make what he calls “bad rap videos by bands you’ve never heard of” and art projects featuring downtown New York luminaries such as Ann Magnuson and RuPaul.
Adding to Metzger’s prized collection of records, fanzines, punk-show flyers, and first-edition books was an emerging kind of collectible: VHS tapes. “There was a bootleg marketplace in the ’80s of guys with cult films and punk shows,” he says. “So when things came through a post-production house where I worked, like a commercial that Captain Beefheart made, I made sure to make a copy and ‘release’ it, so to speak.” In downtown Manhattan’s colorful clique of drag queens, artists, and journalists, Metzger, who never strayed from the preppy-blazer look he’d adopted in third grade, might have been voted Most Likely to Succeed. Says Douglas Rushkoff, “Richard was the one you could send into a corporate board room.”
Around this time, Tara McGinley was a 12-year-old truant. She lived in College Hill and attended, when the mood struck, the School for Creative and Performing Arts. One day she hopped a bus to a tattoo parlor where she received the first of many inkings. “I got a three-leaf clover on my back because I didn’t have enough money for the fourth leaf,” she recalls. Her father, a salesman for Red Wing shoes, didn’t punish her because he himself had gotten a tattoo at age 10. But he exiled her to McAuley, the all-girls Catholic high school in her neighborhood.
In her later teens, she moved to Clifton and hung out with skaters and punks. “We drifted toward Short Vine because we didn’t get along with people in our high school and we all found each other,” says Kate Bridgman, the real estate agent whose Facebook listings helped woo McGinley back. “We went to shows and dated guys in bands.” Adds Molly Wellmann, the bar impresaria who was also on the scene, “Tara had a great sense of self about her, and I always knew she’d do something amazing.”
That was the sentiment people had regarding Metzger, too. “He was very much like the internet before the internet existed,” says Rushkoff. “He was the hypertext version of history and social change.”
“I was never a techie,” Metzger insists. Maybe the better word is futurist. “He explained what BitTorrent was to me in 2005,” recalls Daly, who eventually wrote about the video file-sharing phenomenon in Vanity Fair.
As it happens, a TV show idea Metzger cooked up—a left-wing, punk-rock version of 60 Minutes—caught the eye of Oliver Stone. The intention of Disinformation was to give airtime to kooks, and intentionally confound viewers regarding the veracity of its stories. “Oliver’s movie JFK had just come out,” says Metzger. “The X Files was on TV. Conspiracy theories were a new thing at the time.”
By this point, Metzger had been involved in New York’s downtown music and arts scene long enough, and was naturally savvy enough, to have gotten himself an agent. The day after his agent faxed Oliver Stone the show idea, the 26-year-old found himself in a face-to-face with the director. Though he didn’t wind up producing the show, Stone kept inviting Metzger back to his Santa Monica offices to shoot the breeze, and a few years later, recommended him for a job with Tele-Communications, Inc., the company that eventually poured more than a million dollars into Disinformation—not as a TV show but in a relatively new format called a website. (TCI was eventually bought by AT&T in 1998.)
But in the late 1990s, Metzger grew bored with New York. Downtown was losing its edge; less RuPaul, more Carrie Bradshaw. Seeing that a new door was opening, he took the TCI gig and lit out for L.A.
“He had a Dean Martin kind of style to him,” remembers Rushkoff. “There weren’t many people there wearing suits and smoking cigarettes. I introduced him to a few people I knew from my travels, like Timothy Leary, and he became friends with all of them. He knew their work better than they did in most cases.”
Disinformation was Metzger’s most ambitious undertaking. “I wanted it to become like an underground TV network,” he says. “At the time you had the Cartoon Network, SyFy Channel. I thought with the 500-channel future of TV, it was a good option.” He was right. Sort of. With the help of a business partner, Gary Baddeley, Metzger grew it into a small empire, one that became everything except, ironically, a TV network. It was the first counter-culture search engine; the first British TV series based on a website (hosted by Metzger, who was a natural on camera); it released DVDs, books, and documentary feature films; and it mounted what Metzger termed in The New York Times “cyber-palooza”: a gathering, not unlike Comic-Con, of out-there thinkers and creators and fans—along with the requisite nude performance artist. The New York Post listed Metzger among the “20 Most Important New Media Executives,” which says as much about him as it does about the small size of the web world 16 years ago.
Tara McGinley was unaware of Metzger and his growing website. Her mind was on fashion. She had dropped out of the University of Cincinnati, having found full-time work styling for print and television advertising. “All the other girls hated us,” says Wellmann, who lived across the hall from McGinley in a roach-infested apartment on McMillan Street. “I guess they were jealous because she was always so pretty and had great style.”
