Two weeks after news broke that he would be leaving his job after nine years at NBC-5, TV journalist Anthony Ponce released a video last night announcing his next gig: Lyft driver.
Ponce, 37, grew up in the TV news business. His father is longtime Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce, and his brother, Dan, is an anchor for WGN-TV. Anthony won’t be leaving storytelling altogether, however. With his passengers’ permission, he plans to record conversations and use them as material for a biweekly podcast called “Backseat Rider.”
Will it lead to something big? He’s given himself six months to find out. Meanwhile, he’s been secretly on the road, learning the ropes—like where he can pop in for a bathroom break.
Your video has gotten 500,000 views in the past 24 hours. Why do you think it’s struck a nerve?
Based on the Facebook messages I’ve been getting, people connected with the notion of setting off on their course. They related with the notion of blazing your own trail.
You’re kind of like the airline steward who jumped down the ramp. Everyone has that dream, and you’re living it now.
I never imagined that it would get this kind of response. My wife took that video on my iPhone. I wrote and sang the music. I had no idea it would get the response that it has.
Half a million Facebook views and $6 will get you a cup of coffee. How’s this going to pay for itself?
I didn’t go into this thinking it would be lucrative. I didn’t do this for the money. I did this for a passion for storytelling, to tell stories on my own terms, with the hope that it will lead somewhere good for me. If I were out for financial gain, I probably wouldn’t have left my previous job.
I asked my wife if I could do this for six months and see how it goes. If it doesn’t lead anywhere, then I’ll perhaps try to make a comeback in TV news or journalism, and she was supportive in giving me a six-month window. I haven’t taken this as my new career. I’m committed to testing it out for six months—12 episodes, one every two weeks.
We just had our first child five months ago, so that makes it scarier. I have a family now. That’s one more reason why I want this project to work.
What does Lyft feel about this? Are they helping you out?
They have been super helpful from the get-go, but I’m like any other driver. I’m not being paid by Lyft.
Telling stories on your own terms—was that getting frustrating working in the business?
Yes. As a general-assignment reporter, it was getting difficult to think of creative ways to tell the same story I’d told dozens of other times.
It’s the nature of local news that you don’t get a lot of time. Most of my stories were between 90 and 120 seconds. There’s only so deep you can get in that finite amount of time. It was clear I needed to mix things up.
Do you have concerns about local TV news?
Where do you see creative storytelling being done these days?
What’s inspiring me is podcasts. Serial. StartUp. Everything under the Gimlet Media brand. There’s a show called Mystery Show, hosted by Starlee Kine. She took it upon herself to solve people’s personal mysteries, no matter how random. I saw all these longer form pieces of journalism emerge and I wanted to try to get in on that.
Are the interviews going to be arranged ahead of time, or will it be left to destiny?
Left to destiny. That’s important to me. A lot of people have been reaching out to me on social media—“Oh, I have a story! I have the best story!” And that’s not how I want this to work. I want to be like any other Lyft driver and leave it to chance.
I’m planning on picking themes and topics to talk to my passengers about on each episode. A lot of passengers won’t have the most compelling answers, but what I’ve learned in my experience of driving over the past four months is that there’s always, always four or five people who have some really intriguing perspectives. That’s all great raw material.
People open up. It’s an intimate environment, and you’re in the car for 30, 45 minutes at a time, and you can have a really good conversation in that time and in an enclosed space.
What’s your favorite question been?
The question that’s driving the widest range of responses, from funny to near tragic, has been, “Have you ever had a time in your life when you feared for your life? If so, what was the story behind that?”
One of the beautiful things about Lyft is that you get people from all walks of life. I’ve had CEOs in the backseat. I’ve had CPS lunch workers in the back seat. Starbucks employees. Law students. Bartenders.
Did anyone recognize you?
Not that I know of. I was always prepared to handle that. I had kind of a speech prepared for my bosses if they found out and were like, “Hey, what are you doing driving a Lyft car? Do you need extra money?”
How intimate are you going to get? Everyone brings up Taxicab Confessions. Is it going to go in that direction?
No, not at all. I see why there’s a comparison, but I remember Taxicab Confessions being drunk people telling really salacious stories. I have had some risqué discussions. One of my riders was an exotic dancers at one of the most popular strip clubs in Chicago. She was completely open with me about what it’s like from the dancer’s perspective. But I’m more interested in hearing people’s opinions and personal anecdotes.
I had a great conversation with the owner of an AR-15 rifle, right after the Orlando shooting. He was a really reasonable, thoughtful person. And it was the first time I’d met someone who owns an AR-15. I had a 25-minute conversation about gun control that was meaningful and civil, and that’s kind of what we are missing in this country right now.
My dad one time said, “There are very few things in this world that can’t be solved by one-on-one conversation.” And I’ve found that to be true.
How hard was it to tell your dad?
At first my dad was pretty skeptical because I not only have a mortgage but I also have an infant son. There was a little fatherly concern there. “How are you going to support your family? You’re going from a comfortable job with a big corporation to making whatever Lyft drivers make.” But the more he heard me talk about the project, the more supportive he became.
Do you have more empathy for cab drivers now?
Definitely. It can be stressful at times, especially during rush hour when it’s raining, to navigate the streets of Chicago. I definitely have a lot of respect for the profession.
There’s been a huge learning curve. It took me a couple of weeks to get comfortable pressing record, paying attention to the navigation, and driving carefully. And there’s a learning curve for tricks of the trade, like where to stop for a convenient place to use the restroom. One time I went to the rock ’n’ roll McDonald’s because I had to go so badly after driving all day. I roll into the McDonald’s and they wouldn’t let me use the bathroom unless I bought something. So I bought a cookie and then there was some sort of minimum to use the credit card.
How’s your geography? Have you gotten lost yet?
I’ve not. That’s something I feel very qualified for. I’ve been driving around in the news van for nine years. I know this city so well, having reported stories in virtually every part of Chicago. I’m not one of those people who relies solely on GPS. I know a lot of the shortcuts.
As a cyclist, I’m obligated to ask: Is this going to be safe? Are you gonna be hands-free?
Yeah, I’ll be hands-free. The only time I’ll have to turn away from the wheel is when I press record. Other than that, hands on 10 and 2.
I’m a cyclist, too. Are you familiar with the Indiana University Little 500 [bike race]?
Oh, yeah. That’s a classic.
I rode in two races, as a junior and senior. We came in second place each time.
Were you a Cutter?
I was not a Cutter. I was a Fiji. We had a good tradition of cycling at my fraternity, but we just couldn’t keep up with those damn Cutters. They just had a juggernaut. It was like the Yankees.
I rode my bike across the country with a buddy when I was 23. He was recently hit by a hit-and-run driver. He got really banged up, so making the city bike-friendly, despite the fact that I’m going behind the wheel of a car, is something I support 100 percent.