In 2000, McGinley and her then-boyfriend, a member of Dayton band Brainiac, moved to Los Angeles to further their careers. She ran with what she calls a “model-y crowd” and worked with a top agency for stylists. After the two broke up, McGinley’s friends turned her on to Friendster.com, the social networking site that preceded MySpace and Facebook. That’s where she and Metzger connected, in 2004.
“Her profile said her favorite band was My Bloody Valentine,” says Metzger. “I contacted her and said I’d lived in a squat with a member of the band in London.” He beams. “Top that!”
Ten months later, they married in a municipal court. Metzger likens their bond to that of lobotomized monkeys. He explains, in typical Metzgeresque fashion: Scientists in a study once removed the prefrontal cortex of a male and female monkey, then re-introduced them into their large tribe. They eventually found each other—and mated. “They had similar brain chemistry,” Metzger says. “I honestly think we are like that. Growing up in the Midwest, we had the same attitudes about the nonsense of L.A. We are in sync.”
Fusional, even; they share one cell phone and one car.
The first time the couple fled L.A., it was to move to New Jersey so that he could be closer to his business partner, Baddeley, who had also been his lawyer since 1993, when they both lived in New York. The unflappable McGinley pivoted into real estate. “I didn’t want to start styling again, from scratch,” she says. Why real estate? “I liked the way the office looked. They had a cool sign.” She quickly became a top seller for Weichert Realtors. But Metzger soon tired of the marathon dance of corporate media companies courting him only to reject his ideas as too edgy. Ultimately, he sold his stake in Disinformation to Baddeley, who continues to operate it as a website.
Having bounced around a lot, the couple decided the best thing would be to head back to the Golden State, where Metzger reconnected with friends at Boing Boing. “Any time I talk with Richard, it is almost like I want to take notes of all the things he references and recommends,” says Pescovitz. “In the online echo chamber of Top 10 lists and ridiculous celebrity, the kind of curating he does is more important than ever.”
Guest-blogging for Boing Boing in 2008, Metzger saw his first post—Did Barack Obama’s presidential campaign speeches, played backwards, contain Satanic messages?—go viral. The day his post went live, he was clicking around TV and experienced a sudden dopamine rush. A screen grab of his article appeared over Rachel Maddow’s shoulder, the story having been picked up by her show on MSNBC. “I thought: Just a few hours ago I was in my pajamas typing this,” Metzger says. “Now it’s on the news!” McGinley encouraged him to keep blogging for Boing Boing, and she contributed to posts that ran under his name. She knew that launching their own blog was the future.
“Tara was pushing for this,” Metzger says. “Her point being we could take our economic destiny into our own hands. I don’t ever want to be at the mercy of someone else. She said, ‘You can be relevant again.’ ”
Dangerous Minds was a bit “bloggier and faster” in its 2009 debut; less time was spent polishing the posts. But the needle hasn’t moved in terms of subject matter, format, or raison d’etre. McGinley, as adept at shifting career gears as Metzger is with spotting internet trends, focuses on social media and the more visually oriented posts.
“Trust your instincts,” wrote the late Timothy Leary, an idol and friend of Metzger’s. “Do the unexpected. Find the others.” In the past, Metzger had to travel far from Wheeling to find those others. Now, the others are not just in Amsterdam and London and New York. They are in Cheviot and North Avondale, and they are online. They are in Starbucks, or at home in sweatpants. They don’t go to Dangerous Minds to be shocked; it’s more of a nostalgia trip. And Metzger is their amiable tour guide.
Having changed little in its seven-year history, Dangerous Minds can feel downright cozy. There’s no app, no widget. They have turned down offers to create books from their mountains of content. Hunkered down in their elegant cocoon, trawling cyberspace for brain food, Metzger likens himself and his wife to “an old farmer couple.” They are more chic than any agrarians you’ve ever seen, for sure, but you’d never peg them for the king and queen of weird.
It appears the seekers have stopped seeking; they are done chasing the next thing. Working long hours on their media baby, they have had little time to explore their new city or meet new friends. The only things they’re looking for now are a house to buy and maybe a child to adopt. The world, they figure, can beat a path to their door. And that is why Cincinnati is as good a place as any to run an under-the-radar media phenomenon.
“We have hung our shingle in cyberspace,” says Metzger. “As technology and the marketplace develop, we are there. We can take advantage over time by simply existing. People will come to us.